Have you ever heard of Charlotte Brontë or her novel Jane Eyre? How about the poet Sylvia Plath? Or the photographer Diane Arbus?
When they died, none of these women was considered newsworthy enough to warrant an obituary in The New York Times. Now, to make amends, the newspaper has chosen International Women's Day to publish 15 obituaries of groundbreaking women whose deaths should have been reported when they happened.
Like most newspapers, the Times publishes many "death notices" that people pay for. (I ordered one when my father died and it was pretty pricey.) But it also publishes about three obituaries a day, selecting those people the editors consider most newsworthy among the 155,000 or so deaths that occur in any given 24-hour period.
Inevitably, many noteworthy deaths get left out. But when Amisha Padnani joined the Times' obituary desk as digital editor, she began researching notable people whose deaths the newspaper hadn't noted over the years. Most of the omissions, she found, were female and/or non-white. She was shocked to find that Arbus and Plath didn't get a mention when they died since both were well known during their lifetimes. It's especially disheartening to note that their husbands, the actor Allan Arbus and the poet Ted Hughes, did get Times obituaries.
To try and set things at least a little right, Padnani began the Overlooked project to belatedly publish 15 obituaries of highly newsworthy women in celebration of International Women's Day on March 8, and it's to the paper's credit that she got full support for doing so. Here are a few of the remarkable women that the Times has finally chosen to acknowledge:
1. Jane Eyre author Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816, one of six siblings. (Her sister Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights didn't get a Times obit either.) The Brontë children were raised by their clergyman father near the English moors that figure so prominently in Emily's work.
Charlotte watched several of her siblings die, two of them from ill treatment at a boarding school that she also attended and that she described unflinchingly in Jane Eyre. Three more, including Emily, died horribly of tuberculosis or other illnesses under Charlotte's care.
From an early age, she sent her written work to writers and publishers she admired, only to be told, "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and it ought not to be." So she published Jane Eyre under the gender-ambiguous name Currer Bell. It was an immediate commercial success. She married at 38 and died nine months later, most likely from complications of extreme morning sickness.
Since then, Jane Eyre has been made into movies countless times, along with sequels and prequels. Its story of a plain, pale, poor, and friendless young woman who nevertheless burns with passion for life and love transcends the age when it was written.
2. Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath was born in 1962 and became known during her lifetime for her biting confessional poetry that appeared in prestigious publications such as The New Yorker. She committed suicide at her London apartment at the age of 30. She had recently separated from her husband after learning he was having an affair, and American publishers had rejected her novel The Bell Jar, which had been published under a pseudonym in Britain. Despite her success in her own right, the obituary she did get in a London paper described her as "Mrs. Sylvia Plath Hughes, wife of one of Britain's best-known modern poets, Ted Hughes."
Eight years later, The Bell Jar was published in the U.S. and spent 24 weeks on the Times' bestseller list. It's sold more than 3 million copies. In 1982, her Collected Poems earned her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
3. Photographer Diane Arbus
Diane Nemerov was born in 1923 to wealthy parents who owned a 5th Avenue department store in New York City. Raised on Park Avenue and Central Park West and attended by a platoon of servants, she married Allan Arbus at 18. The Arbuses began a fashion photography company together, but separated after having two children. Diane went off on her own, shooting photographs for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, and Harper's Bazaar among others. (You'd think the Times could have come up with an obit for its own photographer.)
She was known for breaking taboos, photographing the mentally disabled, circus performers, transvestites, couples in bed, and orgies in which she sometimes participated. Her photographs were black and white, stark, unsmiling, and almost always disturbing. In 1971, at 48, she committed suicide.
Though she was a very successful photographer, the market for art photographs did not exist during her lifetime as it does today. But a year after her death, the Museum of Modern Art devoted an exhibit to her work, writing that she showed "bravery in the face of truth."
4. World's first computer programmer Ada Lovelace
Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815 in London. Her father was the Romantic poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Annabella Milbanke, had a lifelong interest in math that she passed on to her daughter, who called mathematics and logic "poetical science."
At 17, she met Charles Babbage who conceived the first (steam-powered) computers. Though most of his designs were not built during his lifetime--he wasn't great at working with people or getting things done--he did partially finish some of them and their designs, built in modern times using contemporaneous materials and tools--work perfectly.
But what is a computer without instructions--software? Ada Lovelace was fascinated by Babbage's inventions and began writing "code" for them, making her the first ever computer programmer. Perhaps more importantly, she had the insight to foresee and write that computers could be used for all kinds of functions and not just mathematical calculation as they were originally conceived.
She married William King at 19, and when he became an earl, she became Countess of Lovelace. She had three children but kept right on studying and writing about mathematics, up until her death from uterine cancer in 1852. In modern times, she's become an iconic figure for women in technology everywhere.
5. Chinese feminist, revolutionary, and poet Qiu Jin
Qiu Jin's life reads like a work of fiction. She was born in 1875 in Xiamen in the south of China. As a young girl her feet were bound, she was taught needlework, and forced into an arranged marriage with a merchant's son named Wang Tingjun. The couple had two children.
They moved to Beijing, and Qiu began getting radicalized. She unbound her feet, sometimes dressed as a man, and took up sword fighting. She also wrote poetry, much of it militant and feminist.
My body will not allow me
To mingle with the men
But my heart is far braver
Than that of a man.
At 28 she abandoned her family, sold her jewelry and sailed to Japan where she enrolled in Shimoda Utako's Women's Practical School. There, she connected with other frustrated Chinese students and became more radicalized, finally returning to China with the aim to foment feminism and help overthrow the Qing government. She started a feminist newspaper and learned to work with explosives.
In 1907, when Qiu was 31, one of her fellow revolutionaries was arrested and executed for assassinating one of his superiors. Qiu was warned that the government would come looking for his female accomplice. She could have gotten away but chose instead to stay and attempt to fight the government forces. She was captured, tortured, and beheaded.
Since then, she's become a martyr to Chinese feminists and revolutionaries, sometimes dubbed China's Joan of Arc. To this day, people visit her grave in Hangzhou to pay her homage.