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Be'sha Blondin speaks at the wahkohtawin 2014 Conference at the University of Saskatchewan. She is among the notable women in religion and spirituality missing on Wikipedia. (Credit: GMCTL UofS/YouTube)

Gender bias on Wikipedia: Why notable women in religion are missing on the site

"There have been women who have been in leadership roles, but we haven’t written about them."

By Emma Prestwich

People all over the world use Wikipedia as a reference, but there aren’t enough women on it. As of last month, articles about women comprised less than 18 percent of those in the English version of the online encyclopedia.

So as part of a broader effort to boost women’s contributions on the platform, a group from the U.S. is working to add more women who have made notable contributions to their spiritual or religious traditions. 

"There have been women who have been in leadership roles, but we haven’t written about them," said Colleen Hartung, who belongs to the Women’s Caucus of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature, which is one of the groups leading the "1,000 Women in Religion" project.

The effort is part of a broader Wikipedia initiative called "Women in Red," with red referring to the link colour that appears on the site for names of people who don't have articles associated with them.

At the Parliament of the World's Religions conference in Toronto on Saturday — an interfaith gathering that attracted thousands — Hartung and other organizers held a workshop where they asked participants to brainstorm women they think should be added. They also encouraged them to become Wikipedia editors themselves.

The team has identified several hundred women without articles, but in order to be accepted on the platform, a person has to be significant enough in Wikipedia's eyes to warrant their own page. 

Hartung said that if some of the figures don’t fit the site’s notability criteria at this point, Wikipedia will enter their names into a database and re-evaluate them periodically. 

But she said she thinks the lack of gender representation on the site reflects how women's accomplishments have been ignored throughout history — if their names have appeared in reputable sources at all, it was usually in conjunction with something else.

"They’re not the primary subject of the article, and so they don’t have notable sources about them. This person might have done this great thing, but if there aren’t two or three or four acceptable sources for [them], they’re not going to get accepted on Wikipedia."

Women in religion and spirituality aren't the only ones to face this kind of systemic discrimination.

Until she won the Nobel Prize in Physics recently, pioneering Canadian physicist (and United Church member) Donna Strickland was deemed not notable enough to qualify for her own article because there weren't enough reliable, independent, published secondary sources about her.

Those interested in submitting a person for consideration or writing an article themselves can find more information on the Parliament of World Religions website

Here are three intriguing women in religion and spirituality who are currently missing articles on Wikipedia.

Rev. Traci Blackmon is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and frequently speaks about social justice and faith. She's the executive minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in the U.S, and served on the Ferguson Commission after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. Former U.S. President Barack Obama also appointed her to the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Be’sha Blondin, a respected Dene elder, cultural teacher and healer from the Northwest Territories. She founded an organization called Northern Integrated Cultures with the Environment to help elders pass on sacred Indigenous teachings to youth. She is also part of a team that hopes to open an Indigenous wellness centre in Yellowknife.

Addie Davis, the first woman to be ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in the U.S. in 1964. She has trouble finding a Southern Baptist church after her ordination, so she ended up as an American Baptist Association pastor. A number of people were angry when she was ordained, with one urging her in a letter to "learn from her husband," even though she didn’t have one. When she died in 2005 at age 88, she was remembered for "her humility, her compassion, and her warm spirit." She worked at three churches as a pastor or co-pastor during her career.

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