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15 Women Who Were Overlooked by History — Until Now

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15 Women Who Were Overlooked by History — Until Now

It was not customary, in New York City during the late 19th century, for a woman to accompany a man to a construction site. Petticoats tended to get in the way of physical work.

But when Washington A. Roebling, the chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, fell ill with the bends, it was his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, who stepped in. She managed, liaised and politicked among city officials, workers and her husband on his sick bed to complete the world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge. In 1883, she would be the first person to cross the new bridge — carrying a rooster for good luck.

Roebling is one of 15 women featured in Overlooked, a project we launched today, in which we are revisiting 167 years of New York Times history to write the obituaries for women who never got them, but should have.

Ida B Wells

It is said that obituary writing is not about death, but life — the last word, so to speak, on a person’s time alive. A good obituary is a carefully crafted final testament to a mark left on society, culture, history, whether good or bad.

But who gets remembered — and how — has always been a matter of judgment. And so to look back at obituaries over time is to learn not only about lives lived, but about how society assessed those lives. In some cases, a gap is obvious in who was, and wasn’t, deemed worthy of an obituary.

Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries, for heads of state and Nobel Peace Prize winners, but also for the inventors of Stove Top dressing and the namer of the Slinky. The vast majority of those obituaries chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just more than one in five of our subjects were female.

Among the women who did not receive obituaries are Charlotte Bronte, who wrote “Jane Eyre,” and Ada Lovelace, a gifted mathematician who was the world’s first computer programmer. They were Mary Outerbridge, who brought tennis to the United States, and Qiu Jin, a Chinese feminist, author and revolutionary. Also Ida B. Wells, the muckraking journalist and leading voice of the anti-lynching movement (her wedding, however, did receive front-page attention).

It is said that obituary writing is not about death, but life — the last word, so to speak, on a person’s time alive. A good obituary is a carefully crafted final testament to a mark left on society, culture, history, whether good or bad.

But who gets remembered — and how — has always been a matter of judgment. And so to look back at obituaries over time is to learn not only about lives lived, but about how society assessed those lives. In some cases, a gap is obvious in who was, and wasn’t, deemed worthy of an obituary.

Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries, for heads of state and Nobel Peace Prize winners, but also for the inventors of Stove Top dressing and the namer of the Slinky. The vast majority of those obituaries chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just more than one in five of our subjects were female.

Among the women who did not receive obituaries are Charlotte Bronte, who wrote “Jane Eyre,” and Ada Lovelace, a gifted mathematician who was the world’s first computer programmer. They were Mary Outerbridge, who brought tennis to the United States, and Qiu Jin, a Chinese feminist, author and revolutionary. Also Ida B. Wells, the muckraking journalist and leading voice of the anti-lynching movement (her wedding, however, did receive front-page attention).

Qui Jing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some women, by contrast, received obituaries that now seem comically inadequate.

When Frida Kahlo died, in 1953, she was identified first as the “wife of Diego Rivera.” Susan B. Anthony was noted in 1906 to have “possessed a figure of medium size” and “a firm but rather pleasing face.” Harriet Tubman’s 1913 death merited only 132 words (though short obituaries were customary at the time).

Emily Warren Roebling, the Woman Behind the Man Who Built the Brooklyn BridgeRoebling
She was not an engineer. But she was instrumental to the construction of the great engineering feat.

 

 

 

 

Ida B. Wells, Who Took on Racism in the Deep South With Powerful Reporting on LynchingsWells
Wells is considered by historians to have been the most famous black woman in the United States during her lifetime, even as she was dogged by prejudice.

 

 

 

 

Diane Arbus Called Her Portraits ‘A Secret About a Secret’Diabe Arbus
A daughter of privilege, she photographed those on the outside, and her work has been hailed as brave and reviled as freakish.

 

 

 

 

 

Marsha P. Johnson, a Transgender Pioneer and ActivistJohnson
When she died at 46, under murky circumstances, Johnson was mourned by many friends but her death did not attract much notice in the mainstream press.