Obituaries and Gender Discussion


Obituaries and Gender Discussion August 1996



XPOST: The History of Obituaries

>From Genevieve G McBride 20 August 1996

X-Posted from H-Local

On Mon, 19 Aug 1996, Jennifer L. Gilbert wrote:

...It is interesting comparing the obits of the men to the women. Women had shorter obits with some message about how she was blessed with so many children, faithful and dutiful wife, regular church attendance, etc. The men (on the Lakes) have long write-ups on their careers on the sea or as a businessman in the local community...Has anyone else found similar obits with the differences between men and women? The ones I came across were Late 19th, early 20th century ones. Interesting reading. I'd like to know what others have found and how the obits were useful in their research. Cheers!

Response from Genevieve G McBride

In my reading of hundreds of Wisconsin papers over a hundred years to about 1920, I found much the same thing--even in papers run by women. Women who merited more than the usual yadda-yadda about their religious or reproductive abilities had done men's work, as when they were newspaper publishers and/or editors (i.e. "literary women," in the term of the times) or teachers (about the only professions open to them then). For example, the publisher and editor (and everything else of the nation's longest-lasting temperance paper (40 years!), Emma Brown of Fort Atkinson, Wis., was given a grand write-up in what had been her own paper. But her death was not reported in the state's larger papers. Some which merited death reports were a woman who succeeded Brown as the state's most prominent newspaper woman and also led the state suffrage movement as well as held political positions before women could vote here; also, the state's first two lawyers, although in both cases, editors took the opportunity to again criticize them for having careers and, in the case of the first woman lawyer in the state, to link her tragic death from uterine cancer at age 40, just three weeks after she finally won her decade-long battle to be admitted to the State Bar, to her having worn herself out in that battle. (Logic thus would suggest that they could have called her opponents, all the way up to the State Supreme Court which turned her down the first time, her murderers. But that next logical step eluded the men of the press.)

Such exceptions to the rule simply support the conclusions of many studies on what is called the "construction of the news." I.e., "news" is not static, but a creation reflecting its time, and it has changed much over time although, in this case, only as much as gender relations have changed. The modern definition of news dates to the 1830s, with the rise of the mass media. One of the factors which determines what is news is impact, i.e. how many people will be affected--or in the case of obits, how many people will have known the deceased. As most women worked in what was called "the private sphere" or "the domestic sphere" until our era, they were not as widely known as those in "the public sphere" as teachers, editors, etc, as were most men. Then and now, some other exceptions were women who worked in "the public sphere" but without pay, i.e., as widely known reformers--what today we call volunteers. Of course, class as well as gender enters into the equation; although an interesting number of women were working for pay in the late 19th-early 20th century era, they were primarily "domestics" or--if my grandmothers managed to escape what our papers called "Bridget work"--clerks. And their deaths were no more news than those of lower-class men. And, of course, race also modified the modern definition of news. The date on working women rarely appear to include African-American women--almost 100 percent of whom, for example, were working women in the ante-bellum South, right? Even in the late 19th-early 20th century era and even in the urban North, their numbers apparently have been greatly undercounted. And many were the teachers of their communities and in other professions where they made a wide impact and would have merited major obits upon their deaths. But few African-American men, whether doctors, lawyers, etc., were so covered, so you can imagine how few African-American women's deaths merited obits--in the mainstream press, that is. In the black press, they were covered well (for another research project, I also read hundreds of black papers here). But the most underreported story by most of the media then appears to have been the apparent zero death rate of African-Americans, if you look only at the obits. (Replace with Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, etc, elsewhere...)

Not that news has changed all that much, because neither have we. In obits, as elsewhere in the news product (i.e., radio and TV as well as the newspapers), the most recent studies of the NY Times, the networks, etc., show that men get 91 percent of the news space (words, photos, etc) although they comprise 40 percent of the population. And a disparate proportion of those men are, of course, white. In sum, the larger question you raise is how well newspapers then and now reflect the realities of their societies. Then and now, sounds like they report what they see.

Note, BTW, that I am talking here of obituaries, which are part of the news product, not of (paid) death notices, which are under the advertising departments. Many mainstream newspapers were more explicit regarding the latter, refusing to even take money from African-Americans well into the 1960s. Death notices of white women were somewhat more common than obits about them. But the cost also meant those on lower-class women were less likely.

>From Peter David Sherlock 21 August 1996

I have been researching the wives of Anglican clergyman in nineteeth-century Victoria, Australia, and one of my main sources was obituaries in church and local newspapers.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the obituaries of the clerical wives was the emphasis given to their work amongst the laity, particularly women and children. Whereas the deaths of clergymen were seen at a diocesan level (eg. the mourners were fellow clergy, and the loss was sustained to the whole diocese), the deaths of their wives were a tragedy at the local level. Sunday schools lost co-ordinators, and women lost a personal counsellor and friend. There was no difference in the length of obituaries but the content differed in this local/universal aspect.

Of more interest, however, were the obituaries of the bishops' wives. These women were public figures, usually leading every female philanthropic or educational committee possible. When they died they were often given as much attention as when their husbands passed on, and much of the rhetoric was the same as for clergymen. A bishop's wife would be recognised as one who knew the public and private face of the church, although her concern was with the women's groups she would also know the clergy of the diocese as well as her husband. The mourners listed would be identical to those for a bishop, too, as both husband and wife mixed with other bishops, governors, lords...The point is that bishops' wives were involved in a gendered division of labour, but received a similar quality of attention in obituaries as their husbands did. I hope this is of some help!

>From Marian Nudel 26 August 1996

The most blatant example I ever saw was the obituary (maybe 15 years ago?) of Robert Bork's first wife. She got maybe three sentences, and then the rest of it--three or four paragraphs--was about *him*. A casual reader would have had a hard time figuring out who had died. This was the NY Times--you shouldn't have any trouble tracking it down.

From: (Cathy Spude)

[On Mon, 19 Aug 1996, Jennifer L. Gilbert wrote:

. . . It is interesting comparing the obits of the men to the women. Women had shorter obits with some message about how she was blessed with so many children, faithful and dutiful wife, regular church attendance, etc. The men (on the Lakes) have long write-ups on their careers on the sea or as a businessman in the local community. . . . Has anyone else found similar obits with the differences between men and women? The ones I came across were Late 19th, early 20th century ones. Interesting reading. I'd like to know what others have found and how the obits were useful in their research.]

I remembered this posting and its subsequent discussion when I read the following obituary in an electronic newsletter for the employees of the National Park Service this morning.




September 11, 1996 Volume 2, Number 13

"Neva Goodwin, 100, died August 14 at the home of her daughter, Kay Hamblin, in Yreka, California. She was buried in Monett, Missouri. Mrs. Goodwin was the first superintendent's wife to live in Death Valley. T.R. Goodwin had been an engineer in Sequoia when he was put in charge of the newly created monument in 1933. He also served in Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon during his NPS career. He died in 1972. Memorial donations in Mrs. Goodwin's name may be made to Waldensen Presbyterian Church in Monett, MO 65708. Survivors include sister Chris Driskill, daughter Kay Hamblin, son Ted Goodwin, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Contacts with the family may be made through the Death Valley public affairs office."

So we see that gender-based stereotypes in obituaries is not confined to the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it is here in 1996! It appears, from this obituary, that Neva Goodwin's primary contribution to society was through her roles as wife, sister and mother. More information was given about what her husband did in his career than about Neva in her career as wife and mother.

The editor of this newsletter would probably be defensive if I suggested that his obituary was androcentric; he would no doubt reply that the readers of the newsletter are more interested in fellow employees (i.e., the deceased's husband) than in their spouses. I wonder how many people in the service do indeed remember a man who died in 1972 (my 21-year career post-dates that event). Neva without a doubt continued to contribute to something at Death Valley, that the public affairs office is handling contacts with the family. What that contribution was, we cannot tell from this obit.

Should we take into consideration the source for the obit when observing androcentricity in this type of historical data?

From: Jeanne Cruden

I have no idea how relevant this will be to this discussion, but I found that very much in early Irish documents ( the Annals and Bardic poetry of the early and late medieval periods ). I always simply took it as a formula for one sex and a formula for another reflecting the division in their roles...


From:, Irene Stuber

As one who has read a lot of obituaries in seeking women for my Women of Achievement and Herstory series which I post on Internet, the differences between men and women's obituaries, especially in the days when the long writeups were free, is dramatic.

Almost everyone of the women's obits would dwell on her marital state, children, etc., while men of the same or lesser accomplishments were be identified as businessmen, church deacons, or military veterans - their marital state or fatherhood in a lesser way.

Even accomplishments of women were/are relegated to also-did asides to emphasize that a woman's primary occupation was as mother, wife, and caretaker. While the man would be referred to with honor for his church work, that done by women would be an afterthought.

Of course, fewer women accomplished newsworthy things percentage-wise to men, but they were (and sadly still are) not given equal space or headlines.

We are so used to seeing the differences that we usually accept them as normal and so do not actually see the prejudices. But when you see the headline about a woman who dies contain the words, "her husband was/is ..." when she was a joint partner in the family enterprise, then you begin to see how the obits reflect the lesser respect women's lives receive.

Any national newspaper is a wonderful source for identifying this lesser treatment of women's obituaries.

- Irene Stuber

From: dam3385

Can I ask a crazy question regarding obituaries and women's lives? In my own dissertation research, I realize that I need to look at women's obits. Is there any centralized way to search obituaries, or must one do this newspaper by newspaper, year by year? I ask simply because in some cases, I suspect the women I am interested in are probably no longer living, but I don't know this for sure. Also, I have no idea when any of them might have passed.

Any advice or tips would be appreciated.

Debra Michals NYU


National newspapers may not be the place to get the true picture of women and obituaries. Certainly a bias is shown there but it is a bias that may appear in any national view of local news.

In my work with late 19th Century women's editions of newspapers and in looking for biographical information about these women, I have discovered that local newspapers in smallish places have wonderful obituaries about he the women involved in their communities. And while some mention their husband or father's work, they might also talk about a famous mother (locally) and certainly place the woman in a cultural context that shows her ultimate power in a more impressive way.

Ann Colbert, IPFW Journalism Coordinator


From: IN%"DERITTERJ1@TIGER.UOFS.EDU" 23-SEP-1996 16:01:20.44

Here's one more little trick for tracking down obituaries in 19th-c. America. Large research libraries often contain The Social Register, which came out annually from at least the third quarter of the 19th-c. and well into the 20th (for all I know, it may still be going strong). Anyway, if you know approximately when an individual died (within a decade or so), you can follow her name through the annual S.R.s (they're organized alphabetically) until you come to the year after her death-- at which point the S.R. will helpfully list the death date from the previous year. Since the S.R. also lists the home and summer addresses of its members, you can use the death date and the city address as a pointer to a local (unindexed) newspaper obit. When I was doing my work-study as a grad student, I found dozens of obits this way, and most of them found their way into the footnotes for the J.C. Levenson ed. of The Letters of Henry Adams.

Jody DeRitter

Date: Wed, 2 Oct 1996 15:20:05 -0400 (EDT) From: "E. Wayne Carp"

The New York Times has an index to all of its obits. It should be in your Library's reference room.

E. Wayne Carp
Pacific Lutheran University

From: RAS94002@UCONNVM.UCONN.EDU Obits, WEB to the library of congress for a look at categories. There are layers & layers of research tools. and or has a research it icon. I have found this to be one of the easiest roads to obsure information. Also the search engine called EXCITE is very good. Easy. It likes a lot of words for a subject search (unlike Yahoo and some of the more well know search engines). EXCITE will also give you you an option for every site called (more like this) to narrow the search pattern. You might try using a woman's "official long name" as an experiment in search engine results.

This information is supplied with thank's to Stacy's Library asst. who got me started on the long road to being a good WEB searcher. Good luck (despite the fact luck has nothing to do with it.) work hard, stay calm, best wishes M

From: "Louise S. Robbins"

For Debra Michals, who is interested in an "easy" place to look for information on her subjects: The Biography and Genealogy Master Index on CD-ROM is one good place to look. Although, because it puts together a number of who's who type sources, and other rather standard biographical sources, it is better for men than for women, it cuts down on the hunting time, as does the New York Times obituary index (which may not be its name, but it's what it is). Though of course one has to have "made" the NYT. Professional journals also sometimes have annual "necrologies."

Louise S. Robbins
Assistant Professor and Director, Laboratory Library
School of Library and Information Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Date: Sun, 22 Sep 1996 16:06:49 EST

Response to Debra Michals of NYU Some newspapers do have indices of their own and there are some genealogists' tools that help find more famous people. If we're talking about someone who's really famous, there will also be magazine articles in some of the annuals published at the end of the volume year (not necessarily in December, at the end of our calendar year). But for most newspapers and most deaths, I believe you do have to go to the local newspaper for that date. You can verify dates of death through most county clerk's offices and some counties do have indices, too. A lot of people looking for information on ancestors get the information from county or state organizations that have different kinds of searching tools. If all of this sounds confusing, it is. I've used different ways to find different folks; if someone can help, I'd sure like to hear from them, too.

Ann Colbert, Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne