The Bastion of White Male Privilege

By catherine ,

I confess. I read the obituaries regularly. I like to. They are a great glimpse into history. You read about people you may never have heard about and about accomplishments you may never have known occurred.

But, truthfully, what is omitted is more striking. With rare exception, there are no women – and the few people of color mentioned are men.

Some might argue that men generally die before their female spouses, and, therefore, there is no one left to write the obituary for the wife when she goes. Really??

The truth is that the men who inspire long obits and thanks from different boards did not reap their accomplishments on their own, but rather just did not share the public glory. This speaks to “behind every great man is a woman.”

I have had the pleasure of meeting many of these women, the wives who have outlived their successful husbands, and are still here providing the funds necessary for the not-for-profit world to survive. They recognize what abortion rights means, and what not having them also means. When we speak, I do not have to navigate the artificial obstacles – minors’ rights, emergency contraception, waiting periods, sonograms. Abortion is abortion – a necessary medical procedure that must be available to all regardless of age, race, religion or ability to pay. These women know and understand.

They are older now, and often rely on another woman, a housekeeper or an aide who is usually of color. Together these two women navigate their way. This is a relationship not to be romanticized but to be recognized.

Sometimes one or the other will share a story with me. They’ve usually been together a long time, and rely on one another. Their lives and station in society are without doubt very different, but they do have one thing in common: neither will be highlighted in The New York Times obituaries. The widow will, at most, be described as “Mrs. Joe Smith, the wife of the great…” The aide won’t even receive that mention.

This power to erase women’s accomplishments has not changed with time. In contrast to the chronicling of the deaths of younger men, when younger women die we are told the cause of death rather than what they did.

Perhaps, the true measure of how far we have, or have not, come and the thickness of the glass ceiling is found in the obituary column.

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