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Looking for the Women on Wikipedia: Readers Respond

March 14, 2013, 4:12 pm

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The Sisters of Selma Photo Credit

This post about Wikipedia’s woman problem drew a bunch of great comments, some with links to resources. It also fed into an epic flurry of announcements from Twitterati about events in the next two weeks where feminists of all genders are gathering, IRL and online, to make inroads on the He-Man Boys Club Encyclopedia. You might want to go into my Twitter feed to look for one near you.

I did want to lift one comment into this post because I thought it was so interesting. @kosboot writes:

One major, major point that Claire Potter does not mention (I feel it almost invalidates her article) is to remember that Wikipedia is a social network.  If you’re invited over to someone’s house, do you immediately help yourself to food and start changing the furniture?  No of course not – you’d consider it an affront to the host.

Now think of Wikipedia in a similar manner.If you don’t become part of that social network BEFORE you make edits, you’re going to perceive any revisions to your edits with disdain and possibly anger and frustration (wasted emotions that could be prevented).  All the Wikipedia groups I participate in really discuss and ruminate over every doubtful or controversial edit that is made, or provide a reason why they change things.  They often try to contact the person who makes the changes (and unless you log in with your username, you won’t see them).  It would be so much more helpful to newbies if they got on to the social network and watched for a week before attempting to change anything — and talk about the change they want to make and hear from others why it is or is not a good idea.

Identifying Wikipedia as a social network is brilliant, I think. It’s perfectly obvious, but I had not understood it on my own — and it is a perfect lens on how institutional sexism/racism/homophobia works. All institutions — whether they are encyclopedias or academic departments – are also social networks.  You can see my full response in the post.

I received another wonderful response via email from Mary J. McNamee, Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “I read your piece in the Chronicle about looking for women at the Selma March,” she writes.

This march took place when I was an undergraduate at Fontbonne College.  I have always been proud that Fontbonne College, a private “girls’ school”  sent two faculty members, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, to the March.  Sr. Ernest Marie, (Roberta Schmidt) and Sr. Thomas Marguerite (Rosemary Flanigan) to the march.  Their story is told in the documentary Sisters at Selma.*

I had the pleasure of having Sr. Thomas Marguerite as a teacher in high school (English Composition) and in college (philosophy).  She still ranks as the best teacher I have ever had, and at our recent reunion—this fact was reiterated by other members of my class.

She is an amazing woman who should be better known.  She has finally retired from her Center for Practical Bioethics and Policy, but I’m sure she’s as sharp as a tack and still hunting down injustice and the ethically challenged.

Caroline S. Emmons, professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, who is currently at work on a biography of civil rights activists Ruby Hurley, writes about the reasons that women are sometimes invisible in the history of iconic events like the Selma March. “I was especially interested in your latest post,” she writes, “since it touches on some issues I’m dealing with in my own research.”

I’m working on a biography of Ruby Hurley, who was head of the NAACP Southeastern Regional Office from 1951-1978—-an amazingly long career in such a difficult position. The fact that she has been omitted from so many works on the movement is a major aspect of my investigation of her life—-but I think it is important to remember that her omission, and that of other women leaders of the movement, at least partly results from the ways in which the narrative of the movement has developed. Wikipedia reflects that narrative but did not necessarily create it. You raise a great example of this: Hurley WAS at Selma for the third and biggest march that occurred later that month (and pretty much every other major event of the movement), and had this to say about the photo opp moments:

She said she was maneuvered through the crowd to the rostrum where I could not be ignored and was subsequently invited to join the group at the head of the March. . . We did all that we could to let the world know that the NAACP was in Alabama, our critics and opponents notwithstanding.”

It says a lot of about the culture of the movement by this time that a woman who had been in the trenches for many years, present at so many pivotal moments, still had to insist she “not be ignored.” In other words, the paternalistic culture that pervaded the top civil rights leadership began the process of exclusion at the time of these events, making it easier and more likely for historians, or Wikipedia entry writers, or whomever, to exclude her from future accounts. Believe me, I have no desire to defend Wikipedia—-but the example you use poses some complicated questions of how particular versions of events get passed on and reinforced. Also complicating matters is the fact that Hurley, like Ella Baker and others (usually women), promoted grassroots leadership and often deliberately obscured her own agency to promote the efforts of local leaders. Do we “blame” Wikipedia for these omissions? Maybe historians also have to share the blame for accepting traditional narratives and making it easy for Wikipedia to regurgitate them.

All of these comments raise interesting points for me about Wikipedia as a kind of intellectual borderland that requires our attention, not as another realm for intellectuals to colonize and professionalize, but as a place for historians to interact with the public, and public memory on its own terms.

Readers?

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*For women religious, including Sister Mary Paul Geck, Convent Superior and principal of St. Elizabeth’s School for African Americans in Selma, see Amy L. Koehlinger, The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in The 1960s (Harvard University Press, 2007.)

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