Students expand Wikipedia’s feminist history record, take on the online encyclopedia’s gender gap
published May 3, 2012
Although students are usually told to steer clear of Wikipedia, that was not the case for those in last term’s seminar course, The Politics of the Canadian Women’s Movement. Instead, the students were charged with rewriting feminist history in the free online encyclopedia.
Undergraduate students in the fourth-year political science and women’s studies seminar were asked to think about gaps in existing Wikipedia articles on Canadian feminist history, conduct research and generate new content to improve the information.
“Wikipedia is so often dismissed as a non-academic resource, but so many people use it as a way to get familiar with a topic quickly,” said course director Alana Cattapan, of York’s Department of Political Science in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
Cattapan had her students survey the existing articles on Canadian feminism, and write on un- or under-reported topics.
“This project gave my students a way to academically engage with the process of building Wikipedia and to see its strengths and weaknesses as a ‘legitimate’ source,” explained Cattapan. “They not only reorganized and added to existing articles, but also contributed new articles on important events and organizations.”
The main problem associated with resources like Wikipedia is the verifiability of information. Academia, in particular, has long been concerned with credentials and documentation. The democratic—some have said lawless—milieu of the Internet in general, and Wikipedia specifically, has drawn criticism from some quarters, with proponents countering that crowd-sourcing allows for more diverse voices to be heard.
But the content will ultimately depend on the crowd being sourced. Although Wikipedia has a model that should democratize our public record, several studies have shown female editorship to be between 13-18 per cent—a glaring gender gap that raises the question: whose history is being recorded?
When The New York Times ran a story on Wikipedia’s gender gap in 2011, commentators across the web weighed in, blaming everything from sexism to technology to biology. Whatever the cause, the effect is the conspicuous under-representation—or outright omission—of certain topics. Like feminist history.
“Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” said Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner in the Times article. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”
Cattapan’s assignment was one way to give Canadian feminist history a seat at the table. “I’ve really thought about this gender gap,” Cattapan said. “It’s a big part of why we did the project.”
“Feminist pedagogy recognizes collaboration and creating connections in the community, outside the classroom.” And contributing to Wikipedia may not be as easy as it seems. “Wikipedia has to be extraordinarily cited so [we] teach students how to cite, we need to make sure students are writing clearly and in a way that can be understood. Wikipedia is a good place to do that.”
Wikipedia is also a good place to learn first-hand about the barriers women may face in becoming active contributors. Although most of the students contributed to the general Feminism in Canada article, others chose to develop entirely new topics like the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace and the Abortion Caravan. “Literally within minutes [of submitting the article on the Abortion Caravan] I got an e-mail that said it was marked to be removed.”
“It’s too poetic for an encyclopedia,” wrote frequent Wikipedia editor Blanchardb (who describes himself as a single, Christian man), “with too much detail that most people wouldn’t care about.” Cattapan and Blanchardb have been negotiating since mid-April. Currently, the article is live on Wikipedia with a warning across the top which reads: The neutrality of this article is disputed.
“In the beginning of the Internet, cyber feminists and techno-feminists lauded its democratic and liberating potential, but it has become a place of harassment, where men act out heteronormative behaviours,” Cattapan commented. “On Wikipedia, users tend to be male. They have edited too many articles: they’re entitled.
“The contributions of the students really expanded the article, which was and still is the first ‘hit’ when you do a combined search for the words ‘feminism’ and ‘Canada’ online,” Cattapan added.
“I wanted [the students] to work collaboratively on something that would connect them to the world beyond the classroom,” said Cattapan. “I thought that helping them publish the results of their research on Wikipedia would be one way to do so and to connect fellow students to communities that might be interested in their research.”