Six feet under and still ignored

Why do obituary pages feature so few women?

Published November 13, 2006 11:15PM (EST)

The Chicago Tribune gets a gold star today for a thoughtful piece by public editor Timothy McNulty, facing up to the relative dearth of women on the paper's obituary pages. "Could it be that more men die than women?" McNulty wonders. "Unlikely, you say. Then why is it that so far this year about 73 percent of the Tribune's obituaries are about males?"

It's an issue that illustrates several facets of sexism in our culture. On the one hand, there's the weight of history; McNulty notes that "in terms of acknowledging power and prestige, obituaries are likely to reflect the past more than the present." McNulty quotes New York Times obituaries editor Bill McDonald, who defended the dearth of women in an online interview earlier this year: "The obit page is not a reflection of the times in which we live. It's a mirror on a past that is slipping away." Our national past was even more male dominated than our present, and obituaries reflect our old biases.

But the obit imbalance also demonstrates the way old value systems are perpetuated. "An institutional bias toward writing about 'men of accomplishment' usually translates to those who were business executives. At the moment, the glass ceiling reflects down into the grave," McNulty admits. Even today, the women occupying the obituary pages are likely to have occupied traditional women's roles like "teacher, nurse, nun, mother of a large family, social worker and very active volunteer." So much for death being the great equalizer.

Demographic trends also play a role here. "Women in the U.S. generally do live longer than men," McNulty writes. "That introduces other dynamics, including that women tend to live well past their most active years in their own homes, with family or in nursing homes. While men tend to die earlier and in closer relation to their life's work, an extremely accomplished woman may live decades longer and her work may be a distant memory for those who loved and respected that work or activity. Also, many women as they get older are likely to follow their families to be closer to children and grandchildren. In their retirement they may move far from the city where they are known and recognized for their achievements." The age-at-time-of-death factor certainly doesn't explain the whole trend -- and categorizing children and family as separate from "life's work" is another example of institutional bias toward traditionally male priorities -- but it likely contributes. Note to feisty women: Archive your achievements!

To his credit, McNulty looks at the obit issue in wider context, observing that the question of which deaths the paper should mark "raises the question of what we value. What do we consider achievement? Great wealth or social position is, of course, a straight avenue to the obituary page because of fame or perhaps others like to be reminded that you cannot take it with you. The poor seem to have a higher bar for people to take notice." Sex, class and race are our culture's prejudicial trifecta; to an extent, obit-page editors are just reflecting those biases back to us.

Of course, editors may also be reflecting biases in the news business. McNulty notes that other papers around the country have obit ratios as imbalanced as the Tribune's. In an industry with a documented byline gap, is it any wonder that men's stories still get more ink than women's?

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

MORE FROM Page Rockwell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Love And Sex R.i.p.