Wikipedia has been up to some sketchy behavior. Amanda Filpacchi of the New York Times Sunday Review began noticing that Wikipedia has begun taking its list of American novelists, and removing the women to segregate them into a second list: American women novelists. The rule of thumb about categorization in Wikipedia is that if a category gets too big, you should find a smaller subcategory. And for the most part, that is just fine. But holy crap, what is going on, Wikipedia?
Here’s where Filpacchi and I agree: Wikipedia should not remove female novelists from the American novelists category. For the love of categorization, and for the love of female representation in literature, DO NOT remove the female novelists! Why? First, if you’re a true Wikipedia stickler, like so many editors on Wikipedia, you will notice that American Women novelists is, as I’ve been calling it, a subcategory. Take away a descriptor (for instance, “women”), and you’ve still got a larger category.
Second, if a Wikipedia user wants to look up an entire list of American novelists, doesn’t it seem like complete bullshit for all the women to missing? If you’re looking up a list of American novelists, you might not even notice the great care and consideration an editor took in completely erasing women authors’ roles in the American literary tradition. Rather, you may take the list at face value and notice subconsciously that women do not have a place on it. That women, however successful, noteworthy, and awarded their work might be, still fall under the category of “Eww, that stuff’s for girls. Why don’t you read some Kerouac or something?” I guarantee you, if these women are removed, Kerouac’s name will be thrown around with reverence even more often than I already hear it, and I will be nauseated from all the eye rolling I have to do.
Someone with the most harmless intentions, who believes categorization is a mathematical and unbiased science, is wrong to believe that such decisions might not have bearing on our emotional and highly biased society. Lists such as these affect what people read, how they search, and what they regard as important.
Where Filpacchi and I do not agree is in her implication that there should not be a list for American women novelists. She notes facetiously in her article, “Too bad there isn’t a subcategory for American male novelists.” In the meantime, I’m sitting on the other side of the country thinking, “Good thing there isn’t a subcategory for American Male novelists.” It is a false analogy that is so often used in a debilitating way to fight against safe spaces for women. “A women’s writing group? Why don’t you let men in? Why is a women’s writing group okay, but a men’s writing group not okay? That’s sexism!” “Black history month? Why don’t we have white history month? Pssh!”*
I define a list like “American Women novelists” as a safe space. Segregation removes you, lowers you, and makes you invisible. But a safe space lets its people move fluidly in and out of it, while also acknowledging the outside as discriminatory. What if one day, you or I want to look up notable women in the literary canon? that sort of list is useful in exploring my Kate Chopins of the world, my Aimee Benders, my Amelia Atwater-Rhodeses (to name a few names in the beginning of the alphabet, where the biggest Wiki-gaps have just appeared). They are my ladies. Speaking of unmathematical and biased lists, if we accept the fact that our lists will have an affect on our culture, we should be making lists that do good. In a world where white, straight, and male are neutral, well respected, and recognized by all, a list like this recognizes the hard earned achievements and struggles that women writers have faced since before the Brontës. It’s been a long time coming, and if I ever want to feel a burgeoning hope for female careers in the world of publication, that’s the list to look at.
*The great thinker, Morgan Freeman said this.