How Women’s Historians can help close the Wikipedia Gender Gap

via Cliotropic, who comments on the recent report that only about 15% of Wikipedia contributors are women. Cliotropic notes that ” Wikipedia’s user-demographics data is entirely voluntary and that many women, offered a chance not to identify themselves by sex, avoid doing so. Sometimes it’s an effort to avoid harassment, and sometimes it’s to avoid the women-targeted ads. So their data may well be off.”

Related to this gender gap in who writes for Wikipedia is the woefully inadequate coverage of women’s history in Wikipedia — not surprising since women’s history, after decades of research and teaching, is underrepresented in both higher education and K-12 history teaching.  Cliotropic says, “if you teach history courses on women, gender, or sexuality, or on the history of any racial or ethnic minority in the United States, it’s worth considering adding a Wikipedia assignment to your syllabus.”

One of the commenters suggests using Jeremy Boggs’  “stub-expanding” course assignment for his U.S. survey course  here -but there isn’t a stub section for women’s history!

It’s too late for me to assign this for my women’s history class this semester but I think I will take Cliotropic’s suggestions in the Fall.

Meanwhile, I think it’s a good idea for those of us who are professional women’s historians to think about investing our time in improving the representation of women’s history on Wikipedia.  Shelby Knox’s comments to my post about her Radical Women’s history project reminded me that digital sources like Wikipedia and “this date in history” sites are the point of entry for many young women, and young people in general.  Of course, we would like them to use more authoritative sources like Notable American Women and Notable Black American Women, but that still means schlepping to a bricks and mortar library (assuming there is one close by that’s open regular hours and actually owns the books).  And, we academics are all familiar with Gerda Lerner’s 1975 essay in Feminist Studies that pointed out the limitations of “compensatory history” that simply looks at the “women worthies.”  Still, if “great women” is where our students and feminist activists like Knox are starting, then we have to meet them there.

What do others think?

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15 Comments

  1. I am completely opposed to involvement with wikipedia in any way. Why? Because I have no faith in the veracity of the entries. I have a little game I play with wikipedia. Every time I look at primary source material in an archive I check to see what wikipedia has said about that person or institution and I always find errors because wikipedia entries are based on secondary sources, many of them of little credibility (like popular tell all books). Wikipedia is based on exactly the kind of research we teach our students NOT to do. Research in history involves the careful analysis of primary sources in historical context. Wikipedia is creative writing by autodidacts. I tell students that if they cite or use wikipedia I will give their papers an F.

  2. Hi Janet,

    I understand your concerns but I start by having students read and discuss Roy Rosenzweig’s article on Wikipedia and how the accuracy of articles on average is no better or worse than Encyclopedia Britannica. Like other reference works, Wikipedia isn’t meant to be original research — in fact one of the pillars of Wikipedia is no original research.
    Like it or not, Wikipedia isn’t going away. I think it’s better to explain the limitations of tertiary sources of all kinds and why a good history paper must use primary and secondary sources, not just encyclopedia entries.

  3. Thanks for the signal boost. One reason there isn’t a stub section on women’s history is that there isn’t a dedicated WikiProject working on it (as far as I can find), and Wikipedia guidelines say that stubs can’t be legitimately created until there’s a demonstrated need of at least 100 articles within a project. But that too is under debate. But since you’re the second person to point out that there’s not a concerted effort on Wikipedia to build women’s history entries, I’ve proposed a Women’s History WikiProject. I don’t have a lot of time to contribute to building it up, but I’d love assistance in getting the ball rolling. Anyone who’s interested should show their support at the project proposal page linked above.

  4. I did some work on the Angela Davis article some years ago, working mostly from her autobiography. Much more could be done from better sources.

    Your contributions are greatly appreciated.

    Fred Bauder

  5. My students worked hard to discuss and understand why Kentucky women were left out of Wikipedia – and out of entries in Wikipedia focused on Kentucky history. Take a look at their work (so far) from last semester’s class at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:History_of_women_in_Kentucky. I hope more historians examine what an open learning environment is and can be… if trained historians ignore Wikipedia or GoogleBooks (and other versions of social networking sites where users can contribute new knowledge), this can only be to the detriment of us all. Historians have particular skills and experiences that are needed in the social networking space. This is as much a human rights issue as were the discussions about the creation of public libraries for the bolstering of a democratic society. The discipline of history is more than recitation of someone else’s thoughts and chronicles of events – how wonderful to imagine our discipline as a particularly critical one for the future of education and life long learning.

  6. I’m a pretty hardcore Wikipedian with a history background (working on a piece on the Woman’s Peace Party today). I agree with the appraisal that coverage of women’s history on Wikipedia is currently poor. Bear in mind, however, that the project is a work in progress and things can change rapidly.

    I very much favor college courses targeting their work towards the improvement of Wikipedia. There are guidelines, rules, and standards to be followed however, it’s not something that one can dive into without preparation. If anyone needs someone to consult with or advice or suggestions, don’t hesitate to write, I’d be happy to help.

    –tim

    MuatantPop@aol.com
    “Carrite” on Wikipedia

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