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Wikipedia’s culture of sexism – it’s not just for novelists.

by Nathalie Collida and Andreas Kolbe
With research contributions from Delicious carbuncle and Eric Barbour

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


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 FrenchHebrewGerman 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.

Sexyst time!

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.


Image credit: © virtusincertus / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

* UPDATE: Wikipedians investigating this claim have reported that at present, there are 1,193 biographies of women poets in Wikipedia vs. 1,079 biographies of female porn stars, meaning that the claim quoted in Gleick’s piece is narrowly false. However, the claim holds true for American biography subjects: Category:American female pornographic film actors contains 667 biographies, while Category:American women poets and its subcategories contain 416 biographies. UPDATE 2: Following further categorisation work on Wikipedia that ensured that women only categorised as American poets were also included in the American women poets category, there are now (September 2014) 1,450 women in the American women poets category vs. 582 in the American female pornographic film actors category. Yay!

28 comments to Wikipedia’s culture of sexism – it’s not just for novelists.

  • Rowena Galavitz

    I don´t get the subtitle: All your BLPs are belong to us. Is there an error there?

  • Nice write-up. Have to say, though, the saddest thing to me about Wikipedia’s sexism is that Wikipedia is by far the least sexist encyclopedia that has ever existed. So that sucks.

    Wiki’s processes may contain some of the same gender politics of yesteryear, but that I can look up certain female vocalists or writers or activists and find even a paragraph on them is something that did not always exist before Wikipedia. Plenty of those women, no matter how talented, often weren’t deemed important enough for inclusion, and of course that concept of “importance” has always been very closely tied to gender politics.

    I think the biggest problem with Wikipedia, and the number one reason people aren’t editing it like they used to, is that editing Wiki well is actually difficult. I don’t mean intellectually. I mean in terms of usability. There are so many style rules (and just plain old rules-rules) for so many tiny, inconsequential things that making simple sections can take an hour+ to do, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the environment and have to keep returning to the help guides. Then, if you screw something up, and someone higher up makes a quick decision to scrap everything, you feel like you’ve wasted your time. So why bother?

    This is one reason I think women haven’t edited Wiki as much. It’s just not seen as worth our time. (That said, I can’t explain why so many men think it’s worth theirs.) Wikimedia’s executive director, (ironically) a woman by the name of Sue Gardner, actually has a brilliant 2011 write-up about why she thinks women don’t edit Wiki as much as men.

    When more women edit Wikipedia, there will be greater gender equality. But if Wikipedia doesn’t sort out its editing process and make it more intuitive and more usable, very few people will ever edit it at all, except maybe to correct typos or add new, obscure pages.

  • Craig

    As a frequent Wikipedia contributor, I wish to note that while it’s surprising sometimes that notable people don’t actually have articles until after they die, sexism isn’t necessarily the primary motivator of that.

    Sometimes the media coverage that a person’s death generates causes one or more Wikipedians to notice that the person hadn’t actually been written about on Wikipedia previously, and thus leads to the creation of a new article — it’s certainly possible that the fact that the deceased notable was a woman may have *contributed* to their being overlooked, but it’s not the sole reason as the same thing has also happened to many men over the years as well.

    There’s as much or more of a perception problem here as a sexism one, in fact — due to the fact of what Wikipedia allows or disallows as reliable sources for its content, sometimes there aren’t very good sources readily available to actually write about a person until the burst of news coverage that greets their passing.

    This is really defined by laziness more than anything else, as Wikipedians have a distinct tendency of relying on sources that can be gathered quickly via a cursory Google search, rather than going to the library to dig out microfilms or books — and thus if the person hasn’t garnered a significant volume of media coverage within the narrow time period in which such content can be reliably expected to be published to the web, the person is running a much greater risk of not getting an article at all until their death results in a burst of renewed media attention. (A reliable source, for the record, is one in which the topic of the Wikipedia article is the *subject* of the source — so a news article *about* Marie Colvin would be a valid source, while a news article written *by* Marie Colvin about something else would not.)

    Wikipedia does have a lot of problems, I admit, and there’s a lot on there that I disagree with — but for every woman who didn’t get an article until she died there’s a man who didn’t get an article until he died either, so the problem is motivated less by sexism and more by laziness.

  • Great Article. After having read some of this discussion, I decided to investigate the problems further by doing some analysis on Wikidata. I produced a visualization of the Sex Ratios of Biography Articles, by Wikipedia language here .

  • Amanda Lupa

    “Stierch is one of five women whose biography is featured in the category Wikipedia personalities – yes, that exists.”

    Five, out of the 14 members of the category. That is not the 50-50 balance that would reflect more closely the gender proportion of the population, but it’s a better ratio than we’re led to believe, and better than the male-female ratio among editors as a whole. Not defending the culture of sexism: just saying that distortions detract from the point by raising the question of whether the criticism is overblown.

  • HollyZen

    While I mostly agree with the article, and indeed with the mission of the site, you did not address the issue of remedy at all. I will also object to one criticism.

    The ills described are easily remedied by having a few hundred fair minded people out of 330 million Americans join Wikipedia. There is strength in numbers! If two women, present or past college students, would email two of their friends, and each of them email two friends, and so on, and so on . . . . Wikipedia is simply the product of relatively few people (35,000 for the entire English language Wikipedia, according to The Economist) who make it their hobby to edit it — these are the “editors of Wikipedia”. The sexism regarding articles about American women intellectuals could quickly be reduced if a cohort of American women with bachelor’s degrees in English literature or feminist studies would become editors. If each person (woman or man) in the cohort would weekly rewrite just two badly written paragraphs, or add two footnotes, or verify two footnotes, place two flags calling for footnotes, or expand one stub article, and if they would also network with each other at article talk pages and at project pages, then progress would be almost swift.

    While Wikipedia is not user friendly, you can learn the ropes within a month. In order to network, there are two things in particular that you should do: look for “Requests for Comment” (RfC) and read Project Pages. It is discouraging when you put out an RfC and hardly anybody responds and those who do are not among those with an abiding interest in the topic. This would not befall you if 500, or even 100, like minded activists joined in a single month and persevered.

    Bear in mind that the trolls and bullies are a minority of the most active users. Their disproportionate power derives not just from their aggressiveness, but from their PARTICIPATION. They make 10,000 edits in the space of a few years.

    I am disappointed with the writers of this article over the passage about brand new joiners having had their votes “struck down”. Edit disputes at Wikipedia are rarely settled by voting in any case, but whatever the facts were here, brand new editors should NOT be allowed to immediately sway articles (unless of course there’s no opposition). If you’re serious about eliminating sexism at Wikipedia, you ought to make Wikipedia your hobby for months or years. AGAIN, that’s how Wikipedia articles get made. A single editor could easily make ten substantive edits in a single hour. There are millions of unemployed and underemployed educated women (and men) with time on their hands.

    • Dragos

      Check this study: “Debates rarely conclude on the basis of merit: typically they are ended by outside intervention, sheer exhaustion, or the evident numerical dominance of one group.” It doesn’t sound too friendly for brand new joiners. If you have time on your hands, you may not want to waste it in online debates.

  • Carptrash

    Wikipedia gets to reflect not only sexism as it currently exists in the United States, but also as it it in the rest of the world. I am one of the editor who on occasion edits in the shark filled water of gender articles. I mostly enjoy that several of the males that I disagree with call me “she” probably because “You’re a girl’ is the worst insult that they can come up with. But please remember, while dishing out lots of what’s wrong with wikipedia, that it is created by editors who take the time and make the effort to edit there. I created (probably not original) the phrase, ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” for just this sort of issue. You’ve brought a problem. I don’t really want to hear it. The solution? Become an editor. Einar aka ~~~~ (how wikipedians sign their names)

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  • girlpower

    Duh, I note women are defined by their marriages and children and often have their skills cut down for no reason.