Does the New York Times Care When Women Die?

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.

Photo from Flickr.


Tom Y.
Tom Y7 years ago

One theory which might possibly explain this... is that the NYT is disproportionately staffed with gay men and that, as phallocentrists, have men on the radar more than women. Thus it's not a malicious exclusion, but an ongoing oversight.

Could there be any numbers to back, or debunk, this attempt to explain?

Petra Luna
Petra Luna7 years ago

The reason why women and minorities do so much work is because of the non-recognition of women and minorities all over the planet. Of course if you're a woman AND a minority, it's a double whammy.

If more women and minorities were properly honored, we wouldn't need these special interest sessions such as women's history month and such.

It's unfortunate that so many have to go w/o recognition, and no one will know the importance of their work.

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago


Nancy Roussy
Nancy Roussy7 years ago

Tierney G. ~ Actually the extreme right wing wants to remove the rights of basically everybody that are not them so keep on fighting those cretins (being VERY nice here!!!!) because that is helping! And good for you for saving up Butterfly Credits, I do too and I give to every charities. You seriously should come down, then and only then you would realize that we have rights (you in the US and me in Canada) and people that try to take our rights away and sexist men and sexist company do not make our countries a place where women do not have right!

Tierney G.
Tierney G7 years ago

No one is freaking out here. Did you read that article? anyway i get your point go to may page i am saving up butterfly points to help protect women fro unwanted pregnancy and aids. it takes 3000 butterflys a person. i personally would rather help my farm animals cause with all that but I care about both.
i still do not understand you at all I do not get what your point is at all. i do what i can for all the women of this world,but right now how the heck are we women here going to help them if our rights right here in the lovely US (which by the way I do not care for never have) are being removed by the extreme right wing every day in this country. They want to strip women of all rights eventually. Over my dead body. i know you don't understand. Sad really sad to be so close minded. i have had enough of this pointless arguing. Good luck to you.

Nancy Roussy
Nancy Roussy7 years ago

Tierney G. ~ Since you do a lot of research on women and women's rights and what awful things are happening to women you should know that in your country when a woman is beaten by her boyfriend or fiance or husband she can get away and have help while in several other countries women who are beaten or mistreated in any way by a man or men cannot get away and cannot get any help! Now I have no idea when that happened to you and I do know that several years ago women in the United States did not have any kind of help when they were beaten by their boyfriend/fiance/husband so if that happened to you when the help for mistreated women were available then you had that, millions of women do not and most will probably never have that help and chance to get away! As for the pay you forgot to mention that for some jobs the women do not go throught the same training, women do not work the same hours, women do not have the same work load and women have more vacation time so for these cases women do not deserve equal pay because what they are doing is not equal to the men! Me not wanting a woman getting the same pay as a man while working less then him and me saying to a woman who lives in a country where women have rights to get out of a relationship where she is beaten by a man do not make me against my gender; I live in the real world and I focus on real issues and real problems and I do not freak out about everything and make a problem out of something where there is none!

Barbara Brown
Barbara Brown7 years ago

Just what Nancy Roussy said! ^5 to you Nancy

Kate F.
Kate F7 years ago

I CANNOT FLAG AS INAPPROPRIATE, so, uilj and feaa, would you please advertise elsewhere - where people are tuning in in order to order things? people, on this sight are more interested in the article and comments, as far as i know, and are not in the mood to buy things, more than likely!!!

I AM GUESSING YOU WILL GET MORE SALES over there, where people are in the mood to buy!!!!!

Kate F.
Kate F7 years ago

i want so badly to feel included.
i want to feel important enough to have an obit
i want to feel included in the language

exclusion hurts so much that there are few words to describe the magnitude. it is a spirit killer, plain and simple. i am sure there are families out there where inclusion is important - for both sexes. and i bet it is those families that have the most powerful, high-achieving and respectful kids. i bet it is in those families where the gifts - of both sexes - reign supreme (THESE GIFTS BENEFIT EVERYONE)!!!!

society, however, is pretty tough on some of us, and ironically, it is society that wants this country to become strong again.
we want the economy to improve
we want to be able to defend ourselves
we want this country's spirit to rise again!!!

IT STARTS WITH THE INDIVIDUAL - the more individuals who feel included, important and valued - the stronger our country will be. we are a young and wonderful country, and we can do it! isn't every man, woman and child important in that goal????

i am an american....
i want so badly to be included
i want us to be in the NYT obits
i want to be included in the english language

it is so important to me - and to a lot of women
i am guessing that it would make a difference - to the morale of the country. IT WOULD MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE TO ME.

Chere Jurgens
Chere Jurgens7 years ago

Food for thought, thanks for posting