Amherst Magazine

Wikipedia Watchdogs

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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Deborah Samson, resenting a letter to Gen. George Washington, impersonated a man in order to serve the Continental Army.

Eighty-seven percent of contributors to Wikipedia are male. This statistic would hardly surprise Professor Martha Saxton’s students.

Next spring, for the third time in four years, Saxton will offer a women’s history course in which students research the role of women in various events and groups in U.S. history— the Puritans, the American Revolution, the Gold Rush—and then revise Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, to integrate women into articles that are predominantly about men.

“The idea was to mainstream women’s history into general Wikipedia articles,” says Lee Penwell ’11, who took Saxton’s course in 2008. A geology major, Penwell studied women in the Gold Rush, including prostitutes (“The Gold Rush was a big draw for prostitutes, because there were so many men,” she says) and boardinghouse keepers (“A lot of men would pay quite a bit for a home-cooked meal and a warm bed to sleep in”). She looked into property rights for California women during this period and the roles of Native American and Chinese women.

Saxton—who served as the faculty escort to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales when he received an Amherst honorary degree at Commencement this year (see page 26)—came up with the assignment knowing that many in academia consider the encyclopedia unreliable. Where some saw only a problem, Saxton saw opportunity: Wikipedia is hardly the first male-centric encyclopedia, but it’s the only one that Saxton and her students are free to revise. With the help of Scott Payne from Academic Technology Services at Amherst, she and her students learned how to edit the entries and create new ones.

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One of the few photos to note the role of women in the California Gold Rush

A professor of history and women’s and gender studies and the Elizabeth W. Bruss Reader, Saxton says the project helps to make the American historical narrative more complex. “This is partly an issue of credit,” she says. “Women are left out of most of the discussions of the main events of our history, except for the ones that directly concern women, like women’s suffrage.”

Jessica Sleevi ’10, a history major, edited Wikipedia’s main article on the Social Security Act. “Essentially it had almost nothing about women,” Sleevi says. In 2008, she edited the entry to explain that when the act was created, most women and minorities were excluded from unemployment insurance and pensions. In addition, she reorganized the entire article, breaking out the amendments by decade. Today, most of her edits stand.

Penwell’s experience was somewhat less satisfying. Minutes after she added paragraph after paragraph about the Gold Rush, she says, “it was all deleted and taken down.” Determined, she did a second edit, inserting shorter blocks of text and creating a separate page—which still exists—on women in the Gold Rush. Several of her additions remain today. However, others have been deleted, including, to her disappointment, every mention of prostitution.

For Emily Neill ’10, a history major who took two iterations of the course, revising Wikipedia was a rare oppor­tunity to write something that didn’t simply end up in a file on her computer. “It was kind of a sin of omission that women were often ignored, as were minorities, in the grand, sweeping articles,” she says. A section she wrote on black women in the American Revolution can still be found on the site. “It was really great,” she says, “to do something that high school students would look at, that people would read.”

Top photo © Bettman/Corbis; bottom photo courtesy of California State Library