Writing Her In: Wikipedia As Feminist Activism

WikiCropMost 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 before I wrote them and now they do. For Barker, adding pages to Wikipedia is a way to thank other artists. She said,

I am constantly aware of how much gratitude I have for all of the women who have made work in the past and are making work now, and how much we need to work together. I can’t overstate how important it is to acknowledge their presence and the lives that have been given to do this important work.


Illustration by Flickr user Giulia Forsythe under license from Creative Commons 2.0




Sarah Sentilles is the author of three books, including Breaking Up with God. She tweets @sarahsentilles.  


  1. Why are you surprised? I keep encountering women over 45 who have no idea what Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party was, its importance, that it can be seen now in Brooklyn Museum.

  2. Natasha Beck says:

    Hi–Can you notify me when the next Editathon will be held in Portland,OR? Thanks.

  3. My colleague Tenured Radical and I will be hosting an edit-a-thon at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women this weekend: http://berks2014.com/2014/02/20/digital-lab/ If you can’t be there in person please join us on the web. Use #berks2014 to let us know you’re with us.

  4. PS here’s the meetup information from Wikipedia

  5. Common Sense says:

    How is editing Wikipedia a feminist issue? Seems it is simply including biographies of women. The omission of women is no one’s fault as anyone and everyone is free to create pages on Wikipedia. I am an author of several Wikipedia pages, and I admit with my Asperger male brain, I tend to create pages about Family Guy, various criminal justice legislation and processes, but I leave it to the ladies to create a 1067 page Wikia site dedicated to Sex & the City lol

    • Uncommon Sense says:

      You prove our point.

      • Common Sense says:

        What point is that? Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. There is no patriarchal conspiracy, no “evil white male oppressor” stopping anyone from creating Wikipedia pages on topics of their choice. The NY Times article which railed on male Wikipedia editors is completely unfounded. With a site which allows anonymous edits and contributions for all but the most controversial topics (i.e. Hitler, Israel, Abortion…etc), I don’t see how the mere fact that there are more male editors is evidence that they are somehow discriminating against women. Wikipedia is not a forum for social justice or empowerment for any group; we prefer to remain as factual as possible and keep any spin or slant out of any contentious issue as much as possible. Admittedly this is not always possible, especially when dealing with extremely touchy issues, including gender politics.

  6. Keep up the good work. I hope no one will mess with what you’ve added. “Everyone is free to create pages” doesn’t guarantee that everyone’s content is going to stay there unmolested.
    Since it has the input of so many editors, one might expect Wikipedia to be relatively unbiased, but it’s been noted over and over that pages on alternative medicine, for example, get changed by editors with an agenda, so that the subjects are made to seem laughable. Having legions of good editors trying to make corrections doesn’t help when the founder of Wikipedia himself is determined, on the basis only of his own prejudices, that only certain voices should be heard.

  7. What a marvelous idea! I am going to try to get something going in my community.

  8. Barbara Mor says:

    I’m tired of looking in the dictionary & seeing entries/photos of O.J. Simpson & George W. Bush, but not a word or image of Meridel LeSueur, Kathy Acker, or even (in my dictionary) Judy Chicago….who WERE the people who helped shape the 20th c. anyway??!!

  9. Barbara Mor says:

    By the way, Mr. ‘Common Sense’: Thomas Paine (who actuallly wrote Common Sense, & the American Revolution)
    was a close friend & idea-exchanger with Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women as well as Historical & Moral View of the Fench Revolution, from an on-scene perspective…go figure it out.

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