In a New York Times op-ed last week, Amanda Filipacchi wrote about something strange going on over at Wikipedia. Apparently, editors are moving the names of women novelists from the category “American Novelists,” and putting them in a new category: “American Women Novelists.” Men’s names, of course, remain only in “American Novelists.”
According to Filipacchi,
“It appears that many female novelists, like Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt and some 300 others, have been relegated to the ranks of “American Women Novelists” only, and no longer appear in the category “American Novelists.” If you look back in the “history” of these women’s pages, you can see that they used to appear in the category “American Novelists,” but that they were recently bumped down. Male novelists on Wikipedia, however—no matter how small or obscure they are—all get to be in the category “American Novelists.”
Since Filipacchi’s piece, other writers have reported on it as well, and if you visit the Wikipedia pages it seems that they’ve halted this nonsense–for now. It would be one thing if Wikipedia created separate categories for both men and women. This might make sense in regards to simpler searching for a particular author. But to create a “women’s” list and remove those names from the master list of novelists suggests that women writers are a derivative from the “normal” (read: male) category of writers.
So why is this happening in the first place? According to Deanna Zandt in an article for Forbes Woman (which is another interesting derivation–is this happening everywhere?),
“Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a young, white, child-free man’s perspective, of course– it’s just that there are tons of other perspectives in the world that should influence how a story gets told.”
If Wikipedia truly wants to provide users with neutral, unbiased information, it’s going to need more women editors. Duh. If “male” is the norm–the original category from which all others deviate–then sexism is also the norm. It’s subtle, and for that reason, it’s pervasive. It’s the status quo. And it’s not just up to Wikipedia to fix it. It’s up to us, too.
In the words of Zandt:
“[I]t’s not enough that we create an open system and say that everyone has the opportunity to work on it– we need to make intentional interventions into the status quo that involve raising the voices of those who are not heard as often.”
The truth of the matter? As long as we allow “the norm” to speak for us and to structure how we think about the world, we can always expect to be described in adjectives that reference our “otherness.” And right now, we’re allowing ourselves to be defined in terms of that difference.