In the foothills of Nevada City in Northern California, half a mile down a grass-cut road, Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight crusades against the sexism of the Internet.
Her brown eyes trained to the screen of her MacBook Air, the 66-year-old retired health-care administrator writes about brave women of the past — a Scottish surgeon criticized for volunteering her services in WWI-Serbia, an Angolan nationalist dismembered for her beliefs, an American author shamed for pursuing her writing — on Wikipedia.
Five years ago, Stephenson-Goodknight didn’t have her own Wikipedia page. For most of her life, she didn’t contribute to the website at all. But Stephenson-Goodknight has become a superstar in the community, and a pioneer for gender equality on a platform deeply in need of articles about women. She has written over 5,000 articles for the website, nearly 1,400 dedicated to women specifically.
That’s not insignificant, given that only 18 percent of Wikipedia’s biography entries are about women. With 6 million articles, the free crowdsourced encyclopedia is the seventh-most visited website, the first result of most Google searches and a content-generator for other resources. Though Wikipedia is sometimes dismissed as unreliable, its omnipresence continues to reinforce notions of what makes a person — a woman — notable.
Stephenson-Goodknight is up against centuries of history that haven’t documented or recognized women’s accomplishments. And in the present day, she’s up against various factions of Wikipedia’s contributors, who are 90 percent male. Some go so far as to delete articles about women or, worse, sexually harass the website’s female users.
“Wikipedia is my second chance,” Stephenson-Goodknight says. Her voice is measured, characterized with the kind of purpose and energy that led a fellow Wikipedian to describe her as “unstoppable.” But can she rewrite history and give women a second chance on Wikipedia?
Stephenson-Goodknight could have been her generation’s Margaret Mead. Growing up in 1960s Los Angeles, she dreamed of writing about far-away communities, read books about indigenous Australians and plotted her escape to Papua New Guinea. But her father had other plans — cultural anthropology was not practical for a woman, he told her.
Stephenson-Goodknight felt lost. Raised in a traditional European household — her parents were from Serbia — she didn’t want to disrespect her family by running away and, besides, her father was paying for her college education. She resigned herself to what was expected — majoring in business, rising up the ranks as a health-care administrator to oversee a group of recruiters, marrying and raising children in her home state.
But on June 4, 2007, Stephenson-Goodknight’s life changed. She was visiting her grown son in San Francisco, and as she waited in his apartment for him to return from work, she googled the defunct publisher of an old book she had collected — The Book League of America. To her surprise, she couldn’t find a Wikipedia entry.
She remembered that her son had once edited an article about a Ukrainian city when he was stationed there for the Peace Corps. The thought empowered her.
She created a Wikipedia account, gathered her sources, studied other entries about defunct American publishers and wrote her first article.
Stephenson-Goodknight devoted herself to the website from that day on, chasing her curiosities down Internet rabbit holes and then writing articles in the hours before and after work. She wrote of small Danish plates she collected, of Canadian islands and waterways, of anthroponymy, the study of names. She wrote of those far-away places she had once dreamed of, shocked when Wikipedia featured her entry on the Kallawaya, a group of traditional healers in Bolivia, on its homepage.
People were actually reading what she wrote, she realized.
Wikipedia prides itself on being a collaborative encyclopedia, giving the world “free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” Anyone can create an account then write or edit an article — over 130,000 people regularly contribute to the website.
With so many contributors, articles are rewritten; edits toggle back and forth; disputes over sources flare up. Although higher-level editors and administrators can help resolve some of these conflicts, the community deals with most of them, fostering perpetual public debate that often — but not always — strives for fairness.
Like many corners of the Internet, Wikipedia has long struggled with a gender gap in contributors and content. Men not only dominate contributor lists, but also, on average, make twice as many edits as women. Articles about women tend to define them by gender and family; female novelists were once moved from the “American Novelists” category to an “American Women Novelists” subcategory.
She thinks often of her mother, who was a journalist and poet, and her grandmother, who was a literary critic, textbook writer and founder of an organization of university-educated women in Serbia. In an ode to her maternal lineage, Stephenson-Goodknight has come to focus on women writers, particularly those pre-20th century, whose stories are often overlooked.
Part of what makes closing Wikipedia’s gender gap so difficult is that the website imports biases from the past, says Stephen Harrison, a journalist who has written about Wikipedia’s editing community. Because of the skewed documentation of women’s accomplishments, sources for historical women are often lacking. Moreover, as Stephenson-Goodknight notes, women weren’t allowed many positions of power in the past, creating a perpetual imbalance between the number of “notable” women and men — imbalances that extend to race and geography as well.
The question of “notability” still plagues women today. In 2018, Canadian physicist Donna Strickland won a Nobel Prize yet didn’t have a Wikipedia page; an earlier entry was rejected for not meeting the “notability requirement,” even though less-accomplished men touted articles. And in 2019, Katie Bouman, then a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earned a Wikipedia page for her work capturing the first-ever image of a black hole only for her merits — and the page — to fall under intense debate.
But that’s beginning to change, in large part thanks to Stephenson-Goodknight, who, in 2015, co-founded Women in Red, a volunteer organization that works to increase Wikipedia’s women biographies (one of Stephenson-Goodknight’s many gender-equality projects on the website). Named for the red hyperlinks on Wikipedia that indicate people without an article, Women in Red compiles lists of names of women who ought to have entries — essentially collaborative to-do lists. The group rallies contributors across the world to write those entries through conferences and edit-a-thons, daylong events that train new contributors.
An adept public speaker thanks to her high school drama days, Stephenson-Goodknight has a particular charisma that has fostered community among a base of contributors who otherwise tend to work as individuals, alone at their computers. “She could write hundreds of articles, but that wouldn’t move the needle in the same way as organizing people,” says Wikipedia editor Emily Temple-Wood.
Over the past five years, Women in Red and many other efforts like it have added more than 85,000 women’s biographies — an impressive feat, though one that closes the gap by just three percent.
In large part, the Wikipedia community, including the overarching Wikimedia Foundation, supports efforts for fairer representation. Still, some contributors view groups like Women in Red as “social justice warriors” coming for Wikipedia, says Harrison. Wikipedia editor Molly White says that after edit-a-thons, users have mass-deleted the women-centered articles, claiming they are not notable or well-sourced enough.
She says that, like many women online, she has been sexually harassed on Wikipedia. She doesn’t wish to speak more about it, but, if anything, it has only made her want to change the website more.
In December 2017, Stephenson-Goodknight was summoned to Serbia to accept an award on behalf of her late grandfather, a Serbian military officer and diplomat. She accepted the award — and then did more, translating and writing an introduction for a biography about her grandfather, giving a speech that left such an impression that she was asked to speak at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The next year, Serbia extended an offer to knight her because of her work as not only a family historian but also a Wikipedian. “I’m just me. This girl born in Gary, Indiana. Moved to L.A. when I was 3,” Stephenson-Goodknight says, describing her surprise.
Today, the lists of women still in need of recognition give shape to Stephenson-Goodknight’s daily life. Each morning, Stephenson-Goodknight starts in on another name — “giving them a gift of being remembered,” as Harrison, the journalist, puts it.
But Stephenson-Goodknight knows that the content gender gap can never be closed.
Still, Stephenson-Goodknight spends hours each day digging up sources and writing articles. The project has changed the course of her own life and the legacy of those she documents, like Maria Elise Turner Lauder, a 19th-century Canadian travel writer who had a moment of fame when Stephenson-Goodknight’s entry on her was recognized earlier this year as the website’s 6 millionth article.
Several years ago, Stephenson-Goodknight’s 1,000th article appeared on Wikipedia’s main page. It was about Papua New Guinea’s Goaribari Island. In an accompanying note, Stephenson-Goodknight wrote, “To all the girls out there with impractical dreams, this article is dedicated to you.”