Sylvia Plath, Nella Larsen, and Charlotte Brontë Finally Get New York Times Obits
The paper’s new series “Overlooked” honors women who were never memorialized in the Times, including many writers
The New York Times is taking a pretty literal look at how much it’s talked about dead white men. It may come as no surprise that most of the obituaries published by the Times have celebrated the lives of white men. Today, on International Women’s Day, The New York Times is asking for a do-over: “Overlooked” is an ongoing series that kicks off today with a collection of fifteen obituaries for women “who left indelible marks but were nonetheless overlooked” since 1851, the year the Times started publishing obituaries. The list includes some writers who are so well-known it’s difficult to understand how they weren’t memorialized in the paper of record—and some who never got their due.
The idea for the series came to Amisha Padnani, an editor for the obituary section, who partnered up with Jessica Bennett, the gender editor at the Times, after discovering only 20 percent of obituaries covered by the Times were for women. In an article on why most of their obituaries have been about white men, William McDonald, the Times obituaries editor, writes that lots of people die every day (news flash!) so deciding whose death is important enough to cover boils down to whose death is considered “newsworthy” at the time of their death.
It’s wild to see who wasn’t considered newsworthy at the time of their death. There are some surprising misses: the deaths of writers like Sylvia Plath, Nella Larsen, and Charlotte Brontë weren’t considered newsworthy, and neither were those of the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells or the photographer Diane Arbus. Reading through the first fifteen obituaries, we learn that Charlotte Brontë was an “impatient, dreamy, long-suffering, unpublished” schoolteacher when she plotted out the beginnings of her literary career, and died from complications during pregnancy. When Nella Larsen, a literary celebrity of the Harlem Renaissance, died alone in her apartment, her half-sister claimed to not even know she existed. And Sylvia Plath, whose career soared after her death, had her original obituary in The Boston Globe buried under the letter “H” for her married name, Hughes.
What’s even more striking are the obits for women writers I had never learned about, like the poet and revolutionary Qiu Jin who loved “wine, swords, and bomb making,” and was beheaded in 1907 when she was 31 years old for conspiring to overthrow the Qing government.
At a time when we are abundantly aware of the unequal representation of (living) women writers in media, it’s also cool to note that of the fifteen obituaries published today, twelve were written by women.
Recovering the work of women writers who died in obscurity has given us back writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Clarice Lispector, and Lucia Berlin, to name a few. It’s important that we keep doing it, and it will be interesting to see if Overlooked helps the cause.
Overlooked will become a regular feature of the Obituaries section every week, eventually expanding its coverage beyond women. If you have a suggestion for an overlooked obituary, you can submit that here.