I read obituaries. I like getting the whole picture about a person’s life, to be moved by other people’s passions and work. Perhaps it is the sociologist in me, inspired by Margaret Mead, who liked to be inspired by people’s real lives.
Perhaps it is more compulsive, my need to know where we are headed, like my habit of reading the last page of book before I am done. I want to know the purpose of this story – our lives, the narratives we craft for ourselves – where the narrator is trying to lead us. I’m impatient for the ending. I want to know right now, every day, what makes life – my life, your life – meaningful.
Or maybe I like commiserating with mourners, because being in a space where sadness dwells give me permission to embrace my own mourning needs, without having to explain too much. Being a woman in the world often means living with constant injustices and assaults, and maybe sometimes I want to dwell in the reality of loss, an incessant daily loss.
Indeed, as I read obituaries, I cannot help but feel the dearth of women. Most days, on the New York Times home page, where there is only room for mention of three obituaries, there are no women at all. Some days one of three will be women, but I have only rarely ever seen two women there, and never all three. (I am reminded of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comment that she will only be satisfied when all nine seats on the Supreme Court bench are occupied by women. I suppose that is how I feel about the obit section.)
The absence of women in the obituaries was noted last year by Lynn Melnick and then picked up by Amanda Hess at Slate. Melnick counted 9 out of 66 obituaries about women, or 13.6%. Melnick told Slate, “I would guess there are dozens of writers, scientists, and academics whose lives and deaths go unnoticed because the men’s lives are perceived as more of note”. Indeed. It is this sense that women’s lives matter less – that sense which so many of us experience on a daily basis – that is permanently reinforced by a life slipping away unnoted. It is a tragedy that pours truckloads of pain over the already painful loss of life. It is that unbearable sense that our presence on this earth is simply not important.
Last week, as I pored over lists of “Notable Deaths of 2015”, I decided to look a bit more scientifically at this phenomenon. So I sat down and counted. Yes, I went through a bunch of major news outlets and actually counted how many women were mentioned – and why. Here is some of what I found: