Wikipedia Creates "American Women Novelist" Category, Crowdsources Sexism


Some may not understand why being moved to a special "American Woman Novelist" category fired up hundreds of female American authors this week, starting with Amanda Filipacchi's New York Times expose of Wikipedia's latest gender-related blundering. The problem? Authors including Amy Tan, Harper Lee and Anne Rice were removed from the "American Novelist" Wikipedia page and put into a separate "American Women Novelist" category.

Award-winning editor Ellen Datlow's letter to Wikipedia says it best:

Datlow has received an answer, and women are being moved back into the regular "novelist" category at a rapid pace. According to Wikipedia, the scheme was a "mistake."

Wikipedia provides crowd-sourced information, and it maintains a record of changes that were made. The "move" of female novelists to their own sub-category, and deletion of their names from the overall "American Novelists" list, thereby making it appear to the student researcher or other visitor that the majority of "regular" American novelists were males, was the work of one Wikipedia user who started the project and apparently got through the first few letters of the alphabet. His Wikipedia user name is "Johnpacklambert."

Prior to the current, active discussion on Wikipedia regarding the "American Novelist" category, the most recent Wikipedia editor suggestion was this:

I am far from being the only writer to question the wisdom of the entire project and nature of the discussion. Novelist and author Geoff Landis is actively commenting as a Wikipedia editor in the current discussion. Landis suggests that these segregation schemes are counterproductive, asking, "is the most important thing about the authors their gender or ethnicity?" The comment about "Group ethnic novelists into one category, like a genre," assumes that a novelist of a certain ethnicity will write "ethnic novels," whatever those might be.

This isn't just ethnic and gender bias, it's boneheadedness. Online and real-world bookstores and libraries already have many classification schemes to categorize books within the broad categories of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. All are based on content, not author gender or ethnicity.

Many highly qualified people have worked on these categories over the years. Some people don't like to use the library catalog, and some people don't want to browse in the bookstore or online using these categories, but it still doesn't change the fact that books have traditionally been published and categorized based upon their contents, not the gender or ethnicity of the author. The fact that any "encyclopedia" acting as a general resource would want to reinvent some type of classification scheme for spurious reasons ("category too long") should call the whole thing into question. This is just one more reason why college and high school instructors need to educate their students about Wikipedia: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Wikipedia's flaw glares in this instance, where an expert with common sense, Geoff Landis, comments with the same weight as idiots coming up with whatever they think at that minute based on no knowledge, experience or forethought whatsoever. 

Wikipedia is by no means all bad. But it needs to rethink the influence it allows certain users, such as John Pack Lambert, to make huge decisions akin to the Dewey Decimal System and the BISAC Subject Headings. Both of those systems considered users and stakeholders at all points of the system and were far from one-person projects. As I type this article, Lambert is sticking with his approach, heedless of the inadvertent ill will his shenanigans have caused the huge crowd-sourced encyclopedia and its many volunteers.

People like Lambert seem irresistibly attracted to Wikipedia as well. It may be the essential nature of a crowd-sourced "encyclopedia" that could eventually encompass "all knowledge" which attracts people who instinctively want to edit, organize and categorize based on their own personal assumptions and taste. Wikipedia is laughably biased toward the tastes and interests of its editors, who are overwhelmingly male and white despite many efforts to change and recruit more diverse volunteers. 

I wrote about this four years ago from an individual author perspective. I noted there was only one female name featured on the main Wikipedia page. I got pretty much the same response then as Ellen Datlow got this morning, although the editor who responded to her was female. Today's front page? 

This is just one segment of the main page, and readers will note the mention of Violeta Chamorro. In addition to the female winner of the recent London Marathon and a South African cricket player, she is the only female mention out of 20 brief featured entries and three major ones. Wikipedia editors will state they are not sexist, because the page also features train wrecks, wars, Chinese dynasties, birds and bugs. The pictured bird is, indeed, a small female of its species, so maybe they are right. 

No, they're not.