Since its founding in 1851, the United States’ paper of record hasn’t always kept the most objective record. In particular, The New York Times obituary section has largely been filled with the stories of white men; even now, women make up just over one in five subjects. That’s where Overlooked comes in—the new, but certainly long overdue, The New York Times project in which historic female figures disregarded by the paper in their time are finally getting their due.
With Overlooked, the paper retroactively records the stories of leading women. To launch the project, 15 obituaries were released today to mark International Women’s Day.
“It was not all that unusual when, in 1892, a mob dragged Thomas Moss out of a Memphis jail in his pajamas and shot him to death over a feud that began with a game of marbles,” Caitlin Dickerson writes in one long-delayed obituary. “But his lynching changed history because of its effect on one of the nation’s most influential journalists, who was also the godmother of his first child: Ida B. Wells.” At long last, the pioneering African-American journalist has received recognition for her reporting on racial justice issues in the Antebellum south.
In another piece, Anemona Hartocollis honors Sylvia Plath, detailing the postwar poet’s struggle with depression and the male-dominated literary world. After discovering her husband’s affair and receiving multiple rejections for her novel The Bell Jar, Plath committed suicide in 1963 at the tragically young age of 30. But even though her life was brief, her writing proved pivotal. Her novel was eventually published in 1971 to much acclaim, and her stirring poetry, in which she grappled with her frustration and sadness, continues to fascinate readers. “I like to think she somehow helped to open up and legitimate female anger,” scholar Gail Crowther told The New York Times.
Sewell Chan penned the obituary for transgender activist Martha P. Johnson, who was a part of the vanguard in the Stonewall riots in 1969. Despite being ostracized by society for being poor, black, queer and gender non-conforming, Johnson brought a sense of humor and cheer with her wherever she went. As the piece explains, she was often clad in gleaming dresses, colorful wigs and plastic accessories, and once even told a judge her middle initial stood for “pay it no mind.” Chan quotes University of Arizona professor Susan Stryker in writing about Johnson’s legacy. “Marsha had this joie de vivre,” Stryker said, “a capacity to find joy in a world of suffering. She channeled it into political action, and did it with a kind of fierceness, grace and whimsy, with a loopy, absurdist reaction to it all.”
Chinese poet and revolutionary Qiu Jin; Mary Ewing Outerbridge, who brought the sport of tennis to the U.S.; photographer Diane Arbus; Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells have revolutionized medicine; Bollywood legend Madhubal; Emily Warren Roebling, who oversaw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge; Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen; Margaret Abbott, the first female Olympic champion; Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón; novelist Charlotte Brontë; and cyclist Lillias Campbell Davidson are also remembered in the launch. The Times promises more stories to come each week.
Overlooked certainly marks a sign of progress in the field of journalism—and yet, the project’s arrival now, in 2018, also hints at the persistent lack of diversity in newsrooms, not only at The New York Times but across the country. In studying the top 20 news outlets in the U.S. in 2017, the Women’s Media Center found that men still hold a majority of positions in news media, with women representing only 38 percent of all staff. The organization’s most recent report found that women of color represent just 7.95 percent of print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff and 6.2 percent of local radio staff in the U.S.—half a century after the historic Kerner Commission Report called on media organizations to diversify for the sake of the nation. If diverse voices aren’t in the room to share their perspective and their knowledge, then how can a newspaper expect to showcase a sense of diversity among its stories? If nobody in the room feels the impact of a female pioneer’s work, what will compel them to record her life?
Obituaries matter. They recognize people’s actions, their words, how they carried themselves through life. They solidify a person’s legacy and pass on their stories to the next generation. But in mainstream media, the obituary gap has dismissed the accomplishments and impact of women visionaries and pioneers for centuries.
The Times project is a step in the right direction, but until women and other communities become more present in news media, there is no guarantee that luminaries among us and ahead of us won’t continue to be overlooked. If time’s up on media sexism, the time is also now to declare that our stories are worth writing down.