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News Obituaries: Another Gender Gap

PUBLISHED: November 2, 2012

News obituaries

Editor’s note: Today’s post by novelist Hallie Ephron is part of an online companion to our Fall 2012 issue on The Female Conscience. Click here to review all blog entries related to our fall issue.


Though women live on average five years longer than men, it’s no secret that their death rates are identical. One hundred percent, male or female, all of us die. So, if there were equal opportunity in news obituaries as there is in paid death notices, there should be an equal number of women and men whose lives get written up in the newspaper.

But it’s far from equal—at least that’s been my impression reading The Boston Globe. I can understand why. After all, the average woman who dies today is in her late seventies or early eighties. She came of age in the mid-1950s, a decade before Betty Friedan (who rated a 1,897-word news obituary in the Globe) exposed what she called “the feminine mystique,” housewives who yearned for more out of life than making beds and shopping for groceries. Most of those women who entered the professions and worked their way up in businesses and industry aren’t dead yet.

So, more than forty years after the start of Women’s Lib, how lopsided could it be? For twenty-five days in August and September I counted. It turns out that of 108 news obituaries published in The Boston Globe, 93 were for men; 15 were for women. If you eliminate the women who get written up because they are some famous (or infamous) man’s wife, mother, daughter, sister, or murder victim, there’d be fewer still.

I had expected to find a two to one ratio. Maybe three to one. But six to one?

I called Brian Marquard, the Globe’s obituaries editor for the last seven years, and asked him how he decides which dead people get written about. He said at one level, people get featured because of their “prominence and power in their lines of work.” Many of these are pulled from the wire services, like the Associated Press obituary for singer Dorothy McGuire Williamson that ran in the Globe on September 10. But the vast majority of obituaries from the wire services, he says, are about men.

Then there are what Mr. Marquard calls “discretionary obituaries.” For these, he sifts through requests that come in via e-mails and phone calls and tries to find compelling stories. “That can be pretty challenging,” he said. “We get five times as many requests as we can accommodate with staff.” Mr. Marquard says he tries to pick people from “all walks of life” with stories that “reflect community.” On September 11, for instance, they ran an obituary about a woman who had been a dance historian and teacher at New England Conservatory.

Is he surprised that so many more men are featured in the paper’s obituaries?

“Someone raises this issue once every few months,” he said. And every time, he says, he has to explain. “Many of people who get onto the obit page are in positions of prominence in their lines of work. Like it or not, folks in their 70s and 80s and dying and have that [distinction] are still predominantly men.”

He does expect things to change, “probably in about ten or fifteen years. Just strictly drawing from the pool of people who have obvious entry into news obits it will be much more balanced in terms of gender.”

Bottom line: News obituaries reflect a reality. Mr. Marquard is probably correct when he says, “Women still aren’t in positions of power in society.” And the ones who are haven’t yet died.

But I still say: six to one?


About the author: Hallie Ephron made a splash writing psychological suspense with Never Tell a Lie published by HarperCollins in 2009. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “stunning” and a “deliciously creepy tale of obsession.” USA Today: “You can imagine Hitchcock curling up with this one.” It has been translated into 7 languages and was nominated for multiple awards, including the Mary Higgins Clark Award. It was adapted for film as And Baby Will Fall for the Lifetime Movie Network. Visit her website to find out more.


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Diana Stevan's picture
Hallie, thanks for the thought provoking article. I went to your workshop at SIWC several weeks ago. Having reached adulthood at the time Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, which is eons ago, I am surprised that there is still so much inequality. As long as men are in these power positions, women will struggle to be heard. It’s just the way it is. I know there are more enlightened men out there, but it’s the battle of the sexes. It’s hard for men to translate what women do in the home as valuable. It’s a wonder that women have climbed as high as they have given their responsibilities at home. Even, in this presidential election, the problem of equal pay for equal work has come up again and again. It’s shocking that there even needs to be a discussion.
Darrelyn Saloom's picture
Perhaps it’s time to broaden the definition of “positions of power in society.”
Smith's picture
Smith · 8 years ago
“I had expected to find a two to one ratio.” Why would the author expect to find any particular ratio? It seems the ratio is whatever it is. A newspaper publishes what it deems newsworthy. Newsworthiness is a matter of judgment, but the author does not challenge the editor on the issue of newsworthiness. For the unnewsworthy, feel free to peruse the paid death notices (which offer a more satisfactory “ratio”): a litany of garden club memberships and such, headcount of grandchildren, great- and great-great…. Happy reading.

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