An April 24 op-ed in the New York Times about where one might find articles about American women novelists on Wikipedia shows both the little-known and underestimated importance of categorization but also how people can resist policies and change — indeed, pretty quickly — how things are done on Wikipedia.
Amanda Filipacchi, herself a novelist, opened up her column by noting “something strange on Wikipedia”: editors had apparently begun moving women from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory.
The move was occurring alphabetically: As of April 24, women whose last names began with A or B were primarily the ones to have been moved to the new list, although others have been, too. Wikipedia did not announce that women had been moved from the general category of novelists to a specific list of American women novelists. It did have an announcement at the top of the list under American Novelists that this list is too long, and so pages about novelists “should be moved to subcategories where applicable.” The general category, it added, “should contain very few, if any, articles and should mainly contain subcategories.”
Filipacchi said the intention “appears to be to create a list of ‘American Novelists’ on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men.” I do not think that was actually the intention. Wikipedia simply doesn’t think through some of these issues.
But, within 24 hours, all the women were added back to American Novelists. Meanwhile, the same day, a new subcategory to American novelists was added: American Men Novelists. If you click there, you get language suggesting that men may yet be merged (back) into Category: American Novelists. And the page asks for feedback: “Please share your thoughts on this category’s entry on the Categories for discussion page. (Other subcategories include novelists who won Pulitzer Prizes; novelists of ethnic or non-U.S. origin, as well as American writers of crime fiction, spy fiction, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, romantic fiction, graphic novels, and so forth.
While the category of American Women Novelists lives on, an editing note (which one can find if one clicks on the editing tab at the top right) for the Wikipedia page on Filapacchi herself indicates that, given her op-ed, probably she should be moved off the “female novelist” lists. Notably, I would add, although the New York Times added the headline “Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists,” the Wikipedia categorizers did not use the terms “male” and “female.” That’s a good thing, since male and female are biological terms, totally irrelevant here, and biology is beside the point. While women and men are cultural terms pointing toward how gender is being constructed.
Interestingly, there is, for example, a category for U.S. actresses—once again where several subcategories have been created and Wikipedia wants more subcategories and fewer pages in that general category—but no category at all for “actors.”
Filipacchi was right to complain. People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas about who to honor or read or write abou, might not notice that the list of “American Novelists” was dominated by men. The problem with these highly asymmetrical “unmarked” and “marked” categories is that the “unmarked” category (man, novelist, doctor, actor, judge, steward) is implicitly offered and taken to be the dominant category, the “main” and “right” one. In contrast, the extra ending that makes for the “marked” term (woman novelist, female doctor, actress, woman judge, stewardess) indicates difference, deviance. And, with only a few exceptions (widow/widower) women this way come to represent the “Other.”
This affair proves two crucial points. First, this shows why Wikipedia needs diversity. It looked to me, again judging from the editing trail, that a single man decided to create the subcategory, albeit the same man who changed it back again. Different people will think about different things, notice different things, contribute different things. The importance of diversity among contributors cannot be underestimated.
Second, it shows, as Stine Eckert says, the power to NAME, SHAME, and CHANGE. Filipacchi had e-mailed some women writers who call themselves WOM (it stands for Word of Mouth). Not only was she deluged with “scandalized responses” but word quickly spread. As I noted, within a day of the op-ed, precisely the changes she and others called for had happened. Wikipedia is fallible but also flexible and adaptable. Wikipedia — its people — and can correct the mistakes, and collectively they do.