Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
At school, my daughter was admonished never to quote Wikipedia as a source in her history essays, so when an invite to a Women in Red editing event from Edinburgh University’s Wikimedian in Residence popped into my inbox, I was intrigued. Universities collaborating with Wikimedia: Who Knew? Women in Red: What was that about? With a free afternoon, I thought, Why Not and signed up.
It was a freezing Edinburgh afternoon, one of those when the wind cuts right through your bones, your fingers curl up inside your lined gloves and you feel yourself shrinking into your clothes. The warmth of the lecture theatre was welcome.
Tables laden with mountains of books, trolleys piled with more books forming an avenue along one wall, it was a book reader’s heaven. All of the books were either by or about Scottish women, or women with an Edinburgh or Edinburgh University connection, and few of those women had a Wiki page.
The Women in Red Wikiproject seeks to add a page for each of the inspiring women who are missing from Wikipedia, and to change red names blue. Click a blue name on Wikipedia, and you are taken to that person’s page. Click a name in red and nothing happens. That person has no page. Only 18% of the English biographies on Wikipedia are about women and Wiki wants to change that.
That Women in Red day, the focus was on Scottish women writers. After a tutorial on editing Wikipedia, surrounded by the books, I jumped straight in.
Having recently read Janet Schaw’s account of the early days of the American revolution and Magdalene De Laney’s account of a week at Waterloo, I was amazed to see neither had a Wiki page. I could remedy that.
Very soon, I was into the Wiki World. You can start a page on very little information. The gatekeepers will slap on warnings, correct your grammar and edit to house rules, but it felt good to get the basic facts about women lost from history onto the world’s largest research site. The gatekeepers will ask you for sources to back up what you say, and that is where the fun begins. Wiki wants secondary sources, not primary research.
One of the problems with history is Thomas Carlyle’s Great Men Theory, that the soul of the whole world’s history is the history of great men, “that all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world”
So much of our written history is about men, that trying to find secondary sources about women whose biography has never been written to satisfy the Wikipedia gatekeepers can be difficult. Trying to find an image in the pre-camera phone at the ready days, is nigh on impossible for poorer women who never sat for a portrait. Trying to correct myths, e.g. about a woman being a whore or prostitute, needs a secondary source.
I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Women in Red project, adding a number of pages about female writers, and have signed up for the editathon taking place later this month. If you are looking for something to do before lockdown is completely eased, why not get involved with a project to help celebrate the achievements of Women on Wikipedia.
Thomas Carlyle lectures on heroism in 1840, later published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History,
Julia is a corporate lawyer by day, and a historical detective in her spare time. She researches the 18th century and the women history has overlooked. She competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, for fencing and was granted an OBE in 1999. Today, she lives outside Edinburgh. Follow the instagram link below for daily posts on inspirational and controversial women.