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

It's a widespread problem.

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.

On social media, a debate has been raging over the accuracy of my pieces. At least one writer has been widely retweeted and quoted on Twitter as having "debunked" my original op-ed (claiming, incorrectly, that Donna Tartt and Amy Tan had never been removed from the "American Novelists" category). This has helped contribute to the misperception— which has been repeated on Wikipedia "Talk" pages—that this re-categorization of women novelists was the work of a single editor.

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:

Presented by

Amanda Filipacchi is the author of the novels Nude Men, Vapor, and Love Creeps

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