a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience (2012 revision)

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In 2007, I began assigning my women’s history students the task of researching a new Wikipedia article or making a significant editorial intervention in an existing essay on women. My colleague, Scott Payne, Director of Academic Technology had suggested I survey Wikipedia’s women’s history content, and I was, as he anticipated, very distressed by its absence and by its superficiality and inaccuracies when present. A New York Times1 article at the beginning of 2011 noting that only thirteen percent of contributors to Wikipedia were women offered a partial explanation. Nonetheless, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia said in a recent interview, “There aren’t that many obvious topics left to write about,” to explain the slowdown in entries about the U.S.2 A little checking for women’s topics still reveals a great shortage of material on women. Historical material is confined to some profiles of the famous, and there is very little of substance on women in the more comprehensive articles. Therefore, my purpose initially was two-fold:  to increase the representation of women in this global source of information and to use a relatively new tool to teach students some not so new methods for evaluating and writing responsible history.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Many educators have expressed strong misgivings about Wikipedia’s role in education due to its fast changing content, the uneven level of research and writing, and its reliance, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, on the work of amateurs. (Robert Wolff’s deeper criticism is significant but could be said to apply to all encyclopedia-like projects:  to wit, “[P]rofessional norms of interpretation, discourse, and debate cannot be readily applied and may be unwelcome.”3 Nevertheless, according to the “School and University Projects” page in Wikipedia, there are almost 200 documented college and university courses involving the encyclopedia, many of them ongoing.4 Roy Rosenzweig’s influential article in 2006, expressing careful enthusiasm for Wikipedia’s accomplishments and potential and calling for academics to become involved helped increase faculty recognition that Wikipedia merits classroom time.5 This essay, written with contributions by Scott Payne and two students, Melissa Greenberg (Amherst 2012) and Leah Cerf (2013), will sketch in some of our experiences and discoveries in trying to add women’s content to Wikipedia.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Working with Scott Payne, I asked students first to analyze an entry, evaluating its content and sources for accuracy and significance. Their major assignment was to intervene in an existing article that they thought needed content on women  or draft one of their own  on a new topic. They used the library to find articles and books to prepare them to compare accounts and sources. Unusually for a course requiring research, they did not use primary sources as Wikipedia prohibits them as “unverifiable.” But they did learn the technical skills and politesse required to intervene in Wikipedia.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Payne introduced students to the hierarchy of Wikipedia articles and its implications for how and what kinds of changes may be made. For example, articles that achieve the status of “featured” or that are successfully nominated for “good articles” are starred, and Wikipedia editors judge them to be well-written, broad, stable, neutral in point of view, informative, and “verifiable.” Former contributors and other interested people (as well as “bots” or automatic devices alerting concerned people to changes) keep track of these articles including the “American Revolution,” the “Vietnam War,” the “California Gold Rush” and numerous others, protecting their content.6 Payne fine-tuned the best approach to editing an article case-by-case, inviting students to look at a topic’s revision history and talk page to judge the activity and the types of changes being made (e.g. minor wording or more substantial edits where an ideological tug-of-war can sometimes be apparent), and who the main contributors are. The talk page also gives a sense of how excited the back and forth has been. Payne’s judgment also depended on the nature of the planned changes. If a student proposed a major rewrite, then running this by the other contributors to the page was usually a good idea. Adding a section and/or and making some minor edits was normally less controversial. Payne sometimes recommended that students first explain their revision plans on the talk page, or for quasi-dormant pages, suggested that they revise immediately. These preparations were helpful, and some editors responded welcomingly, but they also anticipated problems like “irrelevance” or “inappropriate tone.” The author may upload, of course, whatever she wishes, but the editors can and do remove material as they see fit.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 While practicing the art of Wikipedia diplomacy, students also learned, as Shawn Graham describes in this volume, “how knowledge can be crowd-sourced, produced and disseminated on the web.”7 They also got a lesson in how little women’s history has penetrated mainstream culture.  A review of our activities and the lives and half-lives of the essays that students have posted suggests that this project teaches useful lessons about the protocol and mechanics of writing crowd-sourced history in a digital format. But it also suggests that to the extent that popular judgment determines what history gets produced in this format,  the significance of women’s role in it and gender as a discourse or a method of analysis are likely to be devalued.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Writing for Wikipedia is not the customary closed dialogue between student and instructor; it is as Shawn Graham says, an “ongoing conversation,”8 sometimes with many participants, and one that may make unusual demands on students’ social and intellectual abilities. When students propose changes to an active article’s talk page, they can receive challenging feedback in a matter of minutes. During a workshop, one student posted her proposed revisions to the talk page for the article, “Vietnam War.”9 The student’s proposal was slightly ambiguous, prompting several fast responses, ranging from a call for clarification to sarcastic objections. (Ideologically charged conversations routinely take place in that space, despite instructions to discussants to “be welcoming,” and “engage in no personal attacks.”) Within a few minutes, a “reviewer” for the article responded  with several substantive questions about the student’s proposed modifications. A reviewer is an experienced and reliable contributor10 qualified to evaluate possible changes to essays with “semi-protection” status (controversial articles can be “protected” to discourage vandalism and “edit wars”). The student huddled with a number of classmates, Scott Payne, and me to think through her response. What would have been an exchange between student and teacher became a less predictable conversation among some students of U.S. women’s history and the Wikipedia community that had coalesced around its interest in the Vietnam War. Although several respondents were active, the reviewer seems to have had (at least as of this writing), the final word.  Students had the experience of  defending the inclusion of material on women to critics with little interest or knowledge in the subject and some who were hostile to it.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Thus, writing for Wikipedia lets fledgling historians directly engage in the conflicts and debates over who gets to tell which stories about our past.  Writing in the wake of the culture wars of the 1990s, Eric Foner, in a 2002 collection of essays entitled, Who Owns History? called for historians not to shy away from engaging in debate over history with the “larger public.”11  Learning  Wikipedia’s evolving rules equips students to join the fight digitally. The struggle, unlike debates in print, occurs very publicly, is likely to be multivocal, and is often very fast paced. It is not for the faint of heart.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 If contributing to Wikipedia is a continuing, sometimes confusing and heated conversation, it is also one that blurs the boundary between author and reader. In Wikipedia, as cultural critic Dubravka Ugresic writes, “The balance of power formerly dominated by Author and Work, has been flipped in favor of the Recipient…transforming perception, comprehension, and taste…”12  Students may not be aware of  all these transformations, but they certainly feel the loss of ownership of their work when they click Wikipedia’s “submit.” Many have invested considerable work and time into formulating well-researched, cogent content only to see it challenged, condensed, paraphrased, moved to a different location, or deleted altogether. Jimmy Wales is aware of the problem of potentially unreliable material and said in a recent interview, “now there is an increasing focus on quality and referencing.”13 But unreliability and what seem to be arbitrary revisions of well-researched material remain particularly problematic when alterations appear to be motivated by sexism, (in one instance a kind of reverse-sexism) and/or American exceptionalist bias. This notion will be explored in greater depth below.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Elsewhere in this volume, Robert Wolff found that in his study of discussions of the causes of the Civil War, the “Wikipedia community does effectively gauge basic historical knowledge, and can exclude claims that lack a factual basis.”14 We learned, however, that crowd-sourced judgments on women’s history were more problematic.  Some editors regard  the insistence on women’s historical experience as  sometimes distinct from men’s as a priori “inappropriate” and/or “irrelevant.” Others  find that discussing discrimination that has accompanied many of women’s efforts to be included in mainstream activities does not pass muster because it is anachronistic or not neutral in point of view.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Students encountered acceptance, mild resistance and vigorous opposition to women’s content in Wikipedia. I recommended that students consider integrating women’s experience into broad subjects on the theory that this is both more challenging intellectually and ultimately, more to the point of the overall project of bringing women into our acknowledged history. Adding a section that can be easily overlooked and seems, by its separateness, to be incidental to central events of our past, helps to confirm a view of women’s participation in history as peripheral, precisely the view that our interventions are trying to challenge. Students introduced women into Wikipedia articles on the “American Revolution,” the “Vietnam War,” the “Reconstruction Era,” “Prohibition” and its repeal, the “Screen Actors Guild,” and the “Social Security Act,” while others preferred the more manageable canvas of biographical profile. The range of student entries has ranged from  women’s participation in the “California Gold Rush,” to women’s experience as “Indentured servants,” from the rising rate of “Incarceration of women” and its consequences, to “Elizabeth Cady Stanton” and Susan B. Anthony’s campaign in Kansas for “Women’s suffrage” in 1867.15

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Melissa Greenberg (Amherst 2012) contributed to “Reconstruction Era of the U.S.” and found her work was well received.16 In her preliminary critique of the article, she observed that it was heavy on military and political history, and light on “social history [altogether] including women’s history.” She was particularly struck by the absence of information on legalizing slave unions, that was “particularly important…[for] the ability of freed people to have control over their families.”17 Her contributions stand, although the preponderance of the article still concerns the military and formal politics, despite the widespread findings of African American women’s  remarkably active participation in Reconstruction politics.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Leah Cerf (Amherst 2013) substantially revised “Eugenics in the United States,” finding that the  previous editor had never used the word “woman” in his/her text.18 She therefore anticipated that “[the editor] viewed women’s contributions to the U.S. eugenics movement as ‘inconsequential’ and that her contributions, too, would be seen as ‘inconsequential to the overall history’.”  Nevertheless, she uploaded material on “how Native American and Black women were often sterilized without their consent” as well as other examples of “women’s unique roles as victims of the eugenics movement.”  She also wrote about women like “Margaret Sanger and members of several other women’s associations” who “promoted the eugenic agenda and advocated for  eugenic legislation.” Leah writes,

I was astonished!  The editor … fully support[ed] my references to women as…victims but thought it was ‘anti-woman’ and ‘biased’ to write about their role as promoters of this dark pseudoscience…To ignore women’s historical role as champions of this now discredited movement not only fails to show the complete historical record, but it also ignores the political clout women had even before they were able to vote.  To ignore that women were key players in this movement …is to say that men alone defined the political and social playing field.  For me the article’s [previous] editor was the one being ‘anti-woman….’19

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Repressing women’s role in our darker chapters falsely removes them from participation, for better or worse, in many of our national debates, programs, and policies and just as falsely revives the fading myth that women are “better” than men.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 As of this writing, much of the content on women created by my students has been removed and/or moved elsewhere. A 2007 student edited the “Indentured Servant” entry to include the particular experience of women and the punitive lengthening of their terms if they became pregnant before their service ended.  This material has disappeared. The “California Gold Rush” article was deemed “finished” by editors at the time that a student proposed an intervention in 2007.  Editors permitted her to upload quite a small amount of the material she had prepared. A fraction of that material has persisted. In the “American Revolutionary War” article, students entered material on the contributions of various groups of women to the war effort. Now there is a brief subcategory: “sex, race, and class,” although neither sex, nor gender, nor women are mentioned. (The word “family” is used.)20  There is room for confusion here, because there is also an “American Revolution” article with a brief but informative section on women’s roles. But the material that my students uploaded appears in a new essay entitled “Women in the American Revolution.”21 It is unclear who thought to make this transfer as the WikiProject Women’s History, presumably a group that would be overseeing these kinds of articles, articulates its central goal as “incorporat[ing] the perspective of women’s history in overview articles of historical periods…  which may currently lack such coverage.”22 Meanwhile, the WikiProject editors as a whole, who describe themselves as [wanting] “to work together as a team to improve Wikipedia,” rated “Women in the American Revolution” as having “low importance” for the WikiProject United States but “high importance” for the WikiProject Women’s History. Herein lies the paradox that underlies and undermines my classes’ work.  As a separate and unequal field, women’s history has the highest significance for itself, but it apparently has little when the goal is understanding the United States.23

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 At the moment, material that is segregated under “Women’s Roles” or “Women’s Experience” often has a better chance of surviving in featured  Wikipedia articles than more integrated material. Women’s content is easily criticized on grounds of organization, length, relevance, and lack of neutrality even if the substance itself seems to be the problem. Introducing the experience of disadvantaged groups into narratives that are closely guarded by editors committed to American exceptionalism is difficult, and “separate but equal,” an easy solution, but one that fails to advance the cause of locating women’s history –and all minority history- in our national development in all its complexity. Perhaps WikiProject Women’s History will alter these tendencies of suppression, exclusion, and marginalization.  Certainly, having more than 13 percent (or 18 percent, for that matter) women  contributors should make some difference. But for now, as Melissa Greenberg concludes, “I find it especially ironic given the … collectivism of Wikipedia … that contributors who wish to include women’s history find it so difficult. One would think that Wikipedia should provide a more open platform for incorporating historical narratives that are traditionally excluded.”24

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 About the author: Martha Saxton teaches in the History and Women’s and Gender Studies Departments at Amherst College.  She is working on a biography of Mary Ball Washington, the mother of the founding father. She acknowledges the contributions of three individuals who contributed to this essay:  J. Scott Payne, Director of Academic Technology Services at Amherst College; Leah Cerf, history major, class of 2013, Amherst College; Melissa Greenberg, history major, class of 2012, Amherst College.

  1. 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  2. Noam Cohen, “Define Gender Gap: Look up Wikipedia’s Contributor List”, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2011,  accessed Aug. 15, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/business/media/31link.html; see also Judd Antin, Raymond Yee, Coye Cheshire, “Gender Differences in Wikipedia Editing,” presented at WikiSym 11, October 3-5, 2011, Mountain View, Ca. which revises the 13 percent to a possible 18 percent and argues that while women persist in edit infrequently, they however, make more significant edits.
  3. Jimmy Wales interview, The Telegraph, Aug.15, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/wikipedia/6589487/Jimmy-Wales-interview-Wikipedia-is-focusing-on-accuracy.html.
  4. Robert Wolff, “Essay Idea Discussion” (#21), in Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book edition, May 2011.
  5. Wikipedia, “School and University Projects,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schools_and_universities_project.
  6. Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” The Journal of American History, 93:1 (June 2006): 117-46.
  7. See John Broughton, Wikipedia, The Missing Manual (Sebastopol, CA., Pogue Press, O’Reilly Media, 2008), 220-2; 43, and freely available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Wikipedia:_The_Missing_Manual.
  8. Shawn Graham, “The Wikiblitz,” Writing History in the Digital Age.
  9.  Ibid.
  10. Wikipedia, “Vietnam War,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War.
  11. See Broughton, Wikipedia, The Missing Manual, 219-20 for becoming a reviewer.
  12. Eric Foner, Who Owns History? (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), xviii.
  13. Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture (Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2011), 10.
  14. Wales, Telegraph, Aug. 15, 2011.
  15. Robert Wolff, “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia,” Writing History in the Digital Age.
  16. All articles listed in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org.
  17. Wikipedia, “Reconstruction Era of the United States,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reconstruction_Era_of_the_United_States.
  18. Melissa Greenberg, email message to Martha Saxton, August 11, 2011
  19. Wikipedia, “Eugenics in the United States,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States.
  20. Leah Cerf, email message to Martha Saxton, August 29, 2011.
  21. Wikipedia, “American Revolutionary War,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolutionary_War.
  22. Wikipedia, “American Revolution,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolution, and “Women in the American Revolution,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_American_Revolution.
  23. Wikipedia, WikiProject Women’s History, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Women%27s_History
  24. Wikipedia, “WikiProject,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikiproject; “WikiProject United States,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_United_States.
  25. Melissa Greenberg, email message to Martha Saxton, Aug.11, 2011
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Source: https://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/saxton-etal-2012-spring/