Random musings

Wikipedia: rescuing women’s stories from the forest of history

The year is 2220. Three women are interested in the untold and undertold stories of Irish women from the 21st century. Do they take off on a road trip to explore heritage sites? Assuming humans are still around in 200 years, it’s likely they’ll be digging in digital archives as that’s where so much of our life is lived now. According to archaeologist Dr Rebecca Lambert, future archaeologists “won’t have trowels. They’ll be excavating via advanced search engines. They’ll be going through the topography of people’s online lives.”  The world’s biggest digital repository of human knowledge is Wikipedia. Yet of all the biographies on there, fewer than 18% are about women (in English. In Welsh Wicipedia, it’s 50:50). So if future archaeologists, historians and bloggers are to discover women’s stories we need to redress this balance and get some more articles written about women.

There are a few challenges. History has done a pretty good job of not remembering women so there are fewer sources to draw on. Even in public records, women can get ‘lost’ if they change their surname on marriage. Irish suffragette Mary (Dolly) Maloney who followed Churchill on the campaign trail in 1908, ringing a bell to drown him out, got a Wikipedia article only recently (thanks to @Macfack) because of a lack of sources and numerous name changes. Accounts of a man’s achievements may mention ‘his wife’ without actually naming her or acknowledging the significant contribution she made to his success. The Matilda Effect describes how women in STEM who have made discoveries and advances in their field have often been overlooked as a male colleague or supervisor gets the credit, or even in Jocelyn Bell Burnell‘s case, a Nobel Prize. Scientific progress is still largely seen as a male domain. This all feeds into what we as a society decide is ‘notable’. 

Wikipedia is not a finite resource: we can tell all the stories – the female ones, the POC ones, the queer ones, the trans ones…

Wikipedia itself is an internet success story – an open repository of human knowledge to which anyone can contribute and which is always free to access. But many people misunderstand what Wikipedia is, viewing it as a monolithic organisation that decides who gets added and then writes the article about them. It also suffers from the perception that content is often inaccurate and can be easily vandalised so is not to be trusted. Behind the scenes, Wikipedia is actually a worldwide community of editors who work voluntarily to add to its content and ensure that content meets standards of notability and accuracy. Everything added to a Wikipedia article has to have trusted sources or it will swiftly be flagged or deleted. 

But these sources come from the same society that often overlooks, or actively erases, the achievements of people who are not (primarily) male, white, cis and hetero. So it can be difficult to prove women’s notability and source articles appropriately. The other issue is that editors come from that same society, and the majority of them are men. ‘Deletion battles’ where editors flag articles about women for deletion on the grounds of notability make for good clickbait but when that happens, other editors will weigh in and the articles will be retained. That’s how communities, and wikis, work. 

There are projects that are trying to get more women involved in editing and telling women’s stories. Women in Red is a Wiki project to address gender bias. Its aim is to turn women ‘blue’ – meaning that there is a Wikipedia article about them. People mentioned in someone else’s article who don’t have one of their own are highlighted in red. The University of Edinburgh, where they have a Wikimedian in residence, ran a project last year using Wikidata to map all the women who were burned as witches in Scotland. Scientist Dr Jess Wade is adding the achievements of women in STEM (@jesswade) to Wikipedia one article at a time.

You can learn to edit most Tuesday and Thursday lunchtimes with Wikimedian Rebecca O’Neill

There’s an active Wikimedia community in Ireland too (@WikimediaIE). The project coordinator is Dr Rebecca O’Neill, who has set herself the challenge of writing an article a day throughout 2020 (@RestlessCurator). Rebecca produces video guides to becoming a Wiki editor and can be found live on Twitch most Tuesdays and Thursdays at lunchtime. Other editors have ensured that all the women of 1916 featured in the 77 women quilt have their own articles. 

The Wikimedia community organises ‘editathons’ focused on researching, creating and editing articles around a particular theme, such as women in STEM or female artists. They are “brave and safe spaces” that welcome absolute beginners as well as seasoned editors. These editathons have now moved online so anyone, anywhere can take part. We recently joined one organised by Glasgow’s Protests and Suffragettes project (@ScotSuffragette). We learned to add fancy bits such as infoboxes and templates to articles already created about Scottish suffragettes, while having fascinating chats with interesting people about women with amazing stories. One of the editathon’s hosts, Wikimedian Dr Sara Thomas (@lirazelf), has previously produced an audio ‘folk tale’ called Once Upon an Open about how Wikipedia rescued two women’s forgotten stories from the “forest of history”. 

The Wild Gees in the secret glen, Sligo (Day 2) with We Can Edit speech bubble from Wikipedia Editing Workshop – ‘Protests and Suffragettes’ project (Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.0)

So future historians need YOU! Wikipedia is not a finite resource: we can tell all the stories – the female ones, the POC ones, the queer ones, the trans ones – if we have more editors to tell them, particularly if we have editors from those communities. You don’t need any previous experience, just an interest in uncovering and researching people of interest and access to a laptop to do your editing on. You can sign up for a Wikipedia account now and get started. Read the rules on sources and notability (you can’t add you and your mates), familiarise yourself with the Wikipedia style (neutral) and format for articles, and ask for help from one of the people / projects above if you need it. 


Dr Rebecca Lambert (2020). The Archaeology Podcast. Episode TAS97. Luminary (account needed to access). 

Dr Rebecca O’Neill (2020). Introduction to Wikipedia editing. SwitchTV

Dr Sara Thomas (2019). Once Upon an Open (audio, 8.17). FemEdTech Open Space.

University of Edinburgh (2020). Witchfinder General Data Visualisation (blog).