(This guest post is a commentary by Wikipedia editor Adrianne Wadewitz and is part of the series on the WikiWomen’s Collaborative)

On Friday, October 26, 2012, I headed over to Claremont Graduate University to give a presentation about Wikipedia to a group of approximately 20 feminist undergraduates, graduate students, professors and deans as part of an event designed to raise awareness of feminist issues relating to Wikipedia. The FemTech Edit-a-Thon was sponsored by the Claremont Feminist, Anti-Racist Digital Humanities Project and initiated by the University of California Feminist & Technology Network and the Fembot Collective.

A participant at the first FemTech Edit-a-thon.

A participant at the first FemTech Edit-a-thon.

I’ve run these edit-a-thons many times before: usually I explain the basic working rules of Wikipedia and then we all edit Wikipedia together. This event, however, was different. After socializing with the participants and listening to the short, provocative presentations by a group of feminist scholars, I realized that I should radically change my approach. Instead of a traditional edit-a-thon, we debated and discussed some of the thorny issues surrounding women and technology, including the difficulty of being a feminist scholar, activist, and educator while participating on Wikipedia.

Since many of the speakers offered challenges to the structure, rules, and ethos of Wikipedia, I decided on the spur of the moment that I would represent the “establishment” of the encyclopedia and its community. I wanted the participants to feel that they could ask me anything they wanted about how Wikipedia worked and why. I wanted to provide the group with a real person to query. And while I would try to explain the site’s rules, I would not necessarily justify them, unless I felt compelled to do so through my own experience.

As an example of how articles about women are handled on Wikipedia and how Wikipedia is central in shaping knowledge, I showed the history of the Sandra Fluke article; its deletion; its recreation as Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy; and its final recreation three and a half months later as “Sandra Fluke.” This led to a larger discussion about how the structure of Wikipedia and its conception of knowledge perpetuates the patriarchy. “Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy” was the first Google hit for Sandra Fluke’s name for at least three months. As became clear from our conversation, Wikipedia’s rules are not neutral or objective – they have very real political consequences. Wikipedia allowed Sandra Fluke to be defined by Rush Limbaugh’s wildly inappropriate and derogatory comments, rather than by her own life story, and helped fuel an irrelevant news story.

We also discussed how Wikipedia’s rules (e.g. NPOV) further masculine ways of knowing. Certain feminist theories and movements foreground the importance of individual voices and personal stories. Two participants in the discussion brought up that seeing tags that assert that the Catherine Opie and the Angie Chabram-Dernersesian articles are too “storylike” or “autobiographical” fly in the face of those feminisms. Wikipedia’s dogged insistence on “objectivity” and “neutrality” – something that all Wikipedians know cannot be achieved anyway – reinforces what many feminists would argue is a masculine way of seeing the world. Rejecting the lived, personal experience of women and the ways in which they tell their stories can thus be seen as a rejection of feminism. There was thus a call from some participants to actively add this kind of content to Wikipedia as a way of resisting the patriarchy.

Throughout the afternoon, we kept coming back to a point made in the opening remarks by one participant, who addressed the need to better include the voices of underrepresented groups on Wikipedia. Wikipedia suffers from the same exclusionary problems of the Encyclopédie of old: it has limited much of its content to the history and concerns of white men. In this context, we discussed the gender gap of editors on the English Wikipedia (while acknowledging that we knew little about other language Wikipedias in this regard) and the coverage of topics related to women’s history. I repeatedly emphasized that if we wanted to change how or what knowledge was represented on Wikipedia, we had to edit it ourselves and reach out to other communities who are not currently included there.

However, in asking women and people of color to edit Wikipedia, it was pointed out to me, aren’t we asking them to give away their labor for free in a world that already devalues their labor? Many women work for less than they are worth or for nothing. This is a very tricky issue. Obviously, the Wikipedia community should not perpetuate the labor problems that plague the world and contribute to the gender inequity in the labor market. On the other hand, the information provided by Wikipedia is freely available, therefore it could be an important asset to women without financial means or access to education. In my opinion, those of us who are paid fairly for our labor are doubly responsible for making Wikipedia a reliable source of information.

Because editing Wikipedia as a woman and a feminist can be challenging, I was asked about my personal experiences. I can talk about being a pseudonymous editor who then “came out” as female. I freely shared my experiences with the participants, explaining how I was treated differently – and with much less respect – on the site once others knew I was woman. My arguments were much more likely to be described as “logical” when my gender was unknown; once others knew I was woman, I was much more likely to be described as “emotional,” “hysterical” and the like. Or to be simply dismissed.

We ended the afternoon by discussing how one could be a feminist activist on the site. Our ideas included everything from adding content on women to reviewing articles to changing guidelines for WikiProjects to using Wikipedia in the classroom. I am happy to report that, as a result of this session, several participants are now using Wikipedia as a teaching tool. We also have planned an editing session and we are spreading a deeper understanding of Wikipedia.

Adrianne Wadewitz, Wadewitz