Wikipedia is one of our most important sources of information today. In a Google search, it is often the first hit. Wikipedia is usually the easiest means of accessing information and, as such, it tends to color our first impressions; oftentimes, it may be our only source of information. What’s represented is important, of course, but it’s also important to ask what’s missing.
And what’s missing on Wikipedia is women’s voices. An official reporting of Wikipedia membership composition tells us that, “Among respondents only 12.64% of contributors are female.” And another review of the database reveals hundreds of names of women artists whose entries either need to be created or expanded.
It was in response to this lack of representation that an annual and international event was created, the Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Held in early March, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Edit-a-thon is a self-described “campaign to improve coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia, and to encourage female editorship.” It has developed a strong presence here in the Twin Cities. This year, volunteers gathered on March 5 at the Central Library in Minneapolis. And as part of a class project this semester, each student in Dr. Emily James’s “Literature by Women” course participated in the cause.
Each of us wrote and edited entries on women and women’s issues that we felt could be better represented. Throughout class this semester, we’ve been exploring issues of gender representation and voice, and this was a chance for us to see these things in practice.
It was an endeavor we met with varying levels of success. Anne Youngblood ran into some difficulties with her entry on Wisconsin pioneer and writer Elizabeth Baird. For starters, there was the lack of information anywhere. “It was hard because I think it was the most minor figure I’ve researched on the Internet,” said Youngblood. “What I did find was good, but it wasn’t like Michael Jackson with a million hits.” And then, of course, there were the technical difficulties. Youngblood’s efforts were initially rejected by Wikipedia’s roving censors, by way of a simple notification that popped up on her screen.
For others, the project went fairly well. Meaghan Scott wrote an entry on Immaculée Ilibagiza, Rwandan author of Left to Tell and a survivor of genocide. Scott’s own editing experience went smoothly. “It was actually pretty easy,” Scott said of her research on Ilibagiza’s book.
My own experience was initially fraught with difficulties. Despite being a prominent author, there isn’t a lot of information available about Mary Pope Osborne (of Magic Tree House fame) on the web. Gathering reliable sources of information was the first difficulty. Sure, there was her main website, with its single-paragraph biography, but that hardly dealt with the deep stuff. I had to dig pretty far into the web for the more concrete details about Osborne’s personal life history.
With the extensive amount of patrolling bots and editors, writing for Wikipedia is a bit harder than we might have initially expected. The difficulty of writing for Wikipedia is itself similar to the difficulty women had in getting heard in the first place. Authorship is largely male and white. The most extensive articles are largely about male artists and public figures. To break into either of these spheres is to go against the status quo of the database. And it’s only natural that Wikipedia and its editors might be a little watchful of attempts to change, as necessary as they may be.
The fact is, women’s voices are largely new. They’ve been unheard for centuries, and we’re really only now getting to experience a world with them in it. Initiatives like the Edit-a-thon are about encouraging us to listen to these voices.
It’s hard to speak for a group of twenty people, but I’m confident in saying that I know that each of us appreciated this chance to narrow the gender gap and participate in the cause of equal female representation online. Many thanks to Dr. James and those helpers at Wikipedia for the opportunity, and I encourage readers to increase representation in public databases like Wikipedia. Because every voice deserves a chance to be heard.
Joseph “Joe” Molohon is a senior majoring in English (Writing Emphasis) and minoring in Communications and Journalism. He is also an executive member of Purple Gloves and an editor for the Summit Avenue Review this year. Future plans include work on a funded research project in the summer and grad school next year.