Is Wikipedia's "American Women Novelists" Category Horribly Sexist? Some People Seem To Think So

My first reaction to this was “My stars! I am offended! I shall retweet this to remind myself to read it later and prepare to flame with righteous outrage!”

Apr 26, 2013 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

This week, you may have heard that Wikipedia is sexist towards women novelists. It all started with a piece in the “New York Times” by Amanda Filipacchi, who claimed that women authors were being removed from the “American novelists” category and shifted into the “American women novelists” category, thus displaying sexism.

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.

My first reaction to this, being on the road and without the time to poke around, was “my stars! I am offended! I shall retweet this to remind myself to read it later and prepare to flame with righteous outrage!”

The next day, I noticed that Liz Henry was commenting on the issue. Liz is active in the tech community as well as the disability community, she’s a poet, and she’s an incredibly smart lady whom I respect immensely. And what she had to say was this:

There are things to be upset about re: sexism and bias in Wikipedia editing and adminning, but this isn't one of them.

“But, but, Liz,” I thought, “they’re taking ladies out of the American novelists category and sticking them in a different category, so that someone looking to spontaneously discover new American novelists won’t find ladies! That’s uncool! How can you justify that!”

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How will people find Anne Rice?!

Photo credit: Heather Paul.

Fortunately I didn’t actually say this, because Liz actually did her fact-checking, and she neatly debunked a number of the claims made in the original article as well as follow-up pieces. She noted that a look at the public and readily available history of edits and reversions on some of the authors cited, such as Amy Tan and Harper Lee, indicated that they had actually never been categorized as American novelists in the first place. They hadn’t been moved at all.

That such a basic error had been made in the original piece immediately made the rest of the commentary suspect.

She posted a more lengthy debunk pointing out that a couple of different things were going on here, and making a strong argument in defense of refined categorization on Wikipedia and other sites -- an argument I actually agree with. If I want to find, for example, books by indigenous Australian authors to read, I want a list of indigenous Australian authors to quickly look up some options. A list of Australian authors is not so useful.

By getting outraged at the maintenance of separate categories, Henry points out, we’re actually doing a huge disservice to minorities.

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...Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing lists miscategorization as one of the ways that women’s work is disappeared over time.

Are American women novelists also American novelists? Of course they are. But there’s a strong argument for giving them their own category too, to make it much easier for people to discover them -- especially if your goal is in fact to increase the number of people reading and talking about American women novelists.

She notes that there’s a discussion to merge the two categories, with some supporters (including Henry herself) arguing that the two should be merged while retaining the “American women novelists” category to ensure that women writers are easy to find.

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Judy Blume: American novelist, or American WOMAN novelist?

Photo credit: Carl Lender.

And Liz hits on one of the most important reasons we should be concerned about this issue. It’s not that there’s a category for women novelists: it’s that well-meaning people are angry about the category because they don't understand how cataloging works.

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.

We’re living in a society where people are increasingly committed to claiming to be “blind” to differences, which in fact only underscores social differences. The classic example is with so-called “color-blindness,” which has actually been linked with increased expressions of racism.

Declaring yourself neutral doesn't actually mean you are, and refusing to acknowledge differences doesn't actually address the root issues that lead to marginalization.

We need meta-data that helps us find American women novelists, or Aboriginal Australian writers, or lesbian writers, because when they’re swallowed up in the whole, no one can find them, and they remain in a state of undiscoverability. Think about, as Liz says, going to the library: you like fine-grained cataloging information because it makes it faster to find what you are looking for.

If you want information on how to repair your car, “car repair” is a large and kind of useless category. Breaking down car repair by make could make it easier. Going even deeper, into models, would be much better. If you could search by a date range, you could find what you need in a flash: “Honda Civic manuals 1990-2000” is much easier than “car repair” if you have a 1995 Honda Civic and you need to replace the master cylinder.

I was wandering around the Art Institute of Chicago with my friends yesterday and when we were in the American Wing, I was initially irritated that “American Art” and “Native American Art” were in two different galleries.

“But aren’t Native Americans Americans?” I asked.

“But don’t you think it does a disservice to them to lump them in, especially given the history of racism and dismissal of Native art?” my host said, only he didn’t put it quite that neatly.

And I realized he was right. Separating the galleries wasn’t about making Native American artists “lesser than,” but about making sure their art was respected in its own right, and creating an environment where people actively searching for it could easily locate it. Both are in the wing dedicated to American art, and they're broken into subcategories for the benefit of visitors, just like art from across Asia isn't displayed willy-nilly in one gallery just because it's all Asian. 

That’s the same goal with Wikipedia categories.

As Liz points out, categorization trends on Wikipedia are constantly changing, and that’s part of what happens when you operate a community in constant flux with constant new inputs and information. That’s a good thing overall, because it means that things generally trend in an improving direction, and there are a lot of women editors working very hard to address the very real issues with sexism on Wikipedia.

Discussions about categorization are important, and sometimes highlight the need to rethink the way something is organized. The great thing about taxonomy is that it provides lots of opportunities for more accurately identifying and describing things. In this case, though, outsiders to Wikipedia are making assumptions without fully understanding how the system works. It's telling, and it erases the work of women working inside the site to make it better.