Journalists don't understand Wikipedia sometimes

This morning I saw some pissed-off twitters that led me to articles about Wikipedia’s sexist bias. Always up for a little early morning smash-the-patriarchy outrage, and well aware of some of the clusterfucks that often play out in Wikipedia admin pages, I forged onwards and read the articles, flaring my nostrils in anticipation. In Wikpedia’s sexism towards female novelists Amanda Filippachi points out that many women tagged with Category: American women novelists aren’t tagged with Category: American novelists. She named several examples. Katie Mcdonough from Salon picked up on this, with Wikipedia moves women to American Women Novelists Category Leaves Men in American Novelists.

Even the most cursory googling shows that this is not a very accurate spin. For example look at Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, and Harper Lee, who are named by Filippachi as missing from American novelists. Here is the Donna Tartt article’s history page going back the last 500 edits to 2004. Tartt was never listed as being in Category: American novelist, not because “Wikipedia is sexist” but because no one thought to put that down amid the hundreds of small edits that incrementally improved the article. Until today when someone added “American novelists” to her page, in virtuous activist response to injustice (which I respect, actually). “Category: American women novelists” was never on Tartt’s page.

Okay, how about Amy Tan. The last 500 edits for Amy Tan’s page go back to 2008. Category:American women novelists was not ever on Tan’s page, but American novelists was added today.

Harper Lee’s history, on the other hand, shows an edit on Feb. 21 removing American novelists and adding American women novelists. If you look at the user who made that edit, they often edit categories, and occasionally makes disputed judgement calls, but they appear to be acting alone and from the pattern of their edits, they do many types of edits in several areas, rather than waltzing around sexist-ly removing women from the category of generic human beings, or even novelists.

Just from these three samples, it does not seem that there is any particular movement among a group of Wikipedia editors to remove women from the “novelists” category and put them in a special women category instead. I would say that the general leaning, rather, is to stop people who would like to label women writers as women writers *in addition* to labeling them as writers, claiming there is no need for Category: American women writers at all and that it is evidence of bias to identify them by gender.

When I add writers to Wikpedia because I love their work or find their lives interesting and significant I often am unsure what the trends in categorization currently are. I may add them as Women writers and also American novelists based on looking at a similar writer’s article. If some of the potential categories aren’t there I hope someone will add them.

mmme_hardy on Twitter pointed out to me immediately that the discussion on this topic amongst Wikipedia editors takes place here: Categories for discussion. There is a proposal here to merge “Category:American women novelists” into “Category: American novelists”. The consensus there is to merge the articles, with some people (including me) mentioning the option to merge and keep the category. Merging the category would remove “Category: American women novelists” from many writers’ pages. That also means the page that lists all the pages in Category: American women novelists would no longer exist.

Thus, a well-meaning attempt to include women in the main categorization for American novelists (where many of them were never listed in the first place) may result in women writers no longer being easily identifiable to those who might want to find them. For example if you are looking for Caribbean women writers and they have all been merged into Caribbean writers that might not be a desirable outcome! Filippache mentionsEdwige Danticat being ‘plucked from “Haitian Novelists” and dumped into “Haitian Women Novelists.”’ But I don’t see that plucking happening from the history! Where did that happen!?

Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing lists miscategorization as one of the ways that women’s work is disappeared over time. In this case I am a bit annoyed at the facile reporting that does not seem to take into account the complexity of how information gets added to Wikipedia. If someone can point me to a Category decision from the past where a bunch of editors agreed to remove women en masse from American novelists and put them in American women novelists, go for it, I would appreciate the help in understanding this.

It is much more often the reverse and it would not be too hard to come up with examples — where someone works rather hard on creating a category for Women activists or American anarchist women and then a bunch of other (often male!) editors step in and say that that is sexist and unnecessary and “ghettoizing”. What would be so hard… or so wrong… about listing writers or other people by gender, race, ethnicity or other factor that people who care about identities and identification may want to browse by? Librarians certainly catalogue writers and works that way, and it is extremely useful! I think that the backlash against identity politics is evident here. Yes Wikipedia editors and admins often have systemic bias. In this case the story has been told in an inaccurate way (that I don’t even have time to debunk thoroughly — I am neglecting my day job right now to write this!) and in a way that both discredits reports of actual systemic and individual bias and that harms the visibility of women writers while trying to help that visibility. The sexist thing we should be up in arms about isn’t labelling women as women! It’s the efforts to delete entire categories (like Haitian women writers, for example) because someone has decided that that meta-information is unnecessary “ghettoization”…. the false belief that we should or can be “gender-blind”, “color-blind”, and so on.

30 thoughts on “Journalists don't understand Wikipedia sometimes

  1. Thanks very much for providing this analysis! When I tweeted about it, my hope was that editors would make sure to classify these writers as “American novelists”. I don’t mind at all if they are also in a “women novelists” category (often I go to the bookstore with the specific intention to buy some books by women or Indian writers or whatever — subcategories are helpful!).

    It’s good to know that there is probably no conspiracy here. Hopefully all the newly-outraged people can learn how easy it is to edit Wikipedia themselves and we’ll wind up with more feminist editors contributing to the resource.

  2. hey liz — spot on. Indeed the problem has been from resistance among wikipedia editors (disproportionately white, anglophone, male, professional class….) that categorization should be gender/ethnicity/sexuality-blind. So those of us who study marginalized communities have had to struggle to, say, keep a category for African American scientists; women writers; etc.

    Those struggles are *mostly* won by now, luckily, and Wikipedia “policy” (a rough consensus of editorial decisions and discussions) is that it’s appropriate to categorize someone by some intersection category (say, an identity and a profession, like LGBT writers) if that intersection is a topic in its own right, and if the person is defined in that way. “Women writers” are clearly a topic of their own, for instance, and sexuality/ethnicity/gender are typically considered defining characteristics for people.

    Wikipedia categorization policy also clearly states that these identity intersection categories are *additional* categories, and that people should *not* be removed from non-identity categories. “Women writers” should be in “Writers” and “Women writers” categories.

    It’s helpful that there is attention to gender bias in Wikipedia. (I’d like a little more attention to other biases, at this point, actually.) But as you say, unfortunately too many folks write these stories without really getting it, and their stories end up being sort of crappy. Sure, it’s fun to make fun of Wikipedia, but it would be more helpful if we had more journalists who knew what the fuck they were talking about and used their “journalism” skills to (a) investigate, (b) understand, and (c) report … rather than simply parroting & demonstrating snark.

    O my utopian imaginings.

  3. Laura Shapiro and Laura Quilter, thanks for your comments! Quilter, have you found any discussion that proposed moving women, ie removing the category American novelists and adding American women novelists? I haven’t found that yet, and I’ve looked through a bunch of Category Discussion pages, and the talk pages for both Categories. The edits I’ve found so far on women novelist categories, in a random sample, have been from User:BizarreLoveTriangle (who doesn’t remove the category but simply adds new ones) and Johnpacklambert who is the only person so far I’ve found removing women from American novelists and adding American women novelists. I can’t believe the number of journalists reporting this as “Wikimedia removes women” instead of “One Mormon dude deletes some categories “

  4. Yes to having a subcategory for women authors, for all the reasons you state. And it is certainly true that journalists are clueless about Wikipedia at times. (’s headline about how the “forced gender migration” started happening on Tuesday is both unnecessarily inflammatory and flat-out wrong (the recategorizations started happening much earlier).

    However, there is some “there” there in this case, as you’ll find if you look at the user contributions of an editor named John Pack Lambert. On April 13th and the days immediately previous, he added the “American women novelists” category to many pages while also removing the “American novelists” category. This was clearly an intentional concerted effort on the part of at least this one individual, who has since started contributing to the discussion about the gendered category here:

    His defense of his actions boils down to, “You complainers don’t understand how categories work! I’m just trying to clean things up! Plus, nobody complained before! This is all a big upset over nothing!” At no point does he show that he understands Wikipedia’s policy about gender neutrality for categories; neither does he explain why he chose to start moving women en masse into a subcategory without also doing the same for men. This isn’t the only focus area of his gender recategorizing, either — he’s done the same to many women who were formerly listed under the “American television actors” category and have been moved to the subcategory of “American television actresses”.

    So… it’s not a conspiracy, as far as I can tell. But something bad and sexist definitely happened, even if it was not a fully conscious attempt to make women disappear.

    p.s. Not sure if you saw my comment on the Wikipedia discussion page, but I replied with some similar thoughts to one of your comments there (under the name “JLeland”).

  5. Hi Janice! Triumvirago reunited!!!

    I did take a look at John Pack Lambert. His edits did start much earlier than Tuesday, and he is the only user I have found making such edits to Category: American novelists. From poking around at his stuff I thought him a bit obtuse and misguided (and a bit defensive) but not malicious. He is probably about to get some journalist questions. I wish the NYT journalist had not made the claim about “forced migration on Tuesday”. So far I’ve found no evidence of anything forced, or really any discussion prior to the NYT article.

  6. I had a look at a couple of the edit histories you linked to and I think you may have missed something.

    According to this diff, Tartt’s article was indeed moved from “American novelists” to “American women novelists” on October 19 last year:

    Amy Tan was removed from “American novelists” on 13 September last year (in order to move to a finer category “American novelists of Asian descent”) and added to “American women novelists” by a different editor on 24 March.

    I don’t think these were intentional attempts at erasure. As you note there are good reasons for having “American women novelists” as a category, and WP tries to avoid listing redundant parent categories. But there’s an asymmetry in the outcome; IMHO unless we’re going to move the men to “American male novelists” it might be better to waive the usual guideline on removing the parent.

    1. Interestingly, though the “parent or daughter category only” guideline gets quoted a lot, it’s not actually Wikipedia’s own policy for these categories: Wikipedia:Categorization/Ethnicity, gender, religion and sexuality

      As another example, a female heads of government category is valid as a topic of special encyclopedic interest, though it does not need to be balanced directly against a “Male heads of government” category … Both male and female heads of government should continue to be filed in the appropriate gender-neutral role category (e.g. Presidents, Monarchs, Prime Ministers, Governors General).

      The idea seems to be that single-gender categories are useful (and should be used where appropriate) but they shouldn’t be exclusive; people should only be migrated out of the main category when it’s completely split by gender.

      (Of course, categorisation guidelines are not always followed in practice, as we’ve discovered…)

      1. I think part of the problem with the way that guideline is worded is that it’s coming from the perspective that the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Kim Campbell, Jenny Shipley and Julia Gillard, and for that matter James Callaghan, Brian Mulroney, Robert Muldoon and Bob Hawke, wouldn’t be directly in “Category:Heads of government” in the first place, but doesn’t explicitly say it as such, probably because those who wrote it never expected them to be.

        Rather all eight would be expected to be subcategorised in the relevant category for Prime Ministers of their respective countries and a “Heads of government” category would be the top of a tree divided up by country. Thatcher, Campbell, Shipley and Gillard would also be in a “Female heads of government” category without creating one for male HoGs to put Callaghan, Mulroney, Muldoon and Hawke in. But you wouldn’t go creating “Female Prime Ministers of New Zealand” and separating Shipley and Helen Clark from Muldoon, John Key and all the rest.

        The category system as described in the guideline and operated in practice isn’t intended to have a single category that contains every single Head of Government there’s ever been who has an article on Wikipedia to allow people to see them all at once – for one reason the system only displays 200 articles at a time, making it hard to meaningfully browse categories in the thousands. But whereas it’s easy to divide up Heads of Government by country with only a few hard cases, it’s much harder when it comes to fields such a novelists where even dividing by country still creates huge numbers and not every novelist is easy to allocate to one or more clear genres. This results in lots articles being left in the top or near top level category and generating the impression that everyone should be listed there as a matter of course.

        Ideally Category:American novelists should directly contain no biography articles at all; it should just be relevant lists and sub-categories by genre and any other characteristic deemed necessary and novelists should appear in all the sub-categories relevant to them.

  7. Thank you Geoffrey! I stand corrected! Well, it certainly has brought more widespread attention to issues of taxonomy, categories in Wikimedia, tagging, and cataloguing in general!

    1. Zil, to me this seems like a bit of a different question for athletes, who have traditionally been explicitly divided into men’s and women’s competitions, i.e. men do not compete against women in most sports – which is not true of the literary world (or politics, business, etc.).

      The Wikipedia policy Andrew cites above makes sense to me: In many cases, having a “women ____” makes sense as a subcategory of interest, whereas “men ____” does not, due to historical overrepresentation of men and underrepresentation of women.

  8. Yes… I missed that… as Geoffrey pointed out and as I already thanked him for doing. It doesn’t change my criticism of the articles, or my conclusion about what should be done.

    1. I’m with you, Richard. And I’m glad it came from a dude. Too many guys are bitter because they can’t get a date with Jennifer Lawrence so they take it out on random women on the Internet. This could describe the “volunteers” on Wikipedia who are too eager to “volunteer” to women’s detriment.
      Making a “you don’t understand” argument which you support with facts —then finding out your facts are wrong—should provoke an apology.
      I’m not holding my breath.

    2. agreed — if the facts supporting the claim are debunked, there goes the claim… it may or may not be true, but the argument used prior is now failed.

  9. I’m sorry but I have to agree with some of JPLs comments – as I posted elsewhere, some of the commenters here are misunderstanding the point of categories. Saying that all women novelists should be in both Cat:American female novelists and Cat:American novelists means you don’t understand diffusion to subcategories. Many of these women writers who aren’t showing up in Cat:American novelists are already categorized in one of the 10 sub-cats such as Cat:American mystery writers, etc. No-one is being “demoted” – by putting someone as an American mystery writer, wikipedia is not now claiming they are not also a novelist. I do agree however that to avoid the ghetto problem, you need to create a similar “male” cat, and stick all of the men in there. If you *don’t* create a category for men, you are still guilty of the same offense of sexism, by making “women” into a special group worth of note, but blending men and women together in the same top level category. It cuts both ways.

    I also agree with the points above on sloppy journalism. If people want to be offended by wikipedia category structures, there are a lot worse offenses than this one.

    There’s also another, meta-issue going on here – wikipedia is run by volunteers, and some volunteers are more eager than others – say for example those willing to categorize people by characteristic X. So often times, the reason the category system doesn’t match reality is simply there aren’t enough people who care that much to clean it up – so you end up with little islands of clarity around specific sub-genres, but then the more generic cats just become cluttered with thousands of cruftily categorized articles. This has a lot more to do with the volunteer nature of wikipedia than any sort of systemic bias IMHO.

  10. None of this changes the fact that there is no category for “Men American Writers” because the default state of humanity is assumed to be male.

    1. Well, you’re not suppose think getting a category all to yourselves apart from where the boys get to play is really sexist. If you’re a lady writer, people are going to look for you with the other lady writers, not with “the writers”. Duh!

      I used to be librarian. My main task at the time was converting the old, physical card catalog to a new online system. So I know a thing or two about how to organize things while intuiting how people will look for them. That meant WEB DuBois fell under Black Writers, African-American Writers and American Writers, because those are all reasonably possible ways somone might search for him. I was doing this on a system that was vastly less sophisticated than Wiki’s. Not sure there is a decent argument for categorizing a writer under American Women Writers while *also excluding her* from American Writers based on her gender and the presumption that when people search for her, they will be looking of her primarily by her gender. In fact I’m pretty sure there’s not. I have no idea what the author is trying to prove here.

  11. actually, there is now a category for American men writers – if you think the category should continue to exist, you should go to the dicussion page and share your POV.

    Another point, linked to the librarian’s point above – the library of congress itself has categories for women novelists and novelists – no male category. Do you think people will start writing letters to the library of congress too? Wikipedia is simply reflecting the current reality, which is that women’s issues (and women) often get a special shelf. Whether that is realizing a difference or ghettoizing is really just about POV – I personally think that we shouldn’t differentiate except in rare cases, and when we do split by gender, have a male cat as well. It’s also clear that male studies is now a subject in its own right, so the argument that women’s studies is more special is also slowly being eroded. Anything we can do to avoid the hetero-male-norming is a good thing IMHO.

  12. A few years ago there was a discussion on getting a wikipedia feature to allow intersection of categories (e.g., one should be able to search for ‘men’ and ‘lyrical poets’ and get a list of all articles with both categories, men lyrical poets [or even Peruvian men lyrical poets]).
    there is a mediawiki extension, DynamicPageList to do this
    The main problem might be the load this would add to the system.

    This would both solve the problem of finding women engineers and avoid the problem of the ghetto.

  13. I had always thought that this was another example of how conspiracies are not required for really blatantly sexist things to happen. Did someone assert that this sexist categorization on Wikipedia was the result of a conspiracy of sexist Wikipedia editors and I missed it?

    1. This is an example of 7 or 8 people pointing out to the writer that she is wrong but she’s digging in her heels to support the boyz. Some girls like to do that. You know, I’m not like those other silly girls.

  14. Thank god, the one corner of the internet that understands Wikipedia’s complex dynamics, or at least recognises that Wikipedia *has* complex dynamics.

  15. People fail to understand the nature of categorization when they say people are “demoted” when they are placed in more specific categories. More specific categories exist so that articles will be in fewer categories overall, or be easier to find, or some combination of both.

    Much of this rhetoric would also be helped if people started with the clear precision that we are categorizing articles not people. Some of the categories are more clear this is the case than others.

    The attact on me for adding people to the American television actress category above is 100% unwarented. I also added lots of people to the category American television male actors. I created many of the male dancer categories. It would be nice is people would stop lying about me and my actions.

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