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Who Edits History?

Issue 113 — November 18, 2019

I have been secretary of almost every organization I’ve ever belonged to. It started with when I was a Girl Scout. I suppose I was chosen to be secretary because throughout elementary school I carried around a notebook and pencil to write stories. And I quickly learned that she who holds the pencil gets to tell the story of the meeting her way, even with the constrictions of Roberts Rules of Order.

It’s said that the daily news is the first draft of history. Our biases influence our reportage, no matter how objective we aim to be or think we are, because we are all human and are shaped by our identities, our experiences, and our cultures.

My husband the history major is fond of making this definitive-sounding statement: “It’s history.” To which I am quick to reply, “Who wrote it?”

For history is inherently a process of interpretation. Since not everything can be recorded, the choices of the historian as to what is important enough to be included and what those events mean make all the difference in what future generations will believe. This shapes thinking, and that thinking has traditionally been predominantly male. Notwithstanding some excellent female historians today, such as my favorite Doris Kearns Goodwin, most histories leading up to the present have been written by men.

It matters who tells the story and through what lens. It matters who documents what is and decides what it all means.

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He or she forever shapes the framework through which others long hence will see and believe what actually happened. One has only to compare headlines from Fox News and MSNBC to get an obvious example.

You might say that those two media outlets are by their own missions and admission biased toward one interpretation of the news or another.

But even technology ostensibly created to be neutral has been shown to be anything but. Artificial intelligence’s big fail revealing the new Apple cards’s apparent gender bias shows just how important it is to have an inclusive set of designers on any algorithm from the get go.

None other than Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak made public that he got much higher lines of credit for their card applications than his wife did. This was despite their sharing assets. And his wife even has a higher credit score than he does.

I had a flashback to 1975 when I couldn’t get a car loan without a male co-signer despite making more than my husband and probably my father at the time.

Similarly if women aren’t reasonably close to parity when the stories that shape our culture are chosen, framed, and written, another generation will grow up not knowing the achievements of women in history but rather absorbing the biases that favor males by default. I mean, why do we need Women’s History Month after all? And why is the New York Times now unearthing obituaries of groundbreaking women whose deaths went unreported because, well, women’s work was simply not as important as men’s.

That’s why I am all aglow after a reunion of our 50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism, followed by their Wikipedia edit-a-thon cohort project Saturday, hosted by Luminary collaborative hub for women.

As you can see, we had quite a crowd gathered, along with many working remotely.

This photo includes just those of us who were present at Luminary at one moment in time — others came and went throughout the day and many more worked remotely. Thanks, Luminary for hosting us!

Many of them were members of the journalism cohort that has been through Take The Lead’s comprehensive program of training and coaching designed to catapult women into or up through the leadership ranks and to give them not just the skills but also the intention to achieve their highest career dreams.

It’s a volunteer effort,led by experienced and ambitious journalists from our 50 Women in Journalism cohort. Emily Gertz (@ejgertz) has led this effort on the Wikipedia side. Among the planning committee are: Jareen Imam (@JareenAI) and Jeanette Woods (@Jea_Woods), who brought great ideas and told the world about what we’re up to. Katharine Rowlands (@News_Kat) was the originator of this idea, and so much of what we are doing is based on her vision. Angilee Shah (@angshah) has taken the lead in building the community and keeping everyone informed and with the information and spreadsheets needed to get the work done.

Take The Lead Leadership Ambassador Fara Warner (L) and I are admiring the cohort’s big idea and great work to organize this day.

Others had heard about the project and signed up via Women Do News (if you want to learn more or participate in the project, click this link and join us). The intro simply says:

Women are underrepresented in Wikipedia, and women journalists are no exception. Which women journalists do you think should have articles? During Take The Lead’s inaugural “50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism” 2019 leadership training, about two dozen members identified improving the quantity and quality of Wikipedia entries on women in journalism as a significant contribution toward achieving gender parity in the news industry leadership by 2025. We believe that when women’s achievements are better recognized, we can more frequently take our rightful place as leaders in our field.

Their goal is to add and/or edit deserving female journalists to Wikipedia (which overall has a pretty dismal 13 to 17% representation of women as editors and hence — surprise! — as biographical entries). A group of the cohort has been working since May to organize this, learn the ropes and rules of being a Wikipedia editor, creating templates for all of us to use, recruiting over 150 people in and beyond the cohort to participate, and much more. Wikipedia has become such an ubiquitous source of information that what is represented there gets to be — what exists.

It was truly an epic day. The work continues, as they identified over 100 women who ought to have bios on Wikipedia, have as of this writing over 100 articles either edited, or in progress. I personally have taken the assignment of documenting legendary Arizona journalist Sue Clark-Johnson and the highly influential but recently shuttered Women Action Media (WAM).

Hard at work to learn Wikipedia editing rules, choose women to research and place on the frequently referenced digital encyclopedia.

Using the hashtag #womendonews in addition to @takeleadwomen, we trended in New York on twitter for much of the day, to everyone’s excitement, as well.

Like I discovered at age nine, she/he who writes the meeting minutes edits history. Be the one who edits history and makes sure all women, including yourself are appropriately recognized.

50 Women cohort members Jennifer Napier-Pearceand Kim Bui working with an angel over their shoulder and the 9 Leadership Power Tools at their side.

To join this efforthere are a few ways you can continue to get women journalists their due.

1. In the next few weeks, we’ll be working on all the draft articles you create, so we’re seeking editors. If you have any Wikipedia experience, join us on Slack to help us move articles into Wikipedia. (When you sign up at bit.ly/womendonews first, you’ll get an email where you can request a Slack invitation, if you need it.)

2. Continue to take assignments and write, and we will keep helping to get your material into Wikipedia. And remember to let us know when you’ve finished a draft.

3. Keep telling friends and colleagues to join the campaign. Tweet using #womendonews, or tell folks to sign up here: bit.ly/womendonews

GLORIA FELDTis the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.

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