It took almost a month — and a full-scale lobbying campaign — but the obituary for philosopher Ruth Barcan Marcus finally ran in the New York Times on Sunday.
Marcus, a Yale University professor emeritus who specialized in quantified modal logic, died Feb. 19. The Times ran an obituary online March 13, and in print on March 18, after a sustained effort by academics who knew and respected her.
Inside Higher Ed ran a March 15 piece noting the efforts, spurred by Michael Della Rocca, another Yale philosophy professor. In an early March e-mail to friends, he encouraged them to contact the Times:
“There have been multiple communications between Yale and also NYU (Ruth’s undergraduate alma mater) with the obituary editors at the Times. The Times has received a wealth of information from these sources and still no obituary. I fear that they have decided or are in the process of deciding that Ruth is not a significant enough figure to warrant the recognition of an obituary in the Times. Don’t get me started on this — it’s simply outrageous.”
Della Rocca encouraged others to contact the Times obituary editors, a strategy that apparently worked.
A Times obituary editor contacted by Inside Higher Ed told the publication “he had nothing to add beyond that the newspaper was publishing her obituary.” (The Economist ran a remembrance of Marcus online on Feb. 21, two days after her death.)
This isn’t the first time the Times obituary decisions have been questioned. “Women rarely die, it seems,” a reader wrote Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane in 2010.
Obituaries editor Bill McDonald told Brisbane that many of those dying came of age in an “era largely run by men.” But Brisbane replied that the Times should do a better job identifying women and minorities who are prominent in their fields.
(The Washington Post's obituary guidelines say the newspaper writes news obituaries about people who lived in the region for at least 20 years and are recognized for substantial involvement in the community.)
In the introduction to the book “The Obits 2012: The New York Times Annual," McDonald notes that about 5.5 million people die every year and the Times runs obituaries on about 1,000 of them. Women represent less than one-fourth of the nearly 300 obituaries in the 2012 volume, which includes prominent obituaries from August 2010 to July 2011.
Jennifer Saul, head of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, says the exclusion of Marcus and other women is an example of implicit bias, an area she studies.
“Implicit biases are unconscious associations that result largely from living in a society where certain stereotypes are widely held. ... So, we grow up in a world where the majority of the big famous achievers are men and we come to associate being famous and achieving a lot with maleness,” Saul wrote in an e-mail.
“Philosophy, especially the sort Ruth Barcan Marcus did, makes heavy use of logic, which brings in all the stereotypes about math being male. So it’s no shock at all that people would have difficulty realising what a towering figure Marcus was (given the association of greatness with maleness), particularly since her accomplishments were in an area (logic) stereotyped as male.”
Saul offers some leeway when it comes to implicit bias.
“My view, and others do disagree with me here, is that we are not to blame for having these unconscious biases,” she writes. “We’re not aware of them, they’re often contrary to our genuinely held egalitarian views, and they result largely from the society we happen to grow up in. But we are to blame if the biases and their consequences are pointed out and we don't think it’s worth trying to do anything about them.”
The lobbying effort on Marcus’s obituary is part of a larger effort in the world of philosophy (and other disciplines as well) to include women.
“It wasn’t just philosophers who spend a lot of time advocating for women in philosophy,” Saul writes of the effort. “Those of us who do spend time on that have been lobbying for years against all-male speaker lineups at conferences.”
Marcus, who died at 90, might also have something to say about the lack of women and people of color represented in obituaries at the Times and elsewhere, and the arguments offered to justify that dearth.
As Erica Grieder noted in her Economist.com piece, Marcus often wrote about moral dilemmas.
Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette.