Women’s history & Wikipedia’s gender gap

2011 January 31

Wikipedia is in the news again, this time for some unsurprising news about its gender gap; apparently only about 15% of its contributors are women. (It’s worth noting, though, that Wikipedia’s user-demographics data is entirely voluntary and that many women, offered a chance not to identify themselves by sex, avoid doing so. Sometimes it’s an effort to avoid harassment, and sometimes it’s to avoid the women-targeted ads. So their data may well be off.)

Regardless, the point about Wikipedia’s coverage biases–lots of military history and popular culture, with less and less on subjects farther away from the hacker-otaku core–is totally valid.

Fixing the gaps

Case in point: the early 20th century reformer Josephine Goldmark had a major influence on American labor law. While working for the National Consumers League, she documented the physical effects of long work hours on women and young workers. Her research and writing formed the backbone of the Brandeis brief in Muller v. Oregon (1908); in that case, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that maximum-hours laws targeted at women workers were constitutional. She’s an important historical figure for that alone, but the rest of her career included, among other things, contributing to the wholesale overhaul of American nursing education. (If you’ve ever received competent nursing care, you can thank Josephine Goldmark.)

Last week, Tona Hangen pointed out on Twitter that the Wikipedia page for Goldmark was woefully inadequate and that she couldn’t find a picture of Goldmark anywhere online. After looking at Goldmark’s Wikipedia entry, I spent some time fixing it up and marking it with cleanup templates (Wikipedia-speak for standard messages that say an article needs work).

This was the first major Wikipedia editing I’ve done, and I found it strangely addictive. It’s still not done, but it’s better than it was, and it’s marked to show where it needs more work. Plus, now I know that the Goldmark article is a little better and that the Brandeis Brief article mentions her.

Writing Wikipedia can be college-level work.

If you teach history courses on women, gender, or sexuality, or on the history of any racial or ethnic minority in the United States, it’s worth considering adding a Wikipedia assignment to your syllabus. In the discussion page attached to every good article, there are conversations going on about what’s written here and why (see, for example, the discussion page on Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy.) Students could learn a lot about what we know and how we know it from editing the articles, and I think it also would teach them to be more skeptical the next time they try to use Wikipedia as a reference. I know I’m not the only one thinking about this.

I’m seriously considering compiling a list of entries that need editing for the next time I teach a subject-focused course, particularly a course on the history of women in the United States. There are far too many entries that need more work, and it’s easy enough to get started.

What Wikipedia entries do you see that are either woefully limited or don’t exist at all and should?

12 Responses
  1. January 31, 2011

    I’ve found Wikipedia to be an interesting way to gather information – set up a page and see what other people contribute. I have done this a couple of times, once was not really successful (I was researching a woman author about whom I had very little biographical data, and I created a page for her. Sadly nobody added anything more).

    I don’t recall ever telling Wikipedia my gender (although I signed up a long time ago so perhaps I was asked and don’t remember). However, people who don’t log in – it’s impossible to know the gender breakdown of those. So this study is only looking at a subset of users – those who were motivated enough to create accounts.

  2. February 1, 2011

    This is a great idea that I’ve considered — too late for this semester but maybe next year.

  3. February 1, 2011

    I’m using some of my snow day to beef it up a little, too – addictive is right. I also noted that the Harvard Open Collections page on Goldmark lists some of her publications including one in 1939, and then a death date – right after it! – as 1910 (I just emailed them a suggestion they correct that). Poor Josephine. I still can’t believe there’s no digitized web-available image of her, only of her sister Alice.

  4. February 1, 2011

    Also – Jeremy Boggs created a “stub-expanding” course assignment – see here, e.g.


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