In death as in life

Dear President Trump,

A few months ago I told you about having devoured all of the biographies in my K-8 library about women generally and men of color as a kid, but I don’t think I’ve told you how much I enjoy reading the WP obituaries about people from these demographic groups (along with a few, select, white men). Pretty much every day I check the lower right hand section of the online paper to see who is newly listed there. Sometimes it’s sad because it’s clear someone died young (as in under 80) or because I knew of the person when they were alive and I directly feel how the world is diminished by their now-absence. More often, though, that corner is populated by elderly people whose lives I had no idea about and so reading their obituaries is more about my curiosity about who they were, the highlights of what they did, and why they are being prominently remembered.

Not surprisingly, I also do a mental tally each morning about the proportion of the four (there are always four) obituaries that are about women. In a day it’s obviously an easy thing to tally – is it zero, one, two, or three? It’s never all four. Most days it’s zero, though increasingly it’s one and probably once a week or so, it’s two.

I just now tried to find something that would tell me what proportion of obituaries in prominent news outlets featured women and the most recent thing I could come up with was from a Mother Jones 2012 article that concluded that 23% of obituaries from that year in six major US papers were about women. They quipped that perhaps this the case because notable women just don’t die, an idea that I love – can you imagine? If this were the case, the world would be a very different place, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately (and obviously), however, notable women live and die (pretty much) at the same rates as men, but women have to be super-duper-notable to be noted. Which, among other things, means that the rest of us mere mortals, to include children, don’t get to see women being held up as notable. Thus, half of us see relatively few paths to greatness while the other half of us see all sorts of greatness options. This pattern holds true for people of color as well. It’s the same old deal in death as in life – if you didn’t win the birth jackpot and come out a white and cis-gender male, chances are good you’ll go to the grave very, very quietly with little fanfare or notice.

I really did try to find more recent sources to see if things had improved since 2012 in spite of you. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any other roll-ups so I ticked through the Reuters images of notable people who passed away in 2019; of the 64 included, only 13 were women or 20%. Reuters wasn’t in the Mother Jones 2012 set of newspapers, but it sucks that their number was even lower than was the zeitgeist in 2012.

Back to the WP, this morning the tally was two on the main page, but when I clicked on the “Obituaries” link and went to that section, the first three entries were all about women – Katherine Johnson, one of the central NASA mathematicians in the movie “Hidden Figures” and a completely legitimate winner of the Presidential Medal of Honor, Lisel Mueller, a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, and B. Smith, a model, entrepreneur, and lifestyle trend setter. It feels like a banner day, for sure, especially since two of the three were African American and the third (Mueller) was an immigrant. I hope lots and lots of kids got to learn about these wonderful women today.

May we all be safe to be seen and noted.
May we be willing to trash the old, limited conceptions of greatness.
May we see that we would all be healthier if everyone’s strengths and gifts were valued.
May we make peace with changing paradigms.

Tracy Simpson

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