April 25, 2013

Wikipedia: male novelists are “novelists,” female novelists are “women novelists”


Are these “hands” or “women hands”?
Photo: Lane Hartwell on behalf of Wikimedia Foundation, CC BY SA 3.0

Oh, Wikipedia! You encyclopedic embodiment of the male gaze, look what you’ve done now.

The category “American Novelists” includes virtually no women. Attempting to contain the expanding category, Wikipedia editors recently created a subcategory, “American Women Novelists,” stuffing writers like Toni Morrison into a cranny one click below their male peers—and people are upset about it.

Vanity Fair contributing editor Elissa Schappell explained:

It would appear that in order to make room for male writers, women novelists (such as Amy Tan, Harper Lee, Donna Tartt and 300 others) have been moved off the “American Novelists” page and into the “American Women Novelists” category. Not the back of the bus, or the kiddie table exactly–except of course–when you google “American Novelists” the list that appears is almost exclusively men (3,387 men). The explanation on the pages is that the list of American Novelists is too long, therefore sub-categories are necessary.

Wikipedia editors haven’t quite finished the process, as Amanda Fillapacci noted over at the New York Times:

So far, female authors whose last names begin with A or B have been most affected, although many others have, too…Some lucky female novelists, mostly the ones who are further down in the alphabet, haven’t been gotten to yet and are still in the big category “American Novelists.” Some are in both categories. But probably not for long.

Within the Wikipedia community, women make up only 15% of contributors and only 9% of editors, so this unfortunate reshuffling hardly comes as a surprise. Within the publishing community, it comes as more of the same sore thing. Women writers are consistently underrepresented, their work receiving much less attention than that of their male counterparts. In 2012 the New York Review of Books reviewed only 40 female authors, as opposed to 215 male authors.

The subcategory “American women novelists” simply reflects a widespread and belittling perception of women writers that already exists. But in reflecting that perception, Wikipedia perpetuates it, and the sexism marches on.

Update: If you’re interested, you can read the page’s discussion log here.

Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.