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Women in Obits

Patricia Sullivan

We've had a handful of powerful women die recently, including today's obit on Mildred Cohn, and it got me thinking about women's representation in obit columns.

As I've noted before, about one-third of the 300 obits we write every month in the Washington Post are about women.

Nan Robertson, who wrote the seminal "Girls in the Balcony: Men, Women and the New York Times," addressed this disparity in her book by quoting another female journalist, Nancy Newhouse, who brought up her observation that one day in the New York Times, out of 17 obits, none were about women. "I could not believe it," she said. "I mean -- Women are not dying? Their lives are not worthy of notice? I was livid and I was determined to bring it up at the next news meeting."

The male editors laughed at her, except for one, who pointed out that women in the 70s and 80s may not have had careers, but the paper should take notice. From that point on, women have made a regular appearance in the Times' obits. By this reasoning, we should expect a steady increase in the number of women who appear in the obit columns, something I have not yet observed. And besides, who says that the only way to write about people is to focus on their jobs?

Here's Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, talking about her experiences as a woman in the sciences. (It's a Quicktime interview; if you don't have or don't want to use that application, here's a transcript.)

By Patricia Sullivan  |  October 23, 2009; 11:55 AM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan  
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