ThinkProgress

New York Times debuts ‘Overlooked’ obituaries of notable women

Portrait of Ida B. Wells, 1920. (CREDIT: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

A new weekly feature by The New York Times aims to highlight the lives and achievements of women throughout history who’ve been forgotten in the largely white, male-dominated obituary pages.

Simply titled “Overlooked,” the interactive, launched on Thursday in honor of International Women’s Day, features the stories of forgotten figures like Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, as well as biographies of those with famous names but who have been vastly underappreciated, such as computer programmer Ada Lovelace and novelist Charlotte Brontë.

Women of color like Ida B. Wells, a famed investigative reporter, and Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist, are given extensive, well-deserved coverage that they were once denied. Names like Diane Arbus, Qiu Jin, and Madhubala are explored and given new life.

Below are just a few of the notable figures profiled in “Overlooked.”

Belkis Ayón, Cuban printmaker

Belkis Ayón was 32 when she died, but her short life was full of groundbreaking artistic achievements.

Born January 23, 1967 in Havana, Cuba, Ayón enrolled in art classes at a young age, winning multiple awards and honors in the years that followed. In 1976, her work was featured in an art competition for children, in Hyvinkää, Finland. Ayón, the only girl to win a prize, took second place overall.

At 19, she enrolled in classes at the Instituto Superior de Arte, a university in Havana. After graduation, she began working at the school herself, using her signature collography printing method — a complex technique that involves arranging printing materials on a hard surface like cardboard or wood — to create works that would later be featured internationally and earn her accolades from critics worldwide.

Many of her more famous pieces focused on the male-dominated Abakuá religion, an Afro-Cuban secret society akin to Freemasonry. Painting female figures without mouths to represent the fact that they were not allowed to participate in the secret society, Ayón’s work was called “exquisite” according to Cristina Vives, a Cuban curator and friend of the artist who spoke with The Times for its profile, the pieces “transcended the two-dimensionality and the quasi-domestic scale of traditional collagraphy creating a three-dimensional installation.”

When she committed suicide in September 1999, her family was left without concrete answers. Committed to continuing her legacy, they’ve since dedicated themselves to preserving and showcasing Ayón’s work.

“Here in Cuba, we always keep hope for everything,” her niece, Yadira Leyva Ayón, told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “And we have hope that now, so many people will see Belkis’ work. It’s important for our culture and our family. She was a very outstanding artist and person. And this way, we keep her alive.”

Ida B. Wells, investigative journalist, suffragist

Portrait of Ida B. Wells, 1920. (CREDIT: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, July 16, 1862, Ida B. Wells was born into a family of slaves. Her father, a carpenter, became an advocate for racial equality and worked on several campaigns after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, and her mother, a cook, later stayed home to raise her eight children.

Like her father, Wells attended Shaw University (now Rust College) but was expelled between 1880-1881 for confronting the University president. Around that same time, Wells lost her parents and an infant brother to a yellow fever epidemic, prompting her to turn to teaching to make ends meet and provide for her remaining siblings.

After discovering a massive pay gap between herself and the other teachers at the school — Wells was making $30 a month while the white teachers made $80 — she became motivated to engage in politics, writing articles for Black and Christian newspapers in which she highlighted the various injustices the Black community faced. After being offered an editorial position with the Evening Star newspaper in Washington, D.C., Wells began writing about race issues full time, eventually becoming the editor of an anti-segregation newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. There, The Times notes, she “pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism,” covering the volatile debate over Black injustice at the time as well as mob lynchings.

Some of Wells’ most important work was to uncover the myth behind those lynchings — the stereotype of Black men as serial rapists and sexual predators (one often conjured today). After a lynch mob killed three of her friends in 1892, Wells began a trek across the South to conduct interviews and examine records of similar cases, in an attempt to disprove that myth.

Her reporting, published in the Free Speech and Headlight, later drew widespread praise from mainstream press and prompted a string of powerful protests. Though her efforts were later overshadowed by activists like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Wells’ legacy was well established by the time she died of kidney disease in March 1931, having founded both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women (NACWC).

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press,” she once wrote, speaking to her work as a journalist. In a separate work in 1892, titled “Southern Horrors,” she added, “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”

Madhubala, Indian actress

Born Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi in February 1933, Madhubala has been referred to as “The Biggest Star in the World” and one of international cinema’s most influential figures.

At 16, Madhubala, who first began acting at the age of nine, became an overnight sensation after starring in the film Mahal, an Indian thriller. Dubbed “the Marilyn Monroe of Bollywood,” she was revered as one of cinema’s greatest beauties and one of its most versatile figures, starring in serious dramas and light comedies alike.

“Everyone went on about how beautiful she was, but she really held her own against some acclaimed actors,” New York University professor of anthropology Tejaswini Ganti told the Times.

Madhubala had originally begun acting to help raise her family out of poverty: as a child, she lost five siblings and saw her family home destroyed in a fire. Shortly after, her father lost his job.

To help feed the family, Madhubala began visiting production studios to find work and at the age of 9 was cast in the film Basant, a box office success and her breakout debut. That role kicked off a string of successful turns in Indian films like Neel Kamal, eventually achieving superstar status from her role as the lead character in Mahal. Though she was said to have been offered a role in Hollywood, Madhubala still managed to gain global fame and her films became hugely popular outside of India.

Despite her success — the actress had at least 70 films to her name by the time she died — she was never recognized with any major awards. Madhubala, who had been born with a hole in her heart and often worked herself to the point of exhaustion, died in February 1969, shortly after her 36th birthday.

Qiu Jin, Chinese poet and activist

As a child, Qiu Jin studied Chinese heroines like Hua Mulan (“Yes, that Mulan,” Times columnist Amy Qin writes) and dreamed of seeing her own name in stories and history books. Born to wealthy, respected gentry parents in 1875, Qiu was bound by deeply rooted patriarchal values and pushed back against tradition in an effort to liberate Chinese women, who were still being subjected to torturous practices like foot-binding.

“Qiu Jin lived at a time when women in China were not permitted to venture out of their homes, let alone participate in public affairs,” historian and write Zhang Lifan told the Times. “So Qiu Jin not only participated in politics, her actions alone were a rebellion.”

Her rebelliousness included “unbinding her feet, cross-dressing and leaving her young family to pursue an education abroad,” Qin notes.

Her poetry often reflected that struggle. In 1904, she left her husband and boarded a ship bound for Japan; along the voyage she penned the poem “Preoccupation,” which reads,

Unbinding my feet, I washed away
a thousand years of poison.
My heart fired with excitement, I awoke
one hundred slumbering flower-spirits.
But pity my shagreen handkerchief—
Half stained with tears
and half with blood.

Similarly, a year earlier, she wrote in the second verse of her poem “Full River Red,”

My body will not allow me
To mingle with the men
But my heart is far braver
Than that of a man.

Qiu eventually became a noted political and feminist revolutionary, leading a wave of women’s rights activists who desired to topple the Qing government. During that time, she wrote a series of articles on foot-binding and the cruelty of arranged marriages, joined up with several anti-Manchu secret societies, and learned to make bombs.

Her work leading other young revolutionaries eventually cost her her life: in 1907, ahead of a scheduled uprising, Qiu, then 32, was captured by imperial army forces who accused her of conspiring to overthrow the government, using Qiu’s own writings — which advocated for women’s rights, and the freedom to pursue an education — as proof of her betrayal. She was tortured and beheaded in front of her home village.

Despite her brutal end, Qiu left behind a considerable legacy: to this day, she is known as “China’s Joan of Arc.”

Read more about the many women who’ve been overlooked in obituary pages throughout history.