Claiming Notability (Part 1)

Book Review by Win Whelan

Colleen D. Hartung, ed. 2020.

Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion.

Women in Religion Vol. 1.

Chicago: Atla Open Press.

The website, Wikipedia, claims to honor people who are somehow “notable,” that is, they may have been famous for their artwork or have discovered healing remedies that have saved many lives. They may have founded national organizations or written books that have won prizes. They may have led movements that are historically meaningful for society. Wikipedia has become the go-to source for any bit of information that one would want to find.

But there is a problem. In her chapter on “Leveraging Notability,” Colleen Hartung writes that only 18% of the biographies on Wikipedia are about women, and only 9% of the editors are women. As a result, a team of volunteer writers has created a list of women who have, for example, founded national organizations, won prizes for their artwork or for their writing. Hartung writes: “The 1000 Women in Religion List contains more than 1500 individuals who are noteworthy as founders, practitioners, teachers, resistors, and researchers of the world’s religious and wisdom traditions, yet do not have a biographical entry on Wikipedia” (p. v). The list attempts to include women of every religion in every part of the world.

One of the reasons for this lack is that to be considered “notable,” there must exist references in published sources. But women’s accomplishments are not often covered in news media, trade journals, scientific journals, or even religious writings, as much as are men’s. “A woman might be noteworthy,” says Hartung, “but without secondary sources to back that up, she is not notable by Wikipedia standards” (p. ix). During the 1920s, Ida Weis Friend became president of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Yvonne Delk served as the UCC representative on the Programme to Combat Racism for the World Council of Churches. Neither of these women have pages on Wikipedia.

Many women’s accomplishments are on the domestic level and outside the public eye (p. xviii). Even so, they may be revolutionary in scope, so much so that they leave a legacy that improves the way society functions. Yet their accomplishments are not “notable” by Wikipedian standards. The “1000 women in Religion” project is dedicated to research this little known legacy. This project will, for example search out women who have been included in a group such as “American Missionaries,” who might be thought of as headed by men. If women are included, they are often the helpers or assistants, not as initiators or leaders. In collaborative efforts, women generally outperform men, but while the men on the project are noted, the women are often overlooked. It takes time, perseverance, and investigative skills, as well as an intense curiosity and drive to look into library collections, archives, old newspapers and so much more, to be able to uncover these women and what they might be notable for.

Hartung gives credit to Wikipedia for acknowledging the organization’s bias and is supportive of those working to correct it. Here are two examples of women who deserve a page of their own on Wikipedia, but as yet are not considered notable enough to be there. (Continued on Part 2)