Thursday, March 8, 2018

15 Remarkable Women We Overlooked in Our Obituaries


Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now, we're adding the stories of 15 remarkable women.
By AMISHA PADNANI and JESSICA BENNETT MARCH 8, 2018
Obituary writing is more about life than death: the last word, a testament to a human contribution.
Yet who gets remembered — and how — inherently involves judgment. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.
Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries: of heads of state, opera singers, the inventor of Stove Top stuffing and the namer of the Slinky. The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female.
Charlotte Brontë wrote "Jane Eyre"; Emily Warren Roebling oversaw construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband fell ill; Madhubala transfixed Bollywood; Ida B. Wells campaigned against lynching. Yet all of their deaths went unremarked in our pages, until now.
Below you'll find obituaries for these and others who left indelible marks but were nonetheless overlooked. We'll be adding to this collection each week, as Overlooked becomes a regular feature in the obituaries section, and expanding our lens beyond women.
You can use this form to nominate candidates for future "Overlooked" obits. Read an essay from our obituaries editor about how he approaches subjects and learn more about how the project came to be.
Ida B. Wells, one of the nation's most influential investigative reporters, in 1920. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
1862-1931

Ida B. Wells

Took on racism in the Deep South
with powerful reporting on lynchings.
By CAITLIN DICKERSON MARCH 8, 2018
It was not all that unusual when, in 1892, a mob dragged Thomas Moss out of a Memphis jail in his pajamas and shot him to death over a feud that began with a game of marbles. But his lynching changed history because of its effect on one of the nation's most influential journalists, who was also the godmother of his first child: Ida B. Wells.
"It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed," Wells wrote in 1892 in the introduction to "Southern Horrors," one of her seminal works about lynching, "Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so."

Qiu Jin, in an undated image, defied prevailing gender and class norms by unbinding her feet, cross-dressing and leaving her young family to pursue an education abroad. Paul Fearn/Alamy
c. 1875-1907

Qiu Jin

A feminist poet and revolutionary who became
a martyr known as China's 'Joan of Arc.'
By AMY QIN MARCH 8, 2018
With her passion for wine, swords and bomb making, Qiu Jin was unlike most women born in late 19th-century China. As a girl, she wrote poetry and studied Chinese martial heroines like Hua Mulan (yes, that Mulan) fantasizing about one day seeing her own name in the history books.
But her ambitions ran up against China's deeply rooted patriarchal society, which held that a woman's place remained in the home. Undeterred, Qiu rose to become an early and fierce advocate for the liberation of Chinese women, defying prevailing Confucian gender and class norms by unbinding her feet, cross-dressing and leaving her young family to pursue an education abroad.

An illustration of Mary Ewing Outerbridge as it appeared in the book "Big Apple Almanac."
1852-1886

Mary Ewing Outerbridge

Established what may have been
America's first tennis court in the 1870s.
By AMISHA PADNANI MARCH 8, 2018
Mary Ewing Outerbridge didn't have an easy time bringing tennis to America in 1874.
First she had to get past customs agents. And they were suspicious. What was this large net? Clearly it wasn't for fishing, they said. And what were these stringed things with long handles?

Diane Arbus at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970, holding a copy of "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962." Stephen A. Frank
1923-1971

Diane Arbus

A photographer whose portraits have
compelled or repelled generations of viewers.
By JAMES ESTRIN MARCH 8, 2018
Diane Arbus was a daughter of privilege who spent much of her adult life documenting those on the periphery of society. Since she killed herself in 1971, her unblinking portraits have made her a seminal figure in modern-day photography and an influence on three generations of photographers, though she is perhaps just as famous for her unconventional lifestyle and her suicide.
Her work continues to spark fierce debate among photographers and intellectuals. Are her portraits — of circus performers, transvestites, mentally disabled people and others — empathetic acknowledgments of a shared humanity, or are they exploitative depictions that seize upon their subjects' oddities to shock her audience? After her death, many critics who fancy themselves armchair psychiatrists have tried to analyze her impulses, searching for the role these encounters played in Arbus's psyche.

Marsha P. Johnson in Greenwich Village in 1988. After graduating from high school in Elizabeth, N.J., she moved to New York with $15 and a bag of clothes. Randy Wicker
1945-1992

Marsha P. Johnson

A transgender pioneer and activist who was
a fixture of Greenwich Village street life.
By SEWELL CHAN MARCH 8, 2018
Marsha P. Johnson was an activist, a prostitute, a drag performer and, for nearly three decades, a fixture of street life in Greenwich Village. She was a central figure in a gay liberation movement energized by the 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn. She was a model for Andy Warhol. She battled severe mental illness. She was usually destitute and, for much of her life, effectively homeless.
When she died at 46, under murky circumstances, in summer 1992, Johnson was mourned by her many friends, but her death did not attract much notice in the mainstream press.

Sylvia Plath in an undated photo. As she grappled with the rejection of editors and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, Plath spent her last months writing the poems that would secure her literary reputation. Bettmann
1932-1963

Sylvia Plath

A postwar poet unafraid to confront her own despair.
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS MARCH 8, 2018
She made sure to spare the children, leaving milk and bread for the two toddlers to find when they woke up. She stuffed the cracks of the doors and windows with cloths and tea towels. Then she turned on the gas.
On the morning of Feb. 11, 1963, a Monday, a nurse found the poet Sylvia Plath in her flat on Fitzroy Road in London, an address where W.B. Yeats had once lived. She was "lying on the floor of the kitchen with her head resting on the oven," according to a local paper, the St. Pancras Chronicle.

Henrietta Lacks in a family photo. HeLa, the cell line named for her, has been at the core of treatments for ailments like hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia. Lacks Family/The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, via Associated Press
1920-1951

Henrietta Lacks

Cancer cells were taken from her body without
permission. They led to a medical revolution.
By ADEEL HASSAN MARCH 8, 2018
She never traveled farther than Baltimore from her family home in southern Virginia, but her cells have traveled around the earth and far above it, too.
She was buried in an unmarked grave, but the trillions of those cells — generated from a tiny patch taken from her body — are labeled in university labs and biotechnology companies across the world, where they continue to spawn and to play the critical role in a 67-year parade of medical advances.

Madhubala's natural, understated acting style brought her equal success in serious social dramas as well as in lighthearted comedies and period pieces. James Burke/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1933-1969

Madhubala

A Bollywood legend whose tragic
life mirrored Marilyn Monroe's.
By AISHA KHAN MARCH 8, 2018
It was probably the first ghost story in Indian cinema. A bewildered young man in a mansion chasing glimpses of an ethereal, veiled beauty. The movie, "Mahal," was a huge success, making the lead actress, Madhubala, who was barely 16, a superstar overnight.
Nearly seven decades later, strains of the film's signature song, "Aayega aane wala" (He will come), are instantly recognizable to most Indians, evoking the suspenseful tale of lost love and reincarnation.

Oil portrait of Emily Warren Roebling by Charles-Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, 1896. Roebling was once described as a woman of "strong character" with an "almost masculine intellect." Brooklyn Museum
1843-1903

Emily Warren Roebling

Oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn
Bridge after her engineer husband fell ill.
By JESSICA BENNETT MARCH 8, 2018
It was not customary for a woman to accompany a man to a construction site in the late 19th century. Petticoats tended to get in the way of physical work.
But when Washington A. Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, fell ill, it was his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who stepped in — managing, liaising and politicking between city officials, workers, and her husband's bedside to see the world's first steel-wire suspension bridge to completion. She would become the first person to cross the bridge, too — carrying a rooster with her, as the story has it, for good luck.

Nella Larsen's fiction is read today in American literature and black studies courses. Carl Van Vechten and Van Vechten Trust
1891-1964

Nella Larsen

A Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage
informed her modernist take on the topic of race.
By BONNIE WERTHEIM MARCH 8, 2018
When Nella Larsen died, in 1964, she left little behind: a ground-floor apartment, two published novels, some short stories, a few letters. She was childless, divorced and estranged from her half sister, who, in some accounts, upon learning she was to inherit $35,000 of Larsen's savings, denied knowing the writer existed.
It was a fitting end for a woman whose entire life had been a story of swift erasure.

Ada Lovelace's work was rediscovered in the mid-20th century, inspiring the Defense Department to name a programming language after her.
1815-1852

Ada Lovelace

A gifted mathematician who is now
recognized as the first computer programmer.
By CLAIRE CAIN MILLER MARCH 8, 2018
A century before the dawn of the computer age, Ada Lovelace imagined the modern-day, general-purpose computer. It could be programmed to follow instructions, she wrote in 1843. It could not just calculate but also create, as it "weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves."
The computer she was writing about, the British inventor Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, was never built. But her writings about computing have earned Lovelace — who died of uterine cancer in 1852 at age 36 — recognition as the first computer programmer.

Margaret Abbott's portrait was done in 1903 by the well-known artist Charles Dana Gibson, three years after her victory in France. She never knew that she had won the Olympic championship. USGA Museum
1878-1955

Margaret Abbott

The first American woman to win an Olympic championship.
By MARGALIT FOX MARCH 8, 2018
The first American woman to win an Olympic championship died without ever knowing what she had achieved.
That woman, Margaret Abbott, won the ladies' golf competition, as the event was genteelly known, at the 1900 Games in Paris. She received a gilded porcelain bowl, a smattering of coverage in the newspapers and then nothing.

  • Editors
  • Amisha Padnani
  • Jessica Bennett
  • Kaly Soto
  • Kathleen A. Flynn
  • Destinée-Charisse Royal
  • Maya Salam
  • Ed Shanahan
  • Susanna Timmons
  • Amy Virshup
  • Photo Editors
  • Sandra Stevenson
  • Beth Flynn
  • Nakyung Han
  • Art Direction
  • Antonio De Luca
  • Agnes Lee
  • Research
  • Albert Sun
  • Doris Burke
  • Jeff Roth
  • Online Production
  • Umi Syam
  • Meghan Louttit
  • Print Production
  • Fred Bierman
  • Andrew Sondern
  • Special Thanks
  • William McDonald
  • William O'Donnell
  • James Nieves
  • Susan Wessling
  • Video footage: Madhubala in "Mahal," produced by Bombay Talkies studio in 1949. Alice Guy Blaché shooting a scene for a film in 1906 distributed by Gaumont Pathé Archives. Annemarie Schwarzenbach in "Une Suisse Rebelle, Annemarie Schwarzenbach 1908-1942," produced by Troubadour Films. Madhubala's obitutary is in this collection. Obituaries are planned for Schwarzenbach and Blaché.
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