Wikipedia is arguably crowdsourcing’s greatest triumph. The site can be edited by anyone, which is both a blessing or a curse, but it has created the largest encyclopedia in human history, covering vastly more territory than any company or organization possibly could.
Because anyone can edit Wikipedia, the site is a terrific representation of society. Unfortunately, however, society is imperfect. So today’s news that the site was listing American novelists who were women as “American Women Novelists,” while male novelists showed up as “American Novelists,” is as unsurprising as it is dispiriting.
In some cases, the changes appeared to be deliberate, More often, however, it seems that women novelists were categorized as “Women Novelists” simply because of oversight — people simply didn’t put them in the more-generic category.
So that’s good — there’s no Wikipedia conspiracy to keep women down, right? Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, the subtle sexism displayed by Wikipedia’s crowdsourced editing is evidence of a more serious, endemic problem, not with Wikipedians, but with society itself.
It is hardly news that we tend to think of the “default” human as male — not to mention cisgender, straight, white and able-bodied. That tendency to view the privileged as the default while viewing non-privileged as the “other” is at the heart of bigotry. It’s not a surprise that Wikipedia would fall victim to the sexism of othering; indeed, it would be surprising if it didn’t.
The good news — and it is good news — is that calling attention to othering allows people of good conscience to push back against it. As writer Liz Henry notes, the news that Wikipedia was pushing female writers into their own, separate category has led people to add “American Novelist” to the list of categories for a number of female American novelists, including Harper Lee and Donna Tartt. Furthermore, Wikipedia editors are debating making “American Women Novelists” and “American Men Novelists” sub-categories of “American Novelists,” which would automatically make members of the sub-groups members of the larger group (although this would leave out those who do not identify simply as male or female).
The othering of American women novelists is not Wikipedia’s problem, but society’s. The good news is that Wikipedia is moving to address the problem. Only by being open about the problem of othering — by pointing it out when it comes to light — can we make things better. If we do, continually, we can slowly-but-surely reach a point where Wikipedia is no longer sexist — just like the egalitarian society that contributes to it.
Image Credit: nojhan