Writing Women in the Digital Age

This is the fourth post in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Women’s History Month.

By Erica Fagen, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

Last week I had the great opportunity to facilitate a workshop entitled “Wikipedia 101 for Women’s History” at the annual National Council for Public History conference in Monterey, California. The main question of this session was the following: how is women’s history written on Wikipedia? The age of Web 2.0 provides an array of platforms to share, post, and tweet information on a variety of topics. What is unique about Wikipedia, and how can we as historians influence what people read? With only 13 percent to 15 percent of the English-language Wikipedia editors being women, there are evidently great strides to be made on how women and minority groups are represented on this massive encyclopaedic site.

My own experience with editing Wikipedia goes back to my first public history class in Fall 2007 at Concordia University. As an undergraduate student who recently took a survey course on medieval history, I chose to edit the entry on “Catherine of Siena,” a well-known Italian saint. I decided to pick a famous woman in history, as I realized then that women are underrepresented on Wikipedia. Over the past six-and-a-half years, I’ve noticed the entry go through several changes, including further textual analysis, additional images and an expanded bibliography. This exercise helped me better prepare for the workshop on NCPH.

The workshop was co-led by Marla Miller and Adrianne Wadewitz, with Adrianne having worked on Wikipedia for almost ten years. Adrienne showed the workshop participants how to become “Wikipedians” — people signed up for accounts, learned how to incorporate links and images, and what kind of text to include in the edited entries. We discussed how famous women like Harriet Tubman are portrayed on Wikipedia. In addition, Wadewitz pointed out that ethnic groups are severely underrepresented, and used the entry “Los Angeles” as an example. Wadewitz told all of us that as historians we should and can make a significant impact on how information is disseminated on the Web. In order for more women to be represented, we need more feminists to edit entries. We also need established scholars to edit entries on women like Harriet Tubman. As a graduate student, I could not agree more. We need more feminists, graduate students, young professors, and tenured faculty to edit these entries. Only with a collective effort can we truly have an impact on Wikipedia.

Writing women’s history on Wikipedia has its challenges. As entries can be edited over and over again, there is no guarantee that our edits will be preserved. There is also the larger problem of writing women’s history online — as the recent controversy with Veronica Strong-Boag, a highly-respected historian of women, and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights has shown. However, if there are more and more people editing the English-language Wikipedia (and hopefully the French, German, others), we can begin to see concrete change in how people across the world perceive and think about women’s history.

External Links:

National Council for Public History


Women’s History Sites

See Veronica Strong-Boag, “International Women’s Day (IWD) and Human Rights 2014, ActiveHistory.ca, March 7, 2014, http://activehistory.ca/2014/03/international-womens-day-iwd-and-human-rights-2014/.

  1. Joyce Berkman said:

    HI Amanda and others who’ve contributed to this excellent means for communicating about women’s history. I appreciate all of your contributions. Thank you! If I weren’t so busy (being retired hasn’t changed that reality) I would’ve submitted a blog too.
    Joyce Berkman

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