Woonsocket Call

Women need better representa­tion on Wikipedia

- By MONICA HESSE Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”

Nearly everything I know about Martha Mendoza, I learned from her Wikipedia page, which, as of a few weeks ago, did not exist. Mendoza is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Her series about forced labor in the seafood industry led to the freeing of 2,000 enslaved Southeast Asian fishermen; because of her articles, Congress passed legislatio­n requiring more transparen­cy from food suppliers.

Her work is important and forceful. The absurd lack of recognitio­n for her contributi­ons on a Wikipedia page could have been for a lot of reasons; but it might have been related to one in particular: only about 18 percent of Wikipedia’s biographic­al articles are about women. That’s up 3 percent from a few years ago, according to the Wikimedia Foundation. But it’s still a reflection of the fact that, “contributo­rs are majority Western and mostly male, and these gatekeeper­s apply their own judgment and prejudices,” the foundation wrote.

So, grass-roots organizati­ons have set about trying to change the ratio. Groups such as Art + Feminism sponsor regular “hackathons,” to train more diverse groups of Wikipedia editors, and to publish a broader range of articles.

Martha Mendoza’s article was created by Mintaro Oba, a Washington, D.C.based speechwrit­er whose colleagues at West Wing Writers recently decided to launch a side project: making more Wikipedia articles about women. As writers themselves, they opted to focus on authors, journalist­s and poets.

“Most male journalist­s who have two Pulitzers have Wikipedia pages,” Oba notes. So when he learned about Mendoza, he wanted to make sure his submission was approved. He backed up the article with an “epic onslaught of credible sources,” to craft an airtight argument for her inclusion.

Coming up on Women’s History Month – and in the middle of Black History Month – I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “rewriting history,” and how it’s almost always presented as a negative or an impossible. You can’t rewrite history, proponents of the Confederat­e flag say to those who want to take it down.

And yet so much of progress requires doing exactly that: rewriting history. Digging out new sources. Making our collective encycloped­ia bigger.

Last year, the New York Times launched a project titled “Overlooked,” which retroactiv­ely writes obituaries for forgotten people – women and people of color whose deaths were not considered historic enough for obituaries when they happened. This month, among others: a children’s welfare advocate who helped more than 500 mixed-race orphans find homes after World War II and a clothing designer who outfitted Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt.

Half of progress is about recognizin­g women whose accomplish­ments were, as the Times puts it, “overlooked.” But I think the other half of progress is something we consider even less: reframing our understand­ing of accomplish­ments. Asking ourselves to interrogat­e what events are important and questionin­g what counts as history at all.

One of Oba’s colleagues, Ilana Ross, who spearheade­d the company’s Wikipedia project, told me the group had tried to submit a Wikipedia article on the New Zealand writer Alison Waley, but it was rejected. She showed me a screenshot of the rejection. Perhaps, it posited, Waley could just be part of her husband’s Wikipedia article instead?

It was complicate­d, Ross said, because Waley’s most famous work was, in fact, a memoir about life with her husband. He was a noted translator whom Waley had known for years, though they only married shortly before his death. While Arthur was receiving public accolades for public work, Alison was cataloguin­g the private, quotidian parts of life: portraits of time, place, parties and people.

But wasn’t that also valuable? Ross asked. Weren’t those things also important contributi­ons to history – a way of understand­ing how people lived and what the world looked like?

History can be rewritten. History can be rewritten, because it doesn’t have to be contained in pages anymore, and the potential for expansion is unlimited. And because doing it better the second time around shows that we’ve learned from our incomplete job the first time.

I emailed Martha Mendoza a few days ago. She didn’t know she had a Wikipedia page until I told her. And while she was pleased with it – it’s a good, factual article, she said – her reasons didn’t have anything to do with honor or recognitio­n. She simply thought having one would make her job easier. Now, when she approached a source for a story and asked for an interview, she could direct them to her page to prove she was a real journalist, and to help them understand the kind of reporting she did.

For that reason, she’d wanted a page for a while. “I thought about asking someone to do it for me,” she said. “But it’s a little like asking someone to enter you in a contest.”

It seemed unseemly and self-aggrandizi­ng to her; she couldn’t imagine actually suggesting it. She was glad she hadn’t needed to, and that someone else had seen her.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States