by Nathalie Collida and Andreas Kolbe
With research contributions from Delicious carbuncle and Eric Barbour
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April 29, 2013
Amanda Filipacchi’s New York Times article about Wikipedia’s ghettoization of female novelists finally shone the spotlight on some of the rampant sexism that pervades almost every corner of the online “encyclopaedia”. Filipacchi said she had “noticed something strange on Wikipedia”:
It appears that gradually, over time, editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory. So far, female authors whose last names begin with A or B have been most affected, although many others have, too. The intention appears to be to create a list of “American Novelists” on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men.
So in Wikipedia, US-born female writers were no longer listed in the “American novelists” category, but instead confined to a pigeonhole labelled “American women novelists”. Until Filipacchi’s article appeared, there was no corresponding category for “American men novelists” – although one was then hastily created. At the time of writing, it contained links to a proud 104 biographies of male writers, but was also nominated for deletion.
The controversy received a new impetus a few days later, when Filipacchi published a follow-up in the New York Times, noting that her Wikipedia biography had suddenly come in for “special attention”:
As soon as the Op-Ed article appeared, unhappy Wikipedia editors pounced on my Wikipedia page and started making alterations to it, erasing as much as they possibly could without (I assume) technically breaking the rules. They removed the links to outside sources, like interviews of me and reviews of my novels. Not surprisingly, they also removed the link to the Op-Ed article. At the same time, they put up a banner at the top of my page saying the page needed “additional citations for verifications.” Too bad they’d just taken out the useful sources. In 24 hours, there were 22 changes to my page. Before that, there had been 22 changes in four years.
Andrew Leonard’s article for Salon, “Wikipedia’s shame”, went so far as to state that rather than sexism, Wikipedia’s “real corruption is the lust for revenge”. He quoted a bizarre rant from a Wikipedian named “Qworty” who had begun to edit Filipacchi’s biography, as well as articles on her novels:
The bloody p.o.s. New York Times supposedly employs fact checkers, but they have allowed this incompetent woman to libel Wikipedia not once, but two times. They owe Wikipedia two separate retractions. They have no journalistic integrity whatsofuckingever. They are nothing better than a blog, a barrel full of dog feces offered to the world as the “truth.” [...] The New York Times has a vested interest in trying to undermine Wikipedia. For one thing, the Times has only 600,000 digital subscribers, which makes it a piece-of-shit website in terms of numbers. On Sundays, its biggest day, the Times adds another 1.4 million readers in its paper edition, for a total of 2 million. Meanwhile, HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE are reading you and me on Wikipedia EVERY DAY. You can see why the Times feels it has a very very short and stubby and ugly little penis compared with us. This is the real reason why they want to run baseless articles slamming us. Because we are the future and they are already the distant past.
(Our Wikipedian seemed to have forgotten that all of Wikipedia is only an aggregation of “reliable sources”, like The New York Times, and that without such sources, there would be no crowdsourced Wikipedia.)
Of course, female American novelists are not the only notable women writers on the receiving end of Wikipedia’s demographic peculiarities.
Writing while black
Take Dr. Maya Angelou. Her Wikipedia biography is a “featured article”, an honour bestowed on a tiny percentage of the over four million entries on the site. Yet Dr. Angelou is not categorized among “American poets”, but appears in the categories for “American women poets” and “African-American women poets” (the latter of course a subcategory of “American women poets”). According to the logic espoused by Wikipedia contributors such as John Pack Lambert, a student and devout Mormon who took a leading role in initiating the exodus of women novelists’ biographies from the American novelists category, this type of double categorization is actually wrong: by his and others’ logic, Angelou should only be in the most narrow subcategory, “African-American women poets”, i.e. a double ghetto twice removed from the main category, “American poets”, which is populated by such luminaries as Walt Whitman. Being white and male, Whitman of course is in no danger of forced exodus to a subcategory.
It’s different for black writers: James Baldwin for example, one of America’s most highly regarded novelists of the 20th century, is categorised among “African-American novelists” and various other “African-American” categories, but fails to make the cut to “American novelists”. Perhaps to make up for that, he is categorised among “American socialists” and “American tax resisters”, where his race seems to present less of an obstacle to top billing.
Another example of how poorly female African-American intellectuals are covered on Wikipedia is the biography of Dr. Geneva Smitherman, an expert on language rights and racial politics. For well over a year and a half, her three-sentence Wikipedia article, which has knocked all more comprehensive sources about her off the top spot in Google, listed none of her books and other publications but included the following hoax statement, inserted by a Wikipedia editor with a special sense of humour: “In Honor of her work, Michigan State University has a statue set outside of the Library of her holding a book.”
Wikipedia: reams of discussion
Image credit: © virtusincertus / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Filipacchi’s article, and the resulting avalanche of press coverage strongly and unanimously agreeing with her, had the desired effect in that Wikipedians started discussing, at great length, whether the category “American women novelists” should be kept or canned. The discussion began badly: new editors who had come to participate after having read about the controversy elsewhere were quickly put in their place and had their votes struck. And then the Wikipedia colossus lurched into motion, if motion is the correct word to describe endless discussion without any actual result. To date, that particular discussion – only one of several on the topic in Wikipedia – comprises approximately 20,000 words. That is at least the length of a novella, if not an actual novel.
Several journalists commenting on the categorisation controversy have noted that the whole situation would probably never have arisen if Wikipedia had a healthy demographic balance. Who writes Wikipedia is important: the site is dominated by young white males, with the median age estimated to be somewhere in the low to mid-twenties. White male thoughtlessness can be as effective at instituting bias, sexism and racism as actual malice.
Woman defined by man
Wikipedian and academic Adrianne Wadewitz describes this well in a piece on the website of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), an initiative associated with Duke University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute, giving the example of Sandra Fluke:
Every edit on Wikipedia is political. While Wikipedians pride themselves on remaining objective and neutral, it is impossible to remain so and the presentation of contemporary events puts this into high relief. In February 2012, Sandra Fluke testified before Congressional Democrats about women’s reproductive rights, for which she was viciously attacked by Rush Limbaugh. Within four days of her testimony, a Wikipedia article was created for her. This is one of Wikipedia’s strengths – its ability to be up-to-date. However, within five minutes of being created, the article was nominated for “speedy deletion” for “no indication of importance” (this process allows Wikipedians to delete obvious spam articles). It remained an article, passing this test, but was nominated two hours later through a more rigorous deletion process, in which Wikipedians would debate the merits of the article for a week. Fluke was considered non-notable or notable only because Rush Limbaugh had attacked her. In the end, her biographical article was merged with the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy article. For three and a half months on Google, the first Google hit for Sandra Fluke’s name was Wikipedia’s article on the controversy. At that time, the Sandra Fluke article was recreated and she was deemed notable enough to have her own article.
Wikipedia’s rules are not neutral or objective, however much Wikipedians may wish them to be – they have very real political consequences. For three and a half months, Wikipedia allowed Sandra Fluke to be defined by Rush Limbaugh’s wildly inappropriate and derogatory comments, rather than by her own life story, and helped fuel an irrelevant news story. This is one small example of how every choice Wikipedia editors make on the encyclopedia shapes the world’s knowledge and thus who is editing the encyclopedia is of paramount importance.
According to a more recent piece by Wadewitz in response to the categorisation controversy, many women’s biographies in Wikipedia are below par. To her, Charlotte Lennox exemplifies the Wikipedia biography of a woman writer:
This is a typical biography of a woman writer – it has an unreferenced “Life” section and a “Works” section that consists only of a list. While the article does – surprisingly for Wikipedia – describe the relationship between Lennox’s economic status and how she made her way as a woman writer with some detail, it does not explore the themes and styles of her works at all – a reader will not come away from this article understanding what kind of writer Lennox was. Also, much of Lennox’s life and works are discussed in terms of male writers. While their role is important in her life, Lennox’s own life almost disappears in this article.
In World of Wikipedia, the only good woman is a dead woman
If the above has failed to convince you that women are given a raw deal on Wikipedia, try the biographies for female journalists. Most of the young men responsible for writing the bulk of Wikipedia’s high-visibility articles would not want to be seen dead generating content about women who shape our understanding of the world in more accomplished ways, at least not while these “female biographical subjects” are alive. However, the site has a number of contributors who specialise in scouring the obituaries in order to create what is known in Wikipedia parlance as “stubs”, i.e. minimalist biographies, of the recently deceased. Thus, it comes as no surprise that renowned war correspondent Marie Colvin did not have a Wikipedia biography until she was killed on 22 February 2012.
Similarly, you may be forgiven for thinking that eminent Canadian rocket scientist Yvonne Brill would have been notable enough to qualify for a Wikipedia biography while she was alive. You may be wrong. Brill’s Wikipedia entry was created the day after she died. Currently referenced to just nine sources, Brill’s biography is shorter than that of Wikipedia insider Sarah Stierch, whose lavishly referenced article even mentions Stierch’s pioneering early work as a local DJ and make-up artist. At least Wikipedia is able to look after its few female power players. Stierch is one of five women whose biography is featured in the category Wikipedia personalities – yes, that exists.
The Nazi hunter not worthy of her own Wikipedia biography
Those of you interested in how Nazi war criminals were brought to justice will undoubtedly have heard of Beate Klarsfeld, the fierce German-born activist who gained international recognition for tracking down monsters like Klaus Barbie. But while Klarsfeld, who was nominated to run for the German presidency in 2012, has her own biography on the French, Hebrew, German and numerous other international versions of Wikipedia, the English Wikipedia chronicles her life in a joint biography for her husband and herself. Add to this that English-speaking readers unfamiliar with Klarsfeld’s achievements will be treated to a biased piece which includes a section proclaiming that the highly-decorated activist is “unpopular in Germany” and that “Not everyone agrees that the wartime events should be prosecuted in the way that Klarsfeld pursues.” Both statements, by the way, are completely unsourced.
Just as well that there is one area in which women will always receive ample attention from the Wikipedia boy’s club: articles dealing with sexuality. Take the numerous biographies of female porn performers. As noted in James Gleick’s article covering the controversy for The New York Review of Books, they actually outnumber Wikipedia articles on women poets.* Highly educational entries such as the ones on Facial (sex act) and Tea bag (sexual act) all feature images of submissive women, and women only, although these sex acts are by no means limited to heterosexual couples. The Wikipedia article Gag (BDSM), meanwhile, takes this to new extremes, featuring ten depictions of women, all gagged, versus two of men. And how could anybody possibly object to the Wikipedia articles on sexually transmitted disease and gonorrhea being illustrated with a World War II poster featuring the demure face of an exquisitely-coiffed woman and the caption “She may look clean – but.” Sounds like a wonderful tagline to advertise Jimbo Wales’ male-dominated encyclopaedia.