Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate the lives—both past and present—of women who have made an unforgettable impact.
While we tend to celebrate the modern-day changemakers who have forged a new path forward through contemporary movements, it’s just as important to commemorate the work of those early revolutionaries who have passed on. One would consider living in the age of technology an advantage in preserving and accessing the historical records of influential women; however, one important document has long been ignored.
Since 1851, The New York Times has published the obituaries of significant historical figures in politics, art, and culture, although the majority of these accounts have only showcased white men. In other words, for the past 167 years the triumphs of pioneering women have been largely ignored by the publication’s distinguished obituary section. In 2018, that tradition is set to change.
Digital editor, Amisha Padnani, has spearheaded a new series called “Overlooked” to highlight the lives of the many remarkable women whose obituaries were never printed in the paper. Seeking to correct the lack of representation that has taken hold of the Obituaries section for over a century, Padnani says she began to conceptualize the project’s idea when she joined The Times in 2017. “At the time, a national debate on race was at a rolling boil and a renewed discussion on gender equality was beginning to take hold,” she says. “People were coming out of the shadows to share personal tales of injustice and discrimination, of disparaging and belittling encounters that made them question their sense of belonging in the world. Their hope was that by sharing their stories they could start dialogues and inspire change.”
As a woman of color herself, Padnani says she could relate to this longing for inclusion. Research through The Times’ obituary archives led her to notice a disparity between the large number of obituaries for men and the lack of records for women or people of color. “I started talking about my research with colleagues, friends and relatives, all of whom began sending me more names,” she explains. “I soon had a list of dozens of fascinating people, such as Ms. Larsen; Madhubala, a Bollywood actress whose poetically tragic life was cut short; and Margaret Abbott, a golfer who died without ever knowing that she was the first American woman to win an Olympic championship.” In the hope of creating a lasting change, she partnered with The Times gender editor, Jessica Bennett, to begin developing the Overlooked series.
The response among The Times contributors was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone from writers to designers to photo editors wanted to support the project in some way, and this led to an idiosyncratic approach to handling these cases. Padnani says that rather than documenting these obituaries in the traditional reporting style, writers were encouraged to introduce creative storytelling and build a narrative instead.
As a result of these efforts, the monumental lives of inspiring women across the globe are finally receiving recognition. Anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells and author Charlote Brontë are just a few of the first names honored by the Overlooked project, with several others waiting to be discovered. The Times says it will continue this collection each week so that Overlooked becomes a regular feature of the Obituary section. As the series grows, one can only hope that the countless stories of once-forgotten women will be unearthed with reverent dignity.