Last week the New York Times published an Op-Ed from author Amanda Filipacchi headlined Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists, in which she criticized Wikipedia for moving some authors from the “American novelists” category into a sub-category called “American women novelists.” Because there is no subcategory for “American male novelists,” Filipacchi saw the change as reflecting a sexist double standard, in which ‘male’ is positioned as the ungendered norm, with ‘female’ as a variant.
I completely understand why Filipacchi was outraged. She saw herself, and Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Judy Blume, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Higgins Clark, and many others, seemingly downgraded in the public record and relegated to a subcategory that she assumed would get less readership than the main one. She saw this as a loss for American women novelists who might otherwise be visible when people went to Wikipedia looking for ideas about who to hire, to honor, or to read.
In the days following, other publications picked up the story, and Filipacchi wrote two followup pieces — one describing edits made to her own biography on Wikipedia following her first op-ed, and another rebutting media stories that had positioned the original categorization changes as the work of a lone editor.
For me–as a feminist Wikipedian–reading the coverage has been extremely interesting. I agree with many of the criticisms that have been raised (as I think many Wikipedians do), and yet there are important points that I think have been missing from the media discussions so far.
In Wikipedia, like any large-scale human endeavor, practice often falls short of intent.
Individuals make mistakes, but that doesn’t and shouldn’t call into question the usefulness or motivations of the endeavor as a whole. Since 2011, Wikipedia has officially discouraged the creation of gender-specific subcategories, except when gender is relevant to the category topic. (One of the authors of the guideline specifically noted that it is clear that any situation in which women get a gendered subcategory while men are left in the ungendered parent category is unacceptable.) In other words, the very situation Filipacchi decries in her op-ed has been extensively discussed and explicitly discouraged on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is a continual work-in-progress. It’s never done.
In her original op-ed, Filipacchi seems to assume that Wikipedians are planning to move all the women out of the American Novelists category, leaving all the men. But that’s not the case. There’s a continuous effort on Wikipedia to refine and revise categories with large populations, and moving out the women from American Novelists would surely have been followed by moving out the satirical novelists, or the New York novelists, or the Young Adult novelists. I’d argue it’s still an inappropriate thing to do, because women are 50 percent of the population, not a variant to the male norm. Nevertheless the move needs to be understood not as an attack on women, but rather, in the context of continuous efforts to refine and revise all categories.
Wikipedia is a reflection of the society that produces it.
Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, and as such it reflects the cultural biases and attitudes of the general society. It’s important to say that the people who write Wikipedia are a far larger and vastly more diverse group than the staff of any newsroom or library or archive, past or present. That’s why Wikipedia is bigger, more comprehensive, up-to-date and nuanced, compared with any other reference work. But with fewer than one in five contributors being female, gender is definitely Wikipedia’s weak spot, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it would fall victim to the same gender-related errors and biases as the society that produces it.
Are there misogynists on Wikipedia? Given that anyone with internet access can edit it, and that there are roughly 80,000 active editors (those who make at least 5 edits per month on Wikimedia projects), it would be absurd to claim that Wikipedia is free of misogyny. Are there well-intentioned people on Wikipedia accidentally behaving in ways that perpetuate sexism? Of course. It would be far more surprising if Wikipedia were somehow free of sexism, rather than the reverse.
Which brings me to my final point.
It’s not always the case, but in this instance the system worked. Filipacchi saw something on Wikipedia that she thought was wrong. She drew attention to it. Now it’s being discussed and fixed. That’s how Wikipedia works.
The answer to bad speech is more speech. Many eyes make all bugs shallow. If you see something on Wikipedia that irks you, fix it. If you can’t do it yourself, the next best thing is to do what Filipacchi did — talk about it, and try to persuade other people there’s a problem. Wikipedia belongs to its readers, and it’s up to all of us to make it as good as it possibly can be.
Sue Gardner, Executive Director, Wikimedia Foundation