The Sharpened Quill

Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly
Tarrytown, NY, USA
December 31
non-fiction author/speaker/consultant
Bio Author "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail" (Portfolio, April 2011), deemed "an excellent memoir" by Entertainment Weekly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012. I also edit other writers' work -- everything from thrillers to business books. Email me for hourly rates; references available.

Caitlin Kelly's Links

SEPTEMBER 5, 2010 2:59PM

Women Too Busy To Die?

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If you read The New York Times obituary page -- which I do daily as it's my hometown paper -- you'll soon notice (maybe) an odd detail.

Women never die!

Just in in time for Labor Day, the national holiday which is meant to celebrate the work of all of us,  here's a post from, which delights in poking at the Gray Lady:

And for the year 2010 to date, the NYT has chronicled the deaths of 606 men, and only 92 women.

Bear in mind that the population of women in the U.S. exceeds that of men, and is nearly neck and neck worldwide.

This disparity in coverage has gone on for years, virtually unnoticed in a society that decades ago granted full equality to women, and has seen huge strides in the prominence of women in virtually all fields of endeavor.

And not only does it show no signs of getting better -- it's actually getting worse.

In a September 2006 "Talk To The Newsroom" interview, NYT obituaries editor Bill McDonald (pictured above) was asked about the lack of what a concerned reader referred to as "gender parity" in the section. His stunning response somehow slipped by unnoticed.

"Ask me in another generation," McDonald replied. "Really. The people whose obits are appearing in our pages now largely shaped the world of the 1940's, 50's and 60's, and the movers and shakers in those eras were predominantly white men."

If you're  a Lithuanian lute-maker (no offense meant, specifically, to either category) -- and male -- hang in there! Your time for posthumous glory will come.

Men doing the most unlikely and obscure things end up in the Times obit pages every day.

I know for a fact that women do die, women I would love to hear about, celebrate and salute in/their passing, women, some of them pioneers for the rest of us, who have achieved extraordinary success and influence in business, the arts, science, medicine, public service, education.

But you'll never hear about them in the Times. (Or The Wall Street Journal or USA Today or The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. You know the "papers of record.")

It's a toxic combination of two issues: male editors who don't see women's achievements as worth this level of honor  -- and women, and their families, colleagues and employers who don't make a (big enough) fuss about them and their value to the larger world, either when they're alive or after they have died.

Women who vaunt themselves and seek public attention are often derided for their egos and glory-seeking, while men who do so are considered...normal.

Every single obits column that ignores women ignores half the nation's population.

And newspapers wonder why they're dying?

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Caitlin, this is a very interesting piece of news for me. I read the Gray Lady almost daily on my Kindle, but since I never read the obits I wouldn't have noticed the dearth of women there. I like being forced to think about these things, whether there's anything in particular I can do about it or not.
Aunt Margaret Allis Cowan died two days ago, a classy woman whose significant husband, Fairman Cowan, placed a shadow over her. Nonetheless she impacted the lives of many, including me—a mere niece-in-law. There, I've given her a little something she might not get in the obits. She'd appreciate it.


bsb, I always read the obits. In fact, I read the ones that are placed by families about "lesser(known)" people aka civilians. I blogged about it:

This may be because I am a journo, or because (cause or effect?) I am fascinated by the details of people's lives.

James and Lois, you might enjoy reading Lives Lived, a column in The Globe and Mail (one of the papers I worked for, Canada's = of the NYT) where every day there is an obit of a "real person", often written by a family member. They are tart and lively and inspiring.
Thanks, Bonnie. Of course, working within the media as a journalist for 30 years has made this extremely obvious to me -- in my last newspaper job, there were almost no women in any senior editorial positions of authority, able to influence the selection and placement of stories or photos, let alone hiring and promotion.

I am happy to see the traditional media struggle as hard as they are as they deserve it. I won't even read The New Yorker, Harpers and Atlantic as the vast majority of articles -- very well-paid assignments on serious issues -- are written by men. Too boring.