Adonis Diaries

Where are all the women? Margaret E Knight. And Wikipedia

Posted on: December 11, 2016

Where are all the women, Wikipedia?

Dec. 9, 2016

It is often said that women have been written out of history. We have all heard of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, but few are familiar with their contemporary, Margaret E Knight, a prolific American inventor who held over 20 patents and was decorated by Queen Victoria.

Knight created her first device, a safety mechanism for textile machines, after witnessing a factory accident aged just 12. She later invented a machine that created the flat-bottomed paper bags still used in grocery stores today.

When she died in 1914, an obituary described her as a “woman Edison”. Somewhat dispiritingly, she has also been described as “the most famous 19th-century woman inventor”. But how many of us know her name?

Margaret E Knight – a prolific inventor so little-known that we aren’t even able to verify this photo of her.

Margaret E Knight … a prolific inventor so little-known that we aren’t even able to

If you were to try and research Knight’s life and work, you might struggle.

Her Wikipedia profile is just under 500 words long; Edison’s is more than 8,500.

Of course, Edison’s contribution to the development of the electric light warrants a significant write-up, and his legacy deserves a lengthy profile. But his Wikipedia page also contains minute detail about his early life, diets and views on religion.

By contrast, information on Knight’s page is scant, though she too invented an item still widely used today. Her profile lacks many details (including any mention of her first invention), which are available elsewhere online, particularly on websites dedicated to commemorating the work of female inventors.

That such resources exist says a lot about the erasure of women such as Knight from more mainstream information sources.

This week, it was revealed that only around 17% of notable profiles on Wikipedia are of women.

While we bemoan the sexist bias that prevented many historic female figures from being rightly commemorated and celebrated, there is a risk that history may be repeating itself all over again.

ounder of the Everyday Sexism Project. She writes for the Guardian women’s blog each week about women’s experiences of sexism

Perhaps the disparity is unsurprising given that only around 15% of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors are female.

Reasons suggested for the gender gap have ranged from the elitist nature of the “hard-driving hacker crowd” to the overt harassment and misogyny faced by female editors on the site. When one editor suggested a women-only space on Wikipedia for female contributors to support one another and discuss online misogyny, other users vowed to fight the proposal “to the death”.

The trouble with Wikipedia having such a vast gender gap in its notable profiles is that it is one of the most commonly used information sources in the world.

A 2011 study found that 53% of all American internet users look for information on Wikipedia, increasing to almost 70% of college-educated users.

According to web-traffic data company Alexa, it is currently the fifth most visited website in the world.

For such a popular source to present millions of students, researchers and journalists with a hugely gender-biased roster of articles could have a real impact on everything, from young people’s career aspirations to which high-profile figures are invited to speak at conferences and events.

There are on-going efforts to solve the problem, such as this week’s BBC 100 Women edit-a-thon. Meanwhile, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has called for a more inclusive and diverse community of editors.

Wales has pointed out that the process by which Wikipedia editors decide collectively whether a particular topic deserves its own article could lead to biased outcomes when those editors are overwhelmingly male. Various projects have been launched to try and address the problem, but progress seems slow.

Knight probably wouldn’t have been surprised by the disparity. In her own lifetime, she faced sexism and discrimination from men – in particular from Charles Annan, who spied on her paper-bag-production prototype and tried to steal the patent, even arguing in court that a woman could never have invented such an innovative machine. But she might have imagined that the gender gap would have improved rather more significantly by 2016.

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