i have written a lot about women and obituaries (here and here and here and here), and about how the way we write women’s obituaries SUCKS (here).
florence henderson, our national TV mother, died on thanksgiving day.
because it was thanksgiving weekend and i was occupied with the gilmores, i gave the new york times‘ obituary but a cursory glance.
and yet, as the days passed, i kept thinking about it.
because i was pretty sure that, if i remembered that cursory glance correctly, the NYT obituary for florence henderson was almost entirely about her work.
this is an EXTREME oddity.
i cannot overstate that.
obituaries about women may feature mention of their work, especially if their work is what they are known for. but very very very very very very very very very very rarely is that the emphasis.
most often the emphasis is their private life (or, more specifically, their love lives).
this is what the times tells us about henderson’s private life:
this comes after TWENTY-TWO PARAGRAPHS on her career.
HUGE. BIG. DEAL.
it’s a huge big deal because it does something obituaries of women all to often fail to do: it takes henderson seriously.
though she’s characterized as an “upbeat mom” in the headline, the obituary does her the honor of treating her as a human being and evaluating her career as a performer.
that this would be so striking, that it would stand out SO MUCH, suggests the extent of the problem.
this is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad, ya’ll.
that i feel the need to commend the new york times for having published an obituary that acknowledges the full humanity of the woman being eulogized.
for publishing an obituary which goes beyond the fact that she was a daughter, wife, mother and actually looks at what she did.
this should not be extraordinary.
that it is extraordinary is profoundly sad.
and yet, maybe this is a sign of things to come.
one of the problems of obituaries is that the people who earn them in the mainstream press are the people who were covered, during their lives, by the mainstream press. the people whose lives were visible.
up through the 1960s and 1970s, those people were, disproportionately, men.
increasingly after the 1960s and 1970s, that was not the case.
though there is still- CLEARLY– not gender parity within the media so the problem does persist.
while it’s hardly heart-warming to dwell on some future time when all the women will die so we can have gender parity in obituaries, i do think it’s important that we be aware of the differences in the way we write about women’s lives at this level.
because, for many people, the obituary is the lengthiest biographical piece that will ever be written about them.
for some, it is the only biographical piece that will be written about them or which is accessible to a large audience.
obituaries are also where we find stories.
kate bolick, for example, has written of finding carolyn heilbrun in an obituary. i, similarly, discovered jackie through the media coverage of her death.
in that sense, the new york times‘ obituary for henderson is encouraging. which is why i’ve been banging on about it here.
because there are quotes from henderson. there are details about her career. there is an emphasis on her work.
the narrative that emerges is that of an interesting woman. a woman who had to and wanted to work. who had people invested in helping her career. and who had a career she really, truly loved.
a woman for whom her career wasn’t something ancillary to her love life but an essential component to her life.
the new york times‘ obituary of henderson suggests that there is another way. that we don’t just have to stick to the same old bullshit.
it suggests what is possible, what can be done. so let’s do that. go.