Sexism on Wikipedia Is Not the Work of ‘a Single Misguided Editor’

The Atlantic · April 30, 2013

In the last few days I’ve had two op-eds published by The New York Times describing a discovery I’d made on Wikipedia early last week. I noticed that American female novelists were being dragged out of the main category “American Novelists” and plopped into the subcategory “American Women Novelists.” I looked back in the “history” of these women’s pages, and saw they used to appear in the main category “American Novelists,” but they had recently been switched to the smaller female subcategory. Male novelists were allowed to remain in the main category, no matter how obscure they were. At first I assumed the sexist thinking of whoever did this went along the lines of, “All men novelists are worthy to be taken seriously, even small ones. But only the most famous and revered female novelists are worthy to remain in the big category.” As I investigated further, I realized this didn’t seem to be the case, because I was finding some extremely famous female novelists in the “American Women Novelists” category, who had been actively transferred from the “American Novelists” category to the smaller, less prominent, female subcategory.

In my op-ed, I listed 17 of the most famous women that this had been done to: Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ayn Rand, Ann Beattie, Djuna Barnes, Emily Barton, Jennifer Belle, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, Judy Blume, Alice Adams, Louisa May Alcott, V. C. Andrews, and Mary Higgins Clark. And I noticed the same thing had been done to me and hundreds of others.

As I wrote in my first op-ed:

People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of “American Novelists” for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women. They might simply use that list without thinking twice about it. It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.

I wrote two op-eds on this topic because after the uproar the first one created when it was published online Wednesday night, The New York Times asked me to write a follow-up describing recent developments for the Sunday print edition (where my first op-ed had been scheduled to appear). The story was picked up online, appearing on sites from The Atlantic Wire to Forbes to Salon to Jezebel to Think Progress. It appeared in The Guardian and The Independent newspapers and The Week in the UK, plus news sites and publications in Italy, France, Canada, Brazil and more.

This so quickly became the “conventional wisdom” that James Gleick’s latest post for The New York Review of Books repeated it, and Salon‘s Andrew Leonard wrote yesterday:

In the furor that erupted on Wikipedia in response to Filipacchi’s article, it was quickly determined that the bad behavior she noticed appeared to be the work of a single misguided Wikipedia editor. One could argue that, if true, this made the Times’ headline “Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists” unfair and inaccurate. All of Wikipedia was being tarred by the unthinking stupidity of one bad editor.

This is not true. The “sub-categorization” (or what some are calling the “ghettoization”) of the 17 well-known women I listed in my original op-ed was performed by at least seven different editors. The people spreading this false information are not doing any favors to Wikipedia. Another reason to stop this rumor is that it is not fair to dump all the blame on one poor Wikipedia editor who—even though it’s true he did go on a bit of a spree in early April—was far, far from the only one. Plus, he did women a huge favor by inadvertently making this Wikipedia problem more visible. Who knows how many more years this would have continued if it hadn’t been for his energetic work of accidentally exposing the sexist category rules that had already been implemented and followed by many others? If anyone wants to check the facts I’ve stated, here they are, chronologically. They include the editors’ anonymous usernames:

1) Wiki editor: Magellan Maestro
-13 September, 2012 (Revision as of 14:44): Amy Tan removed from “American novelists” and put into subcategory “American novelists of Asian descent”)
-23 March 2013 (Revision as of 23:33): She was added to “American women novelists” by IP address:

2) Wiki editor: Orlady
18 October 2012 (Revision as of 21:26): Donna Tartt. In addition, to being switched from “American Novelists” to “American Women Novelists” she was also switched on the same day from “Writers from Mississippi” to “Women writers from Mississippi”

3) Wiki editor: RL0919
-2 Jan 2013: did it to Ayn Rand

4) Wiki editor: And we drown
-3 February 2013: (Revision as of 18:54): did it to Anne Rice

5) Wiki editor: BizarreLoveTriangle
-21 February 2013: (Revision as of 21:16): did it to Harper Lee

6) Wiki editor: Midnightdreary
-24 March 2013: did it to Harriet Beecher Stowe

7) Wiki editor: Johnpacklambert:
-1 April: did it to Alice Adams. And then he did it to the others on my list. As you can see, among the women in my list he didn’t even begin to do it to any of them until the six above editors had done it first.

In the last few days, some Wiki editors worked on fixing the problem, bringing women back into the main “American Novelists” category. But then other editors would come along and take them back out. The editor who went on his spree in early April (username Johnpacklambert) did something particularly interesting and annoying after I’d been put back in the “American Novelists” category. He took me out of it again and put me in a new category he had just created: “American Humor Novelists.” He also added three men to it, probably to make it look ok. Another editor then came along and undid what he had done. In my first Op-Ed, I’d mentioned it was too bad there wasn’t a subcategory called “American Men Novelists.” Soon after, that category was created. According to a Wikipedia article entitled “List of Wikipedia Controversies,” “When the ‘American men novelists’ category was first created, its only entries were Orson Scott Card and P. D. Cacek (who is female).” The last time I looked, it seems that several Wiki editors are trying to make sure women have been put back in the main category, and they’ve been reverting the changes of editors who try to take them out.

The debate I ignited is about whether Wikipedia is sexist or not toward women novelists. Since my original article appeared, certain Wikipedia editors have successfully distracted people from this larger debate by pushing the false idea of a “single rogue editor,” and creating the impression—now being widely repeated and reported—this is some small, isolated problem. They’ve done this by spreading rumors that are demonstrably wrong, as can be proven by anyone willing to investigate the history buried in the Wikipedia pages of “American Women Novelists.”