The strange dearth of dead women

Obituaries today reflect a past where women stood by their men

To win the ultimate post-mortem accolade of an obituary in a national newspaper, broadly speaking, one has to be the first, the last, the best or the most famous in one's field, or, occasionally, the absolute worst. Arguably, Naomi Sim, who died earlier this month at the age of 86, was all of the above in her capacity as Alastair Sim's wife; but it would be harder to claim that she was at the forefront of the thespian or literary worlds, though she was listed as "actress and author" in the obituary published in the Independent last week. Her main purpose in life was supporting her husband, rather than furthering her own career, as she cheerfully avowed.

On the same day, the female sex was represented in the obituary section of the Times by the rumba-mistress Kathryn Murray, whose main claim to fame was her role in her husband Arthur Murray's televised ballroom dance empire. The Guardian, meanwhile, offered up Rita Sakellariou, a Greek singer popular in the sixties and seventies, when "her ardent admirers included shipping tycoons Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos". Her career had noticeably fallen off during the past two decades. While her most popular record, "Istoria mou, amartia mou" ("My story, my sin"), was one to which Andreas Papandreou loved to dance the zeimbekiko in years gone by, this hardly puts her in the same ballpark as the clutch of male politicians, trade unionists, baronets and revolutionaries that appeared higher up the pages. The obituaries sections stubbornly remain a male preserve.

Raising this dearth of women with obituaries editors provokes a collective groan. "People write furious letters saying, 'Why are there all these old men on your pages?' " says the Independent's James Fergusson. (Along similar lines, a former chief executive of the Independent, presumably in a particularly absent-minded moment, once asked whether it would be possible to feature more young people on the pages.) Most of those written up are of a ripe old age, often in their eighties or nineties. In that generation, it was far less likely than it is today that women would forge a career outside the home and particularly unlikely that they would go into politics, business or sport.

It is, says the Guardian's Phil Osborne, very difficult to redress the balance. He estimates that in a typical week women make up around 20 per cent of those featured on his pages. "We have a stockpile of around 2,000 or so people who are over their three-score years and ten; we like to have them in the bag so we're not caught on the hop. Among those, in fields such as arts and entertainment women make up a higher proportion - in terms of film and stage it's probably 50-50."

Even when women do make it on to the obit pages, a disproportionate number of them are still written up for their role as the driving force behind Important Man X or the supporter of Important Man Y. The Independent noted that Naomi Sim appeared in just one film with her husband; after two years at Rada she gave up any thoughts of becoming an actress. "Nobody told me to give up," she commented. "Alastair was always the most important thing in my life and I wanted to make damn sure he was happy."

This is unavoidable, sighs Osborne. "If you get a woman who was the unfailing support to her husband, it's difficult to run an obituary of her that is more than two paragraphs." However, he adds, the situation is improving. The Guardian was recently offered an obituary of Jane Phillips written by the biographer of Eddy Sackville-West, with whom she was hopelessly and unrequitedly in love (he was gay). "On the day we ran it we had a call from her daughter saying she knew we would mention the Sackville-West connection, but could we also remember that her mother was prominent in the education world, which she was, and not make her infatuation with Sackville-West into the entire point of the piece. We were glad to incorporate the extra material."

According to Fergusson, often the partnership between women and their husbands can be significant in itself. "Political wives or hostesses or ambassadors' wives do just as much as their husbands." He adds that it cuts both ways; men, too, can be featured only for their connections with famous women. Last month the Independent featured Paul Novak, who was Mae West's boyfriend. "He had no significance other than that he was a handsome bodybuilder-cum-performing wrestler."

It will still take years, but obits editors are unanimous that eventually the balance will even out and that the process is already under way. "We've had a couple of women ambassadors in the past year, and one of them was the first one," says Ian Brunskill of the Times. "We are also starting to see more women who've reached a certain level in the Civil Service and the law." He adds that he can't feature more women if he doesn't know about their contributions to society. "People underestimate how much we rely on being told that people have died. We're not telepathic. But families seem far less likely to think that their aunt or their mother merits an obit and they don't call us."

"The joy of a good obituary page is variety," says James Fergusson. "Gender is part of that variety." But, he says, more important still is that people have led interesting lives. He once carried out a survey, over a month, of the male-female divide on his pages. "We came out rather well," he says. "But I'm not sure when we can look forward to a 50-50 division. You need to ask a demographer, not an obituaries editor."

The author writes for the "Independent on Sunday"