Overlooked: Posthumous Dues Paid
By Rachel Lee
Illustrations by Nyomi Warren
What do a world-famous photographer, the leader of the Stonewall riots, a Bollywood actress, and the inventor of tennis all have in common? Years after their death, they all received recognition through Overlooked, a new series of New York Times obituaries. The first set of 15 obituaries, each one for a woman in history who did not receive one after their death, was published on International Women’s Day.
I met Amy Padnani, digital obituaries editor, at the New York Times office on a busy Monday morning. Amy has been working at the Times for years now, but she started her position in obituaries in the beginning of 2017. “I was always fascinated by history and how you can learn about life through people,” she told me. “[The obituaries editors and I] are laughing all the time, not because we’re disrespectful of someone, but because obituaries are more about life than death.”
When Amy started in obits, she had read comments asking about the lack of diversity in obituaries; that, combined with the national conversations on race and gender inequality, led her to ask herself, “as a woman of color and an editor at the New York Times, what can I do to advance this conversation?” Amy teamed up with Jessica Bennett, the Times’ first gender editor, to bring Overlooked to fruition.
The typical process for choosing an obituary is thorough – the editors comb through submissions from readers, social media, and other news outlets on who to write about, and extensively research subjects’ lives to see who is “newsworthy” enough for an obituary. When it came down to obituaries for Overlooked, it felt essential to the editorial team to include famous women like Diane Arbus and Charlotte Bronte. “If they hadn’t gotten a New York Times obit before, this would be a powerful and compelling time to finally do that,” Amy said, but with lesser known women, like Madhubala, a Bollywood actress, the research process closely matched the process they follow for day-to-day obituaries.
Obituaries are usually published in the days or weeks following the subject’s death; occasionally, they are written months later for subjects who died in obscurity, like Frances Gabe, the woman who developed the patent for the self-cleaning house (in case you were wondering, the rooms were cleaned and dried through sprinklers and air jets in the ceilings). The subjects for these obituaries may have been overlooked for a number of reasons – Amy speculates that some women died in obscurity or purposefully didn’t want their obituaries published (like writer Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide); there may not have been room for an obituary to be printed the day or week of the subject’s death, or the editors may not have deemed it important enough to print; but more often than not, the achievements of these women just weren’t recognized until years or decades after they died. Take Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman of color and sex worker who was a leader of the Stonewall riots in the late 1960s, for example. Her obituary that was published as a part of Overlooked celebrates her life and her achievements, but she was frequently arrested and labeled a deviant in her lifetime, and many historians assume her death was a hate crime.
Amy wrote an obituary on Mary Ewing Outerbridge, one of the people credited for pioneering tennis in America in the mid-1800s. Outerbridge brought the parts for a tennis court from Bermuda and arranged matches for her friends, later raising awareness for women’s athletics. Through extensive research, Amy found that even though many historians are sure Outerbridge was the inventor of tennis, it’s still highly debated. “To write an obituary, you just learn as much as you can. If it’s not confirmed whether that person is the first, or the best, or the tallest, or the fastest, you do your best to say they may have been credited for it.”
Overlooked has become a series, with at least one new obituary on a historically overlooked person being published weekly (since the project’s release, Overlooked has included obituaries for Ruth Wakefield, inventor of the chocolate chip cookie, and Alison Hargreaves, a climber who attempted to summit Mt. Everest without bottled oxygen). And Amy doesn’t want to restrict obituaries to women – she’s hoping men of color, transgender people, activists for the disabled, and any other person who has been excluded can have an obituary written for them. The obituaries desk is hoping to do more than add to their base of remarkable people in history and is working on increasing diversity in their regular obituary coverage; over the last few years, the list of advance obituaries (obits written for a list of famous people before their deaths) has grown more diverse as more people from marginalized groups make history.
Overlooked has received a flood of positive feedback in the short time it’s been released – 50 of Amy’s colleagues at the Times volunteered to write obituaries, a huge leap from the three daily writers on the obits desk. Three days after Overlooked was published, over 2000 people sent in submissions for whom Overlooked should write about next. “We didn’t expect the magnitude of how meaningful it would be, with people saying they finally feel seen. That’s been overwhelming in all the best way,” Amy said.
“One of the things we’re looking to do is lean more on our foreign correspondents, as they’re our eyes and ears of the world at large. That way, we can include more international figures, where women were invited into industries to make a difference sooner than they have been in the US,” Amy explains. “In a morbid way, the life expectancy [in some areas outside of the U.S.] is lower, so we can write about them a little sooner than we would have… we’re a little limited because we’re waiting for people to die.”
“As far as this project goes, it’s about being inclusive and including more voices. Pretty much anything in this society is better with more voices and more people weighing in,” Amy said. “The fact that we offered people a place to offer us their thoughts, submissions, even their criticisms, and we got such positive feedback, says something about us willing to hear what people are saying and wanting a variety of views… I don’t know if Overlooked makes up for [the historical lack of diversity], but I know we can try.”