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UK academic’s Wikipedia project raises profile of women around the world

<span>Lucy Moore: ‘Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I got really stuck on Vatican City’.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Lucy Moore: ‘Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I got really stuck on Vatican City’.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

A UK academic who has completed a project creating a Wikipedia page for a woman in every country in the world is calling for more women to contribute to the world’s largest encyclopedia.

Lucy Moore, an archaeologist and curator who also works as an unpaid carer, began the mammoth project in 2021 from her sofa in Leeds, completing it last week – “unsurprisingly, perhaps, I got really stuck on Vatican City”.

She has now written biographies of 532 women since 2019, when she first became a Wikipedia editor, including scientists, monarchs, activists, writers and women whose faces are well known but their stories are not, such as Sharbat Gula, the refugee with striking green eyes pictured in the famous Afghan Girl portrait from 1984.

Less than 20% of the biographies on English language Wikipedia are about women, although this is an improvement on 16% in 2014, when “a range of different editors started to get together and say, ‘Actually, we really need to change this’,” said Moore.

She began by making a table of UN member states and partially recognised UN states, such as Kosovo and Taiwan, and worked through the list based on who caught her eye.

She has now also written dozens of entries for women in autonomous regions such as Hong Kong, Zanzibar and Tibet, and those in overseas territories.

There were many women she had expected to find already had pages, such as Julia Chinn, an enslaved woman who was the common-law wife of the ninth vice-president of the United States, Richard Mentor Johnson.

“She’s really interesting and I was really surprised no one had written about her before,” she said.

She tended to focus on women who share her interests, she said, such as poets, activists and coin specialists, known as numismatists, which is her own field.

“I find it really calming,” she said. “I can go and bury myself in something that is totally, totally different from my day to day.”

But it has not been easy. She said one of the issues was that Wikipedia required three reliable sources for each biography and, while there may have been a lot written on social media about some of the women, they may not have appeared in newspapers, especially in countries where women’s achievements are not taken seriously.

The reaction to her project has been positive, she said. “No one’s said anything nasty on Twitter, though I expect that will come.”

Moore points to the work of her fellow editor Jess Wade, who wrote a number of Wikipedia pages about female scientists, “and then another editor came along and nominated them all for deletion. It was really nasty.”

She said there was some general criticism on social media that Wikipedia editors were “making (the gender balance) more of an issue than it actually is”.

“And I find that attitude really annoying, to be honest, because it’s men who say that primarily.”

She pointed to research from 2022 that found there were more Wikipedia entries about football and footballers than there were about women.

However, Moore added: “Some of the most prolific people who work to redress the gender balance on Wikipedia are men and I’m not sure they would all describe it as being a feminist, but that’s what they’re doing.”

Run as a non-profit, open-source encyclopedia that is free to use, Wikipedia can be edited by anyone but only a fifth of its 124,000 regularly active editors are women.

“We do need to get more women to edit, but it’s not just as simple as saying, ‘Hey, women, come and edit’, because we have so much more pressure on our time. There’s all these different studies that show that women have less time to devote to things of interest. And that’s before you even get on to being able to access sources, being able to access particular academic journal articles, which are paywalled.”

Class was also a factor in who contributes and appears on Wikipedia, as was access to education, especially in countries where women are not routinely educated.

“It just gets more and more systemic, the more you look at it,” she said.

Some of the women recognised by Moore

Julia Chinn (c. 1790 – July 1833) was an American plantation manager and enslaved woman of mixed race, who was the common-law wife of the ninth vice-president of the United States, Richard Mentor Johnson. She had two children with the plantation owner and congressman Johnson, who inherited her when his father died, though she would fulfil what at the time was considered the role of the wife of a politician. She was never freed.

Sharbat Gula (born c. 1972) is an Afghan woman who became internationally recognised as the 12-year-old subject in Afghan Girl, a 1984 portrait taken by American photojournalist Steve McCurry that was later published on the cover of National Geographic. The portrait was shot at Nasir Bagh, Pakistan, where Gula was living as a refugee after fleeing the Soviet–Afghan war. Having raised a family in Pakistan for 35 years, Gula was deported to Afghanistan in 2017, later being granted asylum in Italy.

Jeanne Gapiya-Niyonzima (born 12 July 1963, in Bujumbura) is a human rights activist from Burundi. She is the chair and founder of the National Association for Support for HIV-Positive People with Aids (ANSS) and was the first person from the country to publicly admit they had HIV. Gapiya-Niyonzima won the World Food Program prize in 2003, in 2011 addressed the United Nations committee for HIV/Aids in New York and was selected as the Burundian Woman of Courage of the Year in 2012.

Ólafía Einarsdóttir (28 July 1924 – 19 December 2017) was an Icelandic archaeologist and historian, becoming the first Icelander to complete a degree in archaeology. She taught at the University of Copenhagen and published many works about Icelandic sagas and Viking history. Ólafía was awarded an honorary doctorate by the faculty of history and philosophy at the University of Iceland in 2009. The journal Ólafía, published by the Icelandic Association of Archaeologists since 2013, is named after her.

Gloria Meneses (1910 – 1996) was a Uruguayan performer and activist who lived openly from 1950 until her death as travesti – a term used in Latin America to designate people who were assigned male at birth and develop a feminine gender identity. Highly unusual in Latin America at the time, Meneses’ life has been widely honoured in films and exhibitions since her death in 1996.