Saturday, December 10, 2016

Homage to Margaret E. Knight

If you're wondering how seriously to take "everyday sexism" and the various "gender gaps", I recommend reading Laura Bates' column in the Guardian this week, promoted on Twitter by none other than Mark Ruffalo, in which we are informed that "the gamechanging inventor Margaret E Knight is summed up in only 500 words on the site, where men make up 83% of notable profiles – and most of the editors too."

"It is often said that women have been written out of history," begins Bates. "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." Her most notable lasting invention appears to be "a machine that created the flat-bottomed paper bags still used in grocery stores today."

For this, and 25 other patented inventions, she has been described as a "woman Edison". And despite this, Bates notes, "Her Wikipedia profile is just under 500 words long; Edison’s is more than 8,500." It is a strikingly odd comparison, isn't it? A person I had never heard of before, but who was apparently a capable inventor, has a Wikipedia article that is only about 5% as long as that of the most famous inventor ever. Bates seems to grant that it's not an apples-to-apples situation, but, again, in a very odd way:

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.

If I'm reading that right, she thinks that the stuff about Edison's contribution to electric lighting is perfectly legitimate, and presumably warrants more coverage that Knight's contribution to grocery bagging. What she thinks is unfair is that Edison's article is informative also about his early life and views unrelated to the invention that made him famous, while Knight's article is "scant" on such biographical facts.

The hypothesis that Bates puts forward is that this is history repeating itself, as "the sexist bias that prevented many historic female figures from being rightly commemorated and celebrated" rears its ugly head again. Indeed, she proposes that the same forces that have kept her article to under 500 words have ensured that only 17% of the people profiled on Wikipedia are women. "Perhaps the disparity is unsurprising given that only around 15% of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors are female," she says. And predictably reports that "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," not that women just don't enjoy the sort of work that Wikipedia offers. (As an aside: I left Wikipedia many years ago because I didn't like the mood of the collaborative environment. I suppose I could spin it as having been "bullied" off the site, but it certainly wasn't my gender that set people off.)

Bates thinks that Wikipedia should promote women like Knight because it is a commonly used source of information. "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." But Bates simply doesn't understand that Wikipedia's mission isn't to promote agendas, publicize ideas, or foment social change. It's just there to make knowledge available.

It is, in principle, also a synopsis of everything that has ever been known to have been believed. It's both global and historical in scope. To be disappointed that only almost 20% of the most notable people ever are women is just weird. Nonetheless, Bates thinks that Wikipedia should be embarrassed about the lack of detail in the article on Knight because those details "are available elsewhere online". But Wikipedia isn't an aggregator of internet factoids. It is, or at least tries to be, an encyclopedia, a synopsis of what is known. And by "known" it means things that can be reliably sourced.

So I did a simple test. I looked up "Thomas Edison" in the catalog of the Royal Library of Denmark. I restricted my search to subject terms and to the book collection. I found 60 titles. Then I did the same search for "Margaret E Knight" (and "Margaret Knight" for good measure.) There are exactly 0 books about Knight in the catalog. Now, Wikipedia is an international encyclopedia, global in scope. It seems legitimate to me that a person about whom the the Danish National Library has 60 books has a Wikipedia article that is 17 times longer that a person about whom that same library has no books at all.

Nonetheless, it would seem you simply can't prevent some feminists from using any observable "disparity", no matter how easy it may be to explain without invoking gender bias, as yet another sign of the pervasive misogyny and harassment of women that our culture promotes. I think it does the memory of Margaret Knight a disservice to use her name in this way. She successfully fought to be recognized as the inventor of the flat-bottomed paper bag. Intellectually, Bates couldn't fight her way out of a wet one, I suspect.

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