Newspaper obituaries have long discriminated against women, says researcher

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Newspaper obituaries have long discriminated against women, says researcher

Inequality in life—and death: Newspaper obituaries have long discriminated against women
Charlotte Lozier, one of the first female doctors in the U.S. Credit: Women’s History Blog via Wikimedia Commons

Gender discrimination doesn’t always end after a woman dies. Newspapers have long treated women differently in the number, wording and presentation of obituaries.

Since the 18th century, newspapers have published short death notices with basic facts—announcements often submitted by family members or funeral homes, and positioned near the advertising columns.

Obituaries, on the other hand, are stories with more detail on a person’s life—the types of tributes that might capture a stranger’s attention. Typically, they’re reported by newspaper staff and require news judgment: What, or who, would readers find interesting?

That value judgment has driven who is considered worthy of an obituary for centuries. And for years, women’s exclusion from the public sphere meant they rarely made the cut.

Not all obituaries are flattering. Still, they signal that someone mattered to society.

‘True womanhood’

Just before the Civil War, in the early years of The New York Times, the number of death notices the paper ran for women and men were nearly equal, according to historian Janice Hume. Yet her book exploring obituaries from 1818 to 1930 notes that only 8% of the paper’s obituaries paid homage to women at that time.

For either gender, the subjects of obituaries in the 19th century were typically white and upper-middle class. Women of color or from lower classes would be noted only if they met an unusual fate or lived to be exceptionally old.

The 19th century was the height of an ideal called “the cult of true womanhood,” a component of my researchon female activism. Middle- and upper-class culture in the U.S. prized the idea of men and women having different spheres—and women’s was meant to be at home. The world of business and politics was often portrayed as corrupt, and society assigned women the role of nurturing moral values at home.

These messages set expectations for women’s behavior—emphasizing piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity—and affected how they were portrayed in the media. Women heard about these virtues in church and read about them in magazines.

The language used to describe women in obituaries aligned with these ideals. Hume’s analysis showed that obituaries tended to describe women using terms such as “pious,” “virtuous,” “obedient,” “innocent,” “useful” and “kind.”

Obituaries primarily identified women by their association with men: their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. Later in the 19th century, a woman’s obituary might include a listing of her public accomplishments—but only if they did not threaten her “true womanhood.”

For instance, several newspapers across the country reported the 1870 death of Charlotte Lozier, an early graduate of the New York Medical College for Women. Her name previously was in the newspapers for her activities as a well-known physician, lecturer and women’s rights activist. After she died, an item in the Worcester Daily Spy mentioned Lozier’s profession but emphasized her morality, religion, friendliness and family life.

“Her house was the resort of some of the choicest spirits of New York society, and its hospitality was disposed with a grace and geniality never to be forgotten by those who had once enjoyed it,” the writer stated.

Double standards

The nature of obituaries did not change much as the suffrage movement pushed more women into the public sphere—in part because of competition among daily newspapers. Stories needed to attract readers, so it was crucial for obituary subjects to be prominent and interesting. At the time, women were not perceived as a draw.

Hume found that in 1930, fewer than 20% of obituary subjects in The New York Times and Chicago Tribune were women. A study conducted in the 1970s offered similar percentages. That study also demonstrated that obituaries written about women were shorter than men’s, on average, and less likely to have a photograph.

A study of obituaries published in 2004 confirmed that men’s obituaries were more likely to have photos. It added that images with women’s obituaries were more likely than men’s to depict the subject at a younger age than she was when she died.

The age discrepancy in women’s obituary photos increased in the late 20th century, according to research from Ohio State University social work scholars: an intensifying double standard in which women’s beauty is equated with youthfulness.

Righting wrongs

The New York Times has expressed remorse for its unequal treatment of women in obituaries, and it began using a diversity analysis tool five years ago to ensure that at least 30% of its obituary subjects are female.

Furthermore, the Times created “Overlooked“: a series of stories about remarkable people whose deaths had never been reported in the newspaper. Though these weekly features have focused on women, they also have highlighted people whose deaths were ignored due to other kinds of discrimination.

Subjects include Indian women’s rights activist Hansa Mehta; Japanese American journalist Bill Hosokawa, who was sent to an internment camp during World War II; Ida B. Wells, the African American journalist who brought national attention to lynchings; and tap dancer Henry Heard, an advocate for people with disabilities.

Tributes today

These are steps toward balancing the number of women that major newspapers eulogize. Furthermore, at a time when newspapers have fewer proceeds from advertising and subscriptions, obituaries that families pay to publish have become a valuable income source for smaller papers, making their obituaries more inclusive.

Though written by loved ones, these stories classify as obituaries because they go beyond the basic facts of a death notice. However, even obituaries submitted by families and funeral homes carry bias.

In a 2017 study, researcher Mary Colak found that word choices in family-written obituaries echo 19th-century language. While men’s obituaries used more success-related terms, such as “knowledgeable” and “experienced,” women’s used more social terms, such as “kind,” “generous” and “loving.”

Colak made several suggestions to create more balance. She encouraged writers to avoid gender cliches and to remember that accomplishments and virtues for both men and women come in many forms.

But she also suggested a tip that everyone can use: that individuals write their own obituaries ahead of time so they are remembered exactly as they want to be.

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