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Prikipedia? Or, Looking for the Women on Wikipedia

March 10, 2013, 7:09 pm

50s-housewifeTo celebrate women’s history month, I have decided to tweet an historical fact about a woman, or women, every day in March. Silly? Perhaps. Fun? Why yes: I’m enjoying it enormously. Women’s history rocks.

So far, women as different as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the Empress Josephine Bonaparte, and Svetlana Alliluyeva have appeared in the Twitter feed to the right of this post. I find these women by simply entering the date in Wikipedia’s search box: a list of events, births and deaths show up in an entry devoted to that day. Presto!

Well, not so fast.

You might be surprised to learn how very few items in these lists name women as historically significant figures.  Sometimes there are three or four women named; sometimes it is only one.  One day there were absolutely no women listed and I had to get creative: I picked a major civil rights event and did some newspaper research to discover a woman who was at the scene. I figured that out of 600 people marching to Selma, one had to be a woman, even though all the leaders photographed were men. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to name a woman who was at the scene during a historical riot, or at a moment in a revolution, but you would be wrong. Most accounts of major historical events that I have looked up in Wikipedia also include no women as actors.

So what’s up with this sausage party, as blogpal Historiann would call it?

It is no secret that Wikipedians are mostly male.  Two years ago, Noem Cohen pointed to the fact that, according to the Wikimedia Foundation’s own study, only 13 percent of contributors to the site were female (New York Times, January 31 2011). “Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation,” Cohen wrote, “has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but she is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women.” A little over a year later the foundation came out with new numbers: after this big push from the top, only one out of ten Wikipedians was a woman.

I find it a slightly dubious assumption that Wikipedia’s poor showing in the gender department simply reflects a computer world that is hostile to women. While gaming is notoriously misogynistic, both in its content and in its playing practices, other aspects of the computer world are not. Female journalists seem to take to the Interwebz as easily as their male colleagues. Female users of Facebook overtook male users in 2009, and in 2012 the typical Twitter user was a woman with an iPhone. Women have defined whole realms of the blogosphere, most prominently mommy blogging and food blogging. In my own field,  digital humanities and digital history projects tends to employ roughly equal numbers of women and men (see the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, for example), and women were in on the ground floor at H-Net.

So what explains this bizarre imbalance on Wikipedia? Sarah Stierch, 2012 Wikipedian in residence at the Smithsonian, seemed to think that the kinds of men who are motivated to write and edit articles want to maintain a traditional intellectual hierarchy that positions white men firmly at the center of world history. In “How Many Women Does It Take To Change Wikipedia?” (Smithsonian.com, April 4 2012), Stierch argued that the consensus view among male Wikipedians reflects a vestigial consensus within the historical profession itself: that the proper status of women in history is, to paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, prone.

One of the biggest complaints we get is that women who are involved in science don’t always have a great chance of having their articles saved on Wikipedia, because people don’t think they’re notable enough,” Stierch says. “But if you’re in the Smithsonian Archives, you’re notable. And I’m so happy that the Archives wants to work with us to document that.

Here’s a wild fact. At a Women in Science edit-a-thon at the Smithsonian led by Stierch, new articles about women scientists were nominated for deletion even as they were being posted.

However, as Joe Hill and his girlfriend Hilda Erickson used to say: “Don’t get mad. Organize!” I would like to suggest that at every history conference in the foreseeable future, there should be a women’s history Wikipedia Room, open to women and men, to change the state of play in this important online resource. Furthermore, each of us teaching women’s history should organize students next March to not only post new articles about women, but correct existing articles to reflect the presence of women at major historical events.

Are you with me?

Update: Adeline Koh shares details of a virtual event organized by The Crunk Feminist Collective here. (HT)

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