There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether the literary establishment (read: the New York Times) has more respect for writers like Jonathan Franzen than equally commercially successful writers like Jodi Picoult, who alleged that the NYT favors white male writers. Now the “NYTPicker,” a blog that comments on the inner workings of the newspaper, reports some statistics that far more blatant and disturbing than speculation about which writers the book reviewers choose to laud or eviscerate.
In the month of August, the NYT published 78 obituaries. Only six of them were for women. And for the year 2010 to date, 606 men, but only 92 women, have appeared in the NYT obit section. This is despite the fact that there are actually more women than men in the U.S. population.
So – what do the NYT editors responsible for choosing their obit subjects say about this? They are almost absurdly unrepentant. In a 2006 interview, NYT Obituaries editor Bill McDonald said, responding to a question about gender equality in his section of the paper,
“Ask me in another generation. 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. Those generations of white men are now passing from the scene; hence you’re seeing a disproportionate number of them.”
Is that really the best you can do, Bill McDonald? Say that women and minorities really did nothing notable until the later half of the twentieth century and throw up your well-meaning hands? Even if this were an acceptable excuse, the NYTPicker did some digging and discovered that McDonald’s clever tactic was completely bogus. And in 1990, the year that they chose to go through the obituaries and look at the gender breakdown, the numbers were almost exactly the same. These high-achieving women of which McDonald speaks are either living forever, or they’re dying and he’s just not noticing.
The selection of subjects for NYT obituaries is not exactly objective. And for that reason, McDonald could aggressively search for women and minorities with which to fill his pages. The fact is, white men were not the only people who were doing noteworthy things in the days before civil rights and second-wave feminism – they were simply the only people who were getting credit. McDonald, in fact, could help right some of the injustices of the past by celebrating overlooked women, albeit posthumously, in the pages of the United States’ newspaper of record. Wouldn’t that help nudge us toward a more equitable future? Holding up a mirror to the past doesn’t mean we should see the same thing every time – and each time we look, we should notice something that we didn’t see there before.
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