in the past

The New York Times set out to right a historic wrong on this International Women’s Day, publishing the obituaries of 15 remarkable women whose deaths went unremarked upon, simply because they were women.

“Since 1851,” Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett write, “The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries: of heads of state, opera singers, the inventor of Stove Top stuffing and the namer of the Slinky. The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones.

“Charlotte Bronte wrote ‘Jane Eyre’; Emily Warren Roebling oversaw construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband fell ill; Madhubala transfixed Bollywood; Ida B. Wells campaigned against lynching,” they write. “Yet all of their deaths went unremarked in our pages, until now.”

On Thursday, the newspaper launched “Overlooked,” a recurring feature in the obituaries section that will feature women and men whose lives had great impact but whose deaths weren’t deemed worthy of New York Times obits at the time of their deaths.

The first 15 are women, and they include the aforementioned Wells, author Sylvia Plath, transgender pioneer Marsha P. Johnson, Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells led to a medical revolution, and Margaret Abbott, the first American woman to win an Olympics championship.

The newspaper has come under fire for its obits coverage in the past – both for its ratio of male-to-female obituaries and for its tone. Public editor Margaret Sullivan had to weigh in in 2013 after rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s obituary started off thusly:

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.

“But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

“Many people responded negatively to what they saw as sexism,” Sullivan wrote.

“Obituary writing is more about life than death: the last word, a testament to a human contribution,” Padnani and Bennett write in the “Overlooked” introduction.

“Yet who gets remembered — and how — inherently involves judgment. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.”

From the Ida B. Wells obit:

“Wells was threatened physically and rhetorically constantly throughout her career; she was called a harlot and a courtesan for her frankness about interracial sex. After her anti-lynching editorials were published in The Free Speech, she was run out of the South — her newspaper ransacked and her life threatened. But her commitment to chronicling the experience of African-Americans in order to demonstrate their humanity remained unflinching.”

The obit continues with a quote from Wells:

“‘If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service,’ she wrote after fleeing Memphis, ‘Other considerations are minor.'”

Wells died of kidney disease in 1931 at age 68.