Gender Discrimination after Death

Does gender discrimination continue after death? A lifetime of inequality is arguably enough; how might inequality between the sexes perpetuate itself beyond the grave? If one assumes that a posthumous obituary is a postself artifact that survives death, then one might ask whether or not obituaries are written and published in an unbiased manner. Scholars suggest that they are not, and that gender discrimination follows the individual beyond the grave.

Discussions of Gender Discrimination after Death

In 1977 the scholars Robert Kastenbaum, Sara Peyton, and Beatrice Kastenbaum were the first to raise the question of gender discrimination after death. They hypothesized that the "dominant male-preferring value system of the United States would carry over the threshold from life to death" (Kastenbaum, Peyton, and Kastenbaum 1977, p. 353). The authors used newspaper obituaries as a subtle, unobtrusive measure of society's value system, and they proposed that men receive greater public recognition after death than women. Their hypothesis was tested in two major metropolitan newspapers on the East Coast, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. They found that men receive four times as many obituaries as women, and that male obituaries are longer and are ten times more likely to be accompanied by a photograph. They concluded that the readers of these two publications are receiving "systematic, if subtle confirmation of the greater importance of men." They argued that if gender equality has won fundamental acceptance, one will expect it to "express itself in less visible, less pressured-by-advocacy areas such as obituaries" (p. 356).

Kastenbaum and his colleagues set the bar; others challenged it using a variety of methods and data sources. For example, in 1979 Bernard Spilka, Gerald Lacey, and Barbara Gelb examined obituaries in two Denver newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, arguing that the West is more progressive than the East. They sampled obituaries from July 1976 through July 1977 in both papers. Their findings provided weak support for gender bias favoring males. This is most pronounced in terms of obituary length, but there is evidence that women receive fewer obituaries and fewer photographs as well. They concluded: "Economic, political, and social factors within Western society continue to support a greater valuation of males and this is perpetuated even in the manner in which one's death is marked and remembered" (Spilka, Lacey, and Gelb 1979, p. 232).

The next period of examination occurred in the mid-1980s. First, Michael Kearl looked at two national news magazines, Time and Newsweek, and sampled obituaries from 1923 to 1979. Men are six times more likely to receive an obituary than women and ten times more likely to receive a photograph; male obituaries are also longer. He found that individuals in the arts and business account for over 40 percent of the obituaries, and that women are underrepresented in all role categories except familial relation (being related to a famous person, almost always a man).

Next, Bernice Halbur and Mary Vandagriff examined death notices (as opposed to obituaries) in three Birmingham, Alabama, newspapers, the Reporter, the World, and the News, over an eighty-five-year period from 1900 through 1985. In their research they found no evidence of bias because they used death notices and not obituaries. Kastenbaum distinguished between death notices ("a single paragraph of basic information that is set in small type and included in an alphabetical listing of recent deaths") and obituaries ("more variable in length and somewhat more variable in style . . . printed in the newspaper's usual type size, with an individual 'headline' for each obituary, either the deceased's name or a more extended statement" (1977, p. 353)). Typically, death notices serve as a proxy for actual deaths and are not examined for gender bias because their content is highly standardized and they are submitted routinely to newspapers by funeral directors. On the other hand, obituaries represent "interesting" or "important" deaths selected for added recognition and, as such, are subject to possible gender bias. Because Halbur and Vandagriff relied on death notices, it is not unusual nor unexpected that they found no evidence of bias in the number of notices, nor in the presence of a photograph.

In the 1990s two more studies examined gender discrimination in obituaries. Karol Maybury examined obituaries in the Boston Globe and the Sacramento Bee for a two-month period from November 15, 1992, through January 15, 1993. Men are two to two and one-half times more likely to receive an obituary than women, their obituaries are longer, and their obituaries are four times more likely to be accompanied by a photograph. There are no regional differences. Women related to famous men have the longest female obituaries, while men in entertainment/arts have the longest male obituaries.

Robin Moremen and Cathy Cradduck examined gender differences in obituaries in four regional newspapers in the late 1990s, following the original Kastenbaum method. In Moremen and Cradduck's study, the New York Times represents the Northeast and is included in the original study; the Chicago Tribune represents the Midwest, the Los Angeles Times the West, and the Miami Herald the Southeast. As in previous studies, men receive significantly more obituaries than women, however, unlike the Maybury study results, Moremen and Cradduck's study found regional differences: Obituaries are 7.69 times more likely to be written about a man than a woman in the New York Times (compared to 4.02 times in the original study); 4.21 times more likely in the Los Angeles Times ; 3.11 times more likely in the Miami Herald ; and 2.47 times more likely in the Chicago Tribune. Male obituaries are longer (except for the Miami Herald ), and significantly more likely to be accompanied by a photograph (except for the Miami Herald ). The average age at death is seventy-nine for women and seventy-two for men, which is consistent with national averages. People in business and the performing arts receive the most recognition, with men dominating these categories. Women dominate categories like miscellaneous (including devoted to family, animals, and children; homemaker; volunteer; active with seniors), clerical/retail, and related to someone famous, usually a man.

These studies demonstrate little change over time in the recognition of women after death. Consistently, fewer obituaries are written about women, fewer obituary lines note the accomplishments of women, and fewer pictures of women appear on the obituary page. When women are recognized usually it is for domestic or caregiving roles, or for their relationship to a famous man. Why is this so, and why is there so little change over time? Certainly women have made inroads into the labor market in recent decades; why is this not being reflected in postself artifacts like obituaries?

Possible Explanations for the Findings

There appears to be five general explanations for the persistent inequality in obituary representation: a cohort effect, a period effect, a location effect, a decision-making effect, and a social inequality effect.

Cohort effect. Men and women born in the early 1920s came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, prior to second-wave feminism. Most middle-class women of that generation were homemakers, performing tasks that did not register in the economic sphere. By the time the feminist movement left its mark on the workplace, most of these women were too old to benefit. Hence, this generation of women is dying with very little public recognition of their accomplishments. This is largely so because paid work counts in American society; unpaid work in the home does not register in the economic sphere, therefore it is not viewed as important. One might expect the situation to improve for the women who came of age during second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, but wage, occupational, and promotional barriers may still prevent them from receiving equal treatment in the workplace and, thus, equal treatment on the obituary page.

Period effect. In her best-selling Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), Susan Faludi wrote of a feminist backlash that is part of a conservative response to second-wave feminism. Women in the 1980s and 1990s were told by conservative ideologues in the New Right political and fundamentalist Christian movements that they had "made it." The media took this ideology and translated it into sound bites; what is more apropos of this than an obituary that translates a person's life into fifty-six lines of print? Kastenbaum argued two decades prior that consumers of obituaries are receiving "systematic, if subtle confirmation of the greater importance of men" (1977, p. 356). Twenty-first-century consumers of obituaries are receiving systematic, if subtle, confirmation of a conservative ideology that is being promoted vigorously by New Right politicians and fundamentalist Christian groups.

Location effect. In locations where older women outnumber older men, there may be greater opportunity for posthumous recognition with an obituary. According to the Moremen and Cradduck study, this is true in the Miami Herald. When a woman receives an obituary in the Herald, it is likely to be lengthy and to be accompanied by a photograph. Greater representation in the Miami Herald reflects greater awareness of senior issues in Florida, where, in general, women over the age of sixty-five outnumber men three to two.

Decision-making effect. The obituary decisionmaking process may contribute to selection bias. Because major newspapers with huge circulation areas are studied in the past, none is able to run obituaries of everyone who dies (smaller newspapers are much better able to do this). Therefore, rules of thumb develop about who should receive obituary recognition. One such rule is that the person must be a "news maker" in his or her lifetime. A potential news maker might be brought to the attention of the obituary department by a relative calling the paper and reporting the death; by the wire services or the death notices submitted by family and funeral directors; by the editors of one of the news desks alerting the obituary department to the death of a notable person in his or her field; or by a corporation sending information to the paper about a distinguished businessperson who died. Once the "news maker" is identified, the individual is "researched." This usually means looking back in the archives to see how many stories have been written about this person in the past. If time permits, other public sources are researched as well. If information is plentiful, then an obituary is written. In all cases, however, the obituary editor is the final arbiter of the page. The explanation most often offered by editors regarding unequal coverage of men and women is that obituaries reflect society as a whole; men have held higher positions historically and more has been written about them, therefore they receive greater obituary recognition.

One additional point is worth noting: Because women outlive men, more women are in the position of providing information to newspapers than men. When women die, there may be no one available to provide such information for them. More often women are the record keepers of the household. Therefore, even if men are in the position to provide information to newspapers, they may not have that information at their disposal.

Social inequality effect. Women's inequality in obituary recognition most likely reflects their continuing inequality in society. When women receive equal salaries, equal access to all occupations, equal access to the top levels of management, and equal treatment in the home, then perhaps they will receive equal recognition after death.

Researchers have found lasting differentials between the average earnings of men and women. Women's salaries have increased more rapidly than men's, but women are still earning only seventy-five cents for every dollar that a man earns. Women continue to be excluded from some occupational categories. They are overrepresented in clerical, retail sales, and service occupations, and underrepresented in professional, managerial, and high-skill craft positions. Additionally, women are blocked from the highest ranks of management. While women readily advance into middle management, they seldom reach senior management; in 2000, women ran only three of the five hundred largest public companies. Meanwhile, women remain responsible for the majority of unpaid work in the home, whether or not they work for wages. They spend about thirty-four hours per week on household chores, while men spend about eighteen hours. When women undertake paid employment, housework amounts to a second, full-time job. Because women have not yet "made it" in American society, gender equality in "less pressured by advocacy" areas such as obituaries continues to allude them.

Suggestions for Change

Immediate, pragmatic suggestions for future change might include: contacting current obituary editors and making them aware of the bias on their pages; hiring obituary editors who desire a balanced page; suggesting that women write their own obituaries and direct the executors of their estates to submit them to obituary editors upon their death; writing letters to the editor demanding greater recognition of women on the obituary pages of their newspapers; suggesting that large corporations withhold advertising dollars until women are equally represented on all pages of the newspaper, including the obituary page. While these suggestions may effect some degree of local change, long-range efforts must be pursued as well.

These might include: continued pressure for equality in the workplace, including an equitable wage; an end to labor market segregation by sex; equal opportunity for women to advance into positions of authority that result in professional recognition; a demand for greater equality in the home so that women are not working a second shift in the unpaid sector; a greater valuation of women's work in general; and a greater valuation of unpaid work that is not in the economic sphere.

See also: Death System ; Mortality, Childbirth


Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.

Halbur, Bernice, and Mary Vandagriff. "Societal Responses after Death: A Study of Sex Differences in Newspaper Death Notices for Birmingham, Alabama, 1900–1985." Sex Roles 17 (1987):421–436.

Kastenbaum, Robert, Sara Peyton, and Beatrice Kastenbaum. "Sex Discrimination After Death." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 7 (1977):351–359.

Kearl, Michael C. "Death as a Measure of Life: A Research Note on the Kastenbaum-Spilka Strategy of Obituary Analyses." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 17 (1986):65–78.

Maybury, Karol K. "Invisible Lives: Women, Men and Obituaries." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 32 (1995):27–37.

Moremen, Robin D., and Cathy Cradduck. "'How Will You Be Remembered After You Die?' Gender Discrimination After Death Twenty Years Later." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 38 (1998–99):241–254.

Spilka, Bernard, Gerald Lacey, and Barbara Gelb. "Sex Discrimination After Death: A Replication, Extension and a Difference." Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying 10 (1979):227–233.


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