Writing Her In: Wikipedia As Feminist Activism

Most of the feminist activism I do—whether it’s writing or teaching or protesting—requires a long view. A really long view. Sometimes I feel as if my feminist colleagues and I are saying and doing the same things over and over again, with little to no results to show for any of our work. And when I see yet another sexist commercial such as DirecTV’s newest that features woman-as-marionette, I want to throw in the towel.

But not on a recent Saturday afternoon that I spent at an Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon. The results there were concrete and immediate. In less than two hours, I created Wikipedia pages for three feminist artists who should have had pages already but who, like so many women, had been overlooked.

It’s no secret that women have been rendered invisible in history, sports, laws, medical care, politics, corporate boardrooms, museums, religion and the military. One of my professors in graduate school, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, used to say that part of what makes patriarchy so powerful is its erasure of feminist history. Without knowing our history, she’d say, without knowing about the work of the women who came before us, we’re left reinventing the wheel.

The Internet is now where histories are stored and accessed, and it’s where subsequent generations will go when they want to know what’s real, what matters.

But guess what percentage of Wikipedia contributors are women?

13 percent.

Yes, you read that right.

The annual VIDA Count tracks gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews. I’ve been following their pie charts for three years now, and I’ve seen little change from year to year (although the 2013 VIDA Count did note that the New York Review of Books and The Paris Review are making some headway). To correct the gender gap in these established publications, you need editors committed to publishing work by women and reviewers committed to reviewing books by women. But to correct the gender gap in Wikipedia, all you need is access to a computer.

The edit-a-thon I attended was organized by artist Ellen Lesperance, a faculty member at Pacific Northwest College of Art (where I also teach) and one of the artists represented in the Portland2014 biennial exhibition, which was curated by Los Angeles-based Amanda Hunt.

Lesperance had attended a previous edit-a-thon this past February 1, which was part of a larger Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon that happened around the world in 31 locations. According to The Wikimedia Foundation,

The purpose of this event was not only to spread interest in topics needing real visibility on the encyclopedia, but also to empower women to become more involved in the community by providing a supportive framework for their contributions.

ARTnews reports that more than 600 volunteers participated that day and “engaged in a collective effort to change the world, one Wikipedia entry at a time,” part of “a massive multinational effort to correct a persistent bias in Wikipedia, which is disproportionally written by and about men.” (You can view some of the 100+ newly added entries that resulted from these efforts here.)

I’m tired of looking for important female artists on Wikipedia and finding no information, while second-rate male artists have pages and pages written about them. The Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon was dedicated to changing this.

During the edit-a-thon, Lesperance wrote a Wikipedia entry for Christina Ramberg. “There is no good reason why she wasn’t already on there,” Lesperance told me. “All of her male colleagues of the Chicago Imagists were represented on Wikipedia, and I’m finding this [omission] is typical.”

Omissions like this can be easily corrected. Lesperance said she felt an “air of empowerment at the ease with which an addition to that archive—which receives so much readership—takes place.” She linked her new entries to other, longer-standing Wikipedia pages so readers might come upon her content additions while reading about something else. She told me,

Doing both things seems to amplify a person’s presence in the wiki-world, and could be seen as revisionist in the sense of revising an exposure imbalance. I was truly shocked by the caliber of female artists still not represented online. It is a pretty facile action to shorten that list, and I want to show as many people as possible just how facile.

Artist Hayley Barker also found the edit-a-thon “surprisingly empowering.” She said,

It’s painfully obvious that female artists are not included as often as male artists—in galleries, museums, and serious art writing. Participating in the Wikipedia edit-a-thon felt like a chance to begin to right that wrong. It was an opportunity to write our history.

There are directions on Wikipedia for how to run an edit-a-thon, and my hope is that the edit-a-thons will continue to grow, focusing on adding more pages for LGBTQ folks, people of color and other communities that have been consistently written out of history. I left the edit-a-thon pledging that instead of checking Facebook (which makes me feel bad), I’d spend my online time adding new pages to Wikipedia (which makes me feel good).

It felt especially appropriate to spend a Saturday attending a feminist edit-a-thon, given the April 8 death of Adrianne Wadewitz following injuries sustained in a rock climbing accident. She was a scholar of 18th century British literature and, according to The New York Times, she “became one of the most prolific and influential editors of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.” Much of her work at Wikipedia concerned biographies of women. The Times reported that she “had created a whole library of articles about figures like the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, the children’s book writer Mary Martha Sherwood and the ‘woman of letters’ Anna Laetitia Barbauld.”

Wadewitz’s picture was on the cover of one of the pamphlets I was given that explained how to edit Wikipedia pages, and next to her image was this quote: “I contribute because I like helping create a free, reliable reference work for the entire world.”

A free, reliable reference work for the entire world, indeed. The three pages I added to Wikipedia aren’t elaborate, but they didn’t exist on Wikipedia  Illustration by Flickr user Giulia Forsythe under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Sarah Sentilles is a writer, critical theorist, and scholar of religion. She is the author of several books, including the memoir Breaking Up with God: A Love Story. Her next book, Draw Your Weapons, will be published by Random House in 2017.