Wikipedia is easily one of the most popular sites in the world today. According to Alexa rankings, it is the fifth most popular site in the world. While it may not be considered a valid academic or professional source, it has entrenched itself as the go-to reference for laypersons. Whether it is used for stalking celebrities or for quickly checking historical and scientific factoids during arguments with friends, it has carved a place for itself in the intellectual ethos of the internet, and by extension, society.
It matters, therefore, that the volunteer-edited encyclopedia presents a balanced editorial collective. However, studies estimate that only about 16 percent of all Wikipedia editors are female, and the number goes down to only six percent when counting editors that make more than 500 edits.
Why are there so few entries for notable historical women on Wikipedia? The problem is twofold: First, Wikipedia’s editorial culture is overwhelmingly male, and therefore defaults to covering more male than female figures. Second, the practice of history at large is stuck in the past.
The meta Wikipedia entry on the site’s own gender bias attributes this imbalance to several factors, citing former Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner and comments from female editors on the site. The factors are not unlike similar factors keeping women out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields and include cultural misogyny on the site, particularly technical and scientific pages, lack of free time, and a concern that pages clearly edited by women or devoted to a single woman will be edited and taken down.
The latter has been proven time and again, such as when female American novelists were relegated to the “American Women Novelists” page instead of the general “American Novelists” page, the de facto page on the subject, giving male novelists significantly more exposure.
Similarly, pages about female historical figures are more likely to be edited or removed after being deemed not significantly notable enough to warrant an entry. According to a 2015 study, Western history pages, which are the most common on English-language Wikipedia, are comprised mostly of men after the 17th century. Of the top 100 figures represented, only 5.2 are female.
This problem cannot however, be attributed solely to Wikipedia’s systemic sexism. The historical community itself has not evolved enough in its coverage of women, nor in its approach to the study of alternative histories, and neither history academia nor Wikipedia can wait for the other to adapt.
Wikipedia’s current original research policy states that “research that consists of collecting and organizing material from existing sources within the provisions of this and other content policies is fundamental to writing an encyclopedia.” Further, it states “If no reliable third-party sources can be found on a topic, Wikipedia should not have an article about it. If you discover something new, Wikipedia is not the place to announce such a discovery.”
Herein lies the problem. This policy is predicated on an outdated system of historical research, one that must be updated simultaneously within the historical community itself. Alternative histories—of women, people of color, LGBT people—have only been interrogated in the past few decades. As a result, much of what is being learned is only available as original research.
The directive of “collecting and organizing material from existing sources” assumes that there are multiple sources to collect and organize. This is not merely a Wikipedia problem, to be sure. Many historical female figures may only have a few (if any) sources dedicated to their lives, and the scholarly community of history is slow to catch up. Scholarly history practices need to be updated and hasten to uncover more alternative histories, so that there may be multiple sources on a female figure to “collect and organize” into a Wikipedia entry.
In this way, “Wikipedia is not friendly to the state of feminist historical recovery,” says Gina Walker, a professor of women’s studies and alternative intellectual histories at The New School. To counteract the lack of data on women in history, she is working on The New Historia, a historical project dedicated to recovering accounts of women’s lives throughout history.
What makes this project unique, according to Walker, is that it does not only cover “firsts.” That is, the focus is not only on women who were “not just the first, best, last, or most tortured.” Those women are important, critical even, to the study of history, but they are not enough. Men who make incremental advancements still garner a place in our textbooks, and this is why we end up thinking that there just aren’t “enough” women to study or cover. There are enough women, we just have to adjust how we think about them.
“There has never been a traditional version of the past that includes women,” says Professor Walker, “and that recognizes and incorporates their presence and their contributions in every field of human endeavor. Whether it’s history, dentistry, law, medicine, journalism–women’s production of knowledge and the experience of their lives has never been factored in.”
Walker believes the project will inspire women to learn more about female legacies, increasing women’s participation in projects like Wikipedia and helping erode its gender imbalance. It’s hard, she says, because “every woman and girl has to reinvent the spinning wheel for herself. It’s why we struggle to be comfortable in the world. Why we’re often very isolated and alienated and lonely. Because we don’t live in a world predicated on knowledge that includes us. We are squatters in a mental architecture that isn’t made for us.”