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Four years ago, novelist Amanda Filipacchi noticed that female writers were being moved from Wikipedia’s “American Novelists” category to a separate subcategory. In a New York Times op-ed, she wryly suggested that perhaps there should be another subcategory just for men. Within the next few days, angry Wikipedia editors responded by deleting information and sources from her personal Wikipedia page.
Despite the backlash, Filipacchi’s op-ed made a positive impact, and Wikipedia has since changed its rules about categorizing American novelists. But that doesn’t mean that sexism isn’t still a problem on the site. In fact, Wikipedia’s continued gender bias is the reason that the National Museum of Women in the Arts recently held an Edit-a-Thon to help train female editors and improve Wikipedia’s content about women and the arts.
The museum’s meetup on Saturday was part of a larger group of Art+Feminism Edit-a-Thons that take place around the world every March. The Smithsonian American Art Museum also will a hold an Art+Feminism Edit-a-Thon on March 25, and the University of Maryland will hold one on March 28. According to Sarah Osborne Bender, director of NMWA’s library and research center, her museum has participated in these Edit-a-Thons ever since they started in 2014.
“It’s a way for us to involve the community in addressing the gender disparity in the art world,” she says. “And as a librarian and an information professional, it’s a way to educate the public about such a popular resource and to show them that they could have responsible power in its creation and maintenance.”
Forty-four people showed up to NMWA’s Edit-a-Thon. Most were women, and the age range was quite mixed. Some had been Wikipedia editors for years and attended other meetups, while others hadn’t even set up an editor account yet. A few said they’d participated in Edit-a-Thons about women in science, and so decided to check out this event too. Others said that they’d simply seen the event online and thought it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do.
For the first part of the Edit-a-Thon, Bender went over some basic rules about writing, selecting sources, and editing, and explained how to navigate Wikipedia’s interface. Though she gave the participants some guidelines about what kinds of edits they could make, everyone was free to choose whatever they wanted to work on, even if it strayed from the day’s topic.
“We’re not so prescriptive about what people work on because I think that’s part of the ethos of Wikipedia,” she says. “As the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we have an interest in women being better represented. But the effort is also to train more women to be editors.” According to Wikipedia’s page about “Gender bias on Wikipedia” (for real), between 8.5 and 16 percent of the site’s editors identify as female. (Wikipedia has a similar diversity issue with race. Two years ago, the White House held an Edit-a-Thon focused on African Americans in STEM.)
One of the projects Bender did suggest was creating infoboxes for female artists who don’t have them. Infoboxes show up in the right-hand corner of a Wikipedia page, but they’re also what populates the information on the right-hand side of your browser when you google someone. Lesser-known artists without infoboxes don’t get that extra bump, so adding an infobox significantly impacts the information that people first see on Google.
Many of the participants took to the infobox idea, working off of a list of female artists who need them. One editor created an infobox for Ruth Faison Shaw, who introduced fingerpainting to the U.S. education system. Others searched for female artists whose entries needed updates, sources, or more information. The page about architect Olajumoke Adenowo was underdeveloped and not well cited, so someone beefed it up. One brave first-time Wikipedia user even created an entirely new page about Lilian Thomas Burwell, a D.C. sculptor and painter.
Making a page as a new user is actually a pretty big deal. Early on in the Edit-a-Thon, Bender had told the crowd about when she was still a relatively new Wikipedia user and had created a page for Magda Sawon, a gallery owner in New York City. A more experienced editor contested the decision to give Sawon a page, arguing that the gallery owner wasn’t “notable” enough. But Bender remained civil and sought help from another experienced Wikipedia editor that she knew.
That editor vouched for her and the page stayed up, which might explain why Bender is so optimistic about the possibilities that the site offers. “Wikipedia is such a great democratic resource,” she says. “It really lives on the contribution and the oversight of the community.”