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How Volunteers at Museums and Archives are Adding American Women’s History to Wikipedia

Edith Renfrow Smith in a cap and gown

Edith Renfrow Smith. Drake Community Library Archive Collection.

By Kelly Doyle, open knowledge coordinator for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, Because of Her Story

Museums across the United States are helping volunteers improve the representation of American women on Wikipedia. This year our American Women's History Initiative has collaborated with the Wiki Education Foundation and Smithsonian Affiliations, a team that works with more than 200 cultural organizations across the United States. This collaboration allows us to expand the work underway to make Wikipedia more inclusive of women's history. The Wiki Education Foundation conducted the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative Wiki Scholars course with staff at Affiliate cultural organizations who attended weekly sessions to learn about Wikipedia basics. In between sessions, they created and edited articles.

To date, 60 Affiliate staff have added 49,500 words to Wikipedia, added 119 new reference sources to existing articles, and improved 119 articles about women on the site. Affiliate participants also created 21 new Wikipedia articles about notable women throughout the U.S. Here are five women that have been written back into history through their efforts. 

1. Edith Renfrow Smith

Edith Renfrow Smith in a cap and gown
Edith Renfrow Smith. Drake Community Library Archive Collection.

In 1937, Edith Renfrow Smith became the first Black female graduate of Grinnell College. Today, there are two spaces on Grinnell's campus named in her honor. Smith majored in psychology and earned a minor in economics. She later received her teaching license and taught for 21 years in the Chicago public school system. Smith was awarded an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Grinnell College in 2019.

2. Mabel Virginia Rawlinson

Mabel Virginia Rawlinson smiles while wearing her WASP uniform
Mabel Virginia Rawlinson's official Women's Airforce Service Pilots photo from the U.S government. Scanned from print held in Air Zoo Collection, used on Wikipedia with written permission from the Air Zoo.

Mabel Virginia Rawlinson worked as a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II. Rawlinson worked at the Kalamazoo Plating Works and Kalamazoo Public Library in Michigan before earning her pilot's license. During World War II she earned her Silver Wings, indicating her qualification to be a WASP—one of only 1,102 women to do so. Rawlinson died in 1943 while serving her country, in a plane crash during advanced night training at Camp Davis in Onslow County, North Carolina. 

3. Cornelia Clarke

Formal photo of Cornelia Clarke
Cornelia Clarke. Drake Community Library, Grinnell, Iowa.

Nature photographer Cornelia Clarke published more than 1,200 images printed in various publications. Her earliest images were of her cats, Peter and Polly, who she dressed and posed. Author Elizabeth Hays Wilkinson later turned their images into a children's book. Clarke specialized in images of insects and plants but also captured nature landscapes. Her images were popular during her lifetime and have experienced a resurgence in recent years. In 2019, the Grinnell Historical Museum hosted an exhibition of her collection.

Photo of a cat in a dress with a neck ruff. The cat is posed as if ironing clothes
Cat photograph by Cornelia Clarke. Collection of the Grinnell Historical Museum in Grinnell, Iowa.

4. Birdie Viola Draper

Birdie Draper in a military jacket and hat, posing next to a car
Birdie Draper. Wikipedia.

Stunt performer Birdie Viola Draper also trained as a parachutist. After training in her home state of Minnesota, Draper traveled to state fairs to perform and compete in competitions. One notable stunt included crashing her car through 16 sticks of dynamite and solid walls. She made her first jump in 1937 and retired in 1941 upon receiving her license as a parachute rigger from the Department of Commerce.

5. Laura Beltz Wright

Blue parka with wolverine fur hood and fabric trim around the sleeves, hem, and chest
Parka designed by Laura Wright (Inupiaq). National Museum of the American Indian, donated by Virginia Mattice.

During World War II, Laura Beltz Wright (Inupiaq) worked as a member of the Alaskan Territorial Guard. The group trained volunteers to patrol in case of a Japanese invasion. Later in life, Beltz Wright designed parkas, patenting her design. Her parkas were worn by celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, and several others. Wright's parkas have been collected by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

It is not uncommon for articles about women to be flagged as "not notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia" by other editors. This is one of several ways women are left off and removed from Wikipedia. All links to the women featured here were live at the time this article was published, but may be removed at the moment you are reading this article.

Learn more:

Kelly Doyle is the open knowledge coordinator for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. Doyle works to alleviate the gender gaps on the Wikimedia platforms.

Generous funding for the American Women's History Initiative Wiki Scholars program was provided by Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

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