Making History, Empowering Students with Wikipedia

Dr. Elizabeth De Wolfe is a Professor of History at the University of New England. Her “Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies” course assigned students to expand women-focused content on Wikipedia.

As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has famously stated, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” And in addition to history, women — the well-behaved and otherwise — are often absent in contemporary society. We see this from an under-representation in Congress, to a dearth of statues of women in Chicago public parks, to phone emojis that reduce women to stereotypes, to a lack of women editors and women-centered content on Wikipedia. In my spring 2016 undergraduate course, Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies, the primary goal was for students to gain an understanding of the origins and ramifications of gendered invisibility, and to seek ways to redress the invisibility of women’s lives and accomplishments.

Reading about the masculine skew of Wikipedia really struck a chord with me. My students, I realized, could connect classroom knowledge to real-world action by writing women-centered Wikipedia entries. What I had not realized was the tremendous personal impact this project would have on my students’ sense of self. In addition to discovering for themselves the gendered nature of information, students came to understand — and use — their voices to enact change. This project empowered.

This assignment grew out of my participation in the University of New England’s Digital Humanities Faculty Seminar, part of a three-year program funded by the Davis Education Foundation. In spring 2015, I was one of four faculty members to participate in the second of three small group seminars introducing liberal arts faculty to digital literacy. We read articles on the origins, goals, and diversity of digital humanities, and experimented with various digital technologies. As we read about, debated, and discussed digital humanities and our own classroom pedagogies, each faculty participant developed a digital humanities project to implement in the 2015-2016 academic year.

The Wiki Education Foundation’s case studies, syllabi templates, and editing guides provided invaluable resources for crafting this project. Online tutorials and handouts introduced the students to the philosophy of, and guidelines for, Wikipedia entries. Students moved through this material independently, then transitioned to the how-to of writing, editing, and posting a Wikipedia entry. Classroom workshop days provided open time for students to identify their entry topics (assisted by UNE’s reference and special collections librarians). In a second workshop, students drafted and edited entries; and in ten-minute Wikipedia check-in moments that were carved out of the end of class sessions, students assisted each other with technology-related problem solving.

Make no mistake: researching and writing a Wikipedia entry was as rigorous as the typical term paper. Students wrote formal topic proposals and submitted bibliographies. They conducted research with scholarly and authoritative sources. Students wrote multiple drafts and received feedback from peers and their professor. While exploring Wikipedia and conducting their research, students recognized key course concepts such as male privilege and gendered language.

Student experiences

Students were surprised to find that on Wikipedia, a husband’s accomplishments often overshadowed his wife’s equally laudatory achievements. Student Emma Steinbach argued of the sexologist Bonnie Bullough: “Her work was as important as her husband’s, and it was time for her to no longer be mentioned only in reference to him, but in her own honor.”

By E.S. Dunshee, photographer, 1330 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA - versions:, Public Domain,
Josephine Peary portrait by E.S. Dunshee, photographer, 1330 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA – Public Domain.

Similarly, Abby Lachance, editing the entry on author and Arctic adventurer Josephine Diebitsch Peary, noted: “One thing I noticed about the original article was that a vast majority of the small amount of information pertained to her husband.”

Writing a new entry on attorney Gail Laughlin, Megan Galley concluded: “A woman as accomplished as she was should have been on Wikipedia a long time ago.”

Several students, interested in careers in the health professions, undertook entries on early women physicians. They discovered a paucity of information.

“I had never really thought about how the medical profession historically has been fundamentally hierarchical, with females holding separate and inferior positions to men,” said Kathryn Cawley. “It only makes me want to change that in the future.”

Psychology students, looking into the history of their own future careers, saw a similar lack of attention to women. Jacqueline Parent stated: “We helped bring one woman’s life and contributions into the light, which is part of a bigger project to bring many women to the same level of visibility as men. That is invaluable.”

Students saw how their efforts could grow beyond the classroom.

“I am not going to be upset if another Wikipedia user decides to edit my article,” said Jaymi Foster. “The way I see it, if the edits … provide more information, more sources, or more insight into Sara [Roosevelt’s] life, then it is a beneficial thing.”

The project pushed sometimes hesitant students toward new skills. Meghan Gould wrote: “Prior to this assignment, I envied the people who knew how to edit and publish Wikipedia articles. [Now] I am . . . proud of myself for learning how to use Wikipedia.”

Students were proud that they had contributed meaningfully to the corpus of knowledge about women’s history, and that their efforts had the potential to affect others.

“I feel a great sense of success in knowing that I am now a contributing editor to one of the largest sources of information online,” said Kathryn Cawley. “Maybe next I will be a published writer with my own book on women’s history in medicine. Or better yet, perhaps I will enter the medical profession and make history that future students will write Wikipedia pages about.”

While I have, on occasion, seen students transformed by individual research projects, the collective sense of power and passion in this classroom was like nothing I’ve experienced before. Students came to see the world and themselves in a new way, were moved to share their knowledge publicly, grew to be confident in themselves, and felt empowered to use their voices to raise awareness and affect change.

Briana Goud, who created a new entry on the author and philanthropist Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, pinpoints the power of this class project:

“As a woman, I felt that I connected with my subject, and wanted to express her life and accomplishments in a page that could be viewed around the world . . . this is strictly one woman to another. We, as women researchers, are connecting our academic knowledge and our freedom of speech to shine light on the importance of historical women.”

The Wiki Education Foundation offers support to higher education courses where students are assigned to write Wikipedia articles. If you’re interested in tapping into the power of this assignment for your women’s studies course, or any topic area, reach out to start a conversation: 

Photo: Wikipedia Project Research at the Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, ME By Edw04005Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


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