The news that optical physicist Donna Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page before winning the Nobel Prize in Physics brought renewed attention to Women in Red, a long-standing volunteer effort to add more biographies about women to the encyclopedia.
After the announcement, the Women in Red WikiProject had one of their best weeks ever, says Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, the co-founder of Women in Red.
“Statistics […] show an increase in the number of women’s biographies during the week immediately after the Nobel Prize announcement,” she said. “I’ve also seen a dramatic increase [in interest] on social media.”
The news that more people are interested in contributing biographies about women to Wikipedia is gratifying to Stephenson-Goodnight, who co-founded Women in Red in 2015 after learning that only 15 percent of biographies on Wikipedia at the time were about women. (That number has since jumped to 17.67 percent, meaning an average of 72 new articles on women were added to English Wikipedia every single day for the past 3.5 years.)
In the past three years, Women in Red has collaborated with outside institutions like museums and libraries that want to put on edit-a-thons, and developed lists of “redlinks”—non-existing Wikipedia articles—of women who should have material written about them. But the group doesn’t stop at biographies.
“Our scope includes women’s works (such as the paintings they painted, the schools the founded, the conferences they convened), as well as women’s issues (such as women’s suffrage and women’s health),” says Stephenson-Goodnight.
A helpful space for newcomers
Women in Red is known for helping newcomers navigate the technical rules of Wikipedia—which can be overwhelming for new contributors. Sue Barnum, a volunteer Librarian-in-Residence with Women in Red, points to the group’s friendly and helpful nature as a key reason why it has been so successful.
“We support one another and help each other with our articles, references and technical details. If you need help, we’re going to help or find someone who can,” she says. “I’ll try to help people get access to articles or books behind paywalls. Sometimes I’ll even go to nearby libraries to access the actual book to help people verify their sources if the book or journal is only available offline.”
The focus is on why women matter
Editor SusunW, a founding member of Women in Red, recently wrote an essay about why she focuses on writing about women on Wikipedia.
“I learn as much from writing women’s biographies as I impart from telling their stories,” she writes. “For example, in the pre-internet world, the international links between people and the organizations in which they participated were much stronger than you might imagine. The analytical part of researching the interconnections, and reward of working with editors who want to improve articles, is a motivating factor to me—as is the hope that the women in generations who follow will grow up knowing that women have always been actively involved in the world around them and were not passively allowing the world to go by.”
Making women—and their role in history—more visible is a motivating factor for many participants to Women in Red.
“I grew up believing that women didn’t do anything interesting,” says Barnum. “It’s sad that I believed that, because it isn’t true. I believed this because women’s contributions become invisible, especially after their deaths. There are many articles I’ve worked on where a woman was quite nationally famous during her lifetime, but after she dies, she somehow “fails” to make it into the canon that describes the subject she was involved in. This is really tragic and I’m glad that there are historians out there writing about women who have been hidden in history.”
You can make a difference
Inspired to join Women in Red? There are many ways to get involved. For starters, Women in Red has put together a primer for creating women’s biographies” and “ten Simple Rules for Creating Women’s Biographies”.
If you are looking for a place to jump in, Barnum recommends starting with the lists that Women in Red has put together on women that are notable by Wikipedia’s standards and who need biographies written about them.
“Pick someone from a subject area you enjoy writing about and then make sure you have several reliable sources to backup your writing,” she says.
SusunW adds that you don’t necessarily need to start with a full biography. “If there do not appear to be sufficient sources to add a standalone biography on a woman, she can be added to events she participated in and organizations she was involved with, provided reliable sourcing can confirm her activities.”
For example, if a woman participated in an academic conference, adding her name to the list of participants—with proper sourcing—may help someone write a biography about her at a later date.
And Stephenson-Goodnight says you can always update an existing article. “Add a reference, add an internal link to another article, fix the punctuation, or improve the opening paragraph,” she says.
If you need help
Don’t be overwhelmed if you start to edit and find yourself confused. There are many ways to get help! You can post on the talk page of Women in Red, as well as the talk pages for Rosie, Sue, and SusunW. (A talk page is like a message board where people communicate about a topic or article.)
“If you get stuck or have questions, remember that all of us were new once and others helped us, so we’re glad to respond to your questions,” says Stephenson-Goodnight. “You can also reach me via Twitter or Facebook or email.”
And if you’d rather work with people in person, there are opportunities for that too.
“If you live near a city which has a Wikimedia Affiliate (Chapter, Thematic Organization, or User Group), check in with them regarding their events schedule. There’s an international list available on this Meetup page. Or ask us at Women in Red to assist you in the search,” says Stephenson-Goodnight.
Helping beyond editing
And one last thing: you don’t need to edit Wikipedia to meaningfully contribute to Women in Red. You can tweet or post about new articles on social media (including the handle @WikiWomenInRed), help find archival material, or help access photos that are licensed properly.
“Having people who are willing to reach out to individuals to secure a license for a picture to be used on Commons is very helpful,” says Barnum. “Others may have access to archives or books that are offline and can help provide access to other editors.”
And your work—whether an edit, a tweet, or a photo—is meaningful, and makes a difference on Wikipedia.
“We are making a difference, one article at a time, making for incremental corrections to the systemic bias depicted in the written canon,” says Stephenson-Goodknight. “I can’t imagine doing anything more worthwhile with my free time.”
Interview by Melody Kramer, Senior Audience Development Manager, Communications