One Tool in the Fight Against Wikipedia’s Notorious Gender Bias

Can an obscure 19th-century literary form help solve a 21st-century problem?

Women make up less than 19 percent of Wikipedia's biographies. (Christian Rummel / iStock)
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With nearly six million articles in English alone, Wikipedia is the world’s go-to resource for facts on topics from “the arts” to “berserk llama syndrome.” Still, there’s one area where the crowd-sourced reference falls short: the achievements of women, who make up less than 19 percent of Wikipedia’s biographies.

But there might just be a 19th-century solution to this 21st-century problem: prosopographies, now-obscure collections of biographical sketches of prominent men and women.

Wikipedia’s gender imbalance reflects the site’s contributors, who are about 90 percent male, but it is also a result of its “notability” standard, says Michelle Moravec, a historian at Rosemont College. Under the rule, Wikipedia subjects need to have received “significant coverage” in published sources, historically a high bar for women. “Notability is not a neutral concept,” Moravac says. Even physicist Donna Strickland was not notable enough for the online encyclopedia—right up until she won a Nobel Prize in 2018.

That’s where prosopographies come in. The volumes are a citable source of information about accomplished women who might not otherwise meet the notability standard. Over the last 15 years, University of Virginia English professor Alison Booth has collected 1,272 prosopographies and assembled an online database of more than 7,500 women featured in their pages. It has served as a resource for thousands of Wikipedia pages, about women such as Maria Gowen Brooks, whose poetry was praised by Edgar Allan Poe, and Alice Marval, who qualified as a physician at a time when women were often barred from the profession.

Booth’s work also reveals how “notability” has changed: “Famous beauties” was once one of the biggest categories of notable women.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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