Today, scientists can tell us with certainty that increased carbon dioxide emissions are warming the planet. But who was the first to discover this, and when did that happen?
I’ll bet it’s earlier than you think. Meet Eunice Newton Foote: a 19th century American scientist, inventor, and women’s rights activist whose contributions to climate science were effectively lost in history for nearly a century because of her gender.
“I stumbled across her from a basic ‘women, climate, science’ search,” says User:SusunW,* the volunteer Wikipedia editor who completely revamped the encyclopedia’s article about Foote in 2022.
Today, Wikipedia has over 5,000 words about this once-overlooked figure thanks to the commitment from SusunW and other editors who have shined a light on Foote’s work. You may have seen the article at the top of Wikipedia’s main page last week on International Women’s Day—a special recognition given to particularly high-quality articles.
SusunW started editing Wikipedia about nine years ago, drawn by the personal learning and growth that occurs as she writes about under-recognized groups from around the world. The encyclopedia offers a place to write in long form, an action that fulfills her own innate curiosity to discover more about the people who made our world what it is today. She is one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who donate their time to write, curate, and maintain Wikipedia as a knowledge base for the world.
While SusunW’s Wikipedia work focuses on biographies of women, she told me she also often finds herself drawn to “activists, immigrants, and people who are doubly un- or under-represented in the historical record”. That means she seeks out opportunities to improve articles at the intersection of gender, ethnicity, science, disabilities, immigration, and more.
SusunW’s interest in unheard voices dates back to her childhood. She grew up in an extremely diverse neighborhood, and recognized that she did not see her community reflected in what she was being taught at her school. “That kind of history just seemed wrong to me,” she says. Her university days ended with degrees in Indigenous history and women’s studies, two subjects that were often neglected by mainstream academia of the time.
“We need to acknowledge ugly to see beauty,” says SusunW, recognizing that history is often more layered than what we are originally taught or understand. “I much prefer the complete histories of Washington and Jefferson [as enslavers] rather than the one-dimensional heroic depictions from my childhood,” she gave as an example of this.
We also know that our stories aren’t complete without including the voices of those kept outside power structures. SusunW’s work on Wikipedia helps to combat its content gender gap; for instance, under 20% of the biographies published on the English version of the encyclopedia are about women. As she told me:
We need to be respectful of other perspectives and consider them so that our work is balanced. … I hope that any article I write helps me and others to understand who was involved, why it was important, what influenced things to unfold as they did, how it influenced others, where and when it happened, and to allow people see something of themselves in anyone else’s story.
Getting involved with Wikipedia can be difficult, not least because “learning the rules and figuring out how to edit on the platform is hard” (as SusunW puts it), but it’s crucially important: we can all play a role in ensuring that the history of tomorrow is inclusive of all the people who made it. Should you take the plunge, her advice is to look up Wikipedia Women in Red, a wiki group focusing on improving the articles of women on Wikipedia. They run events that are full of helpful people, and they come up with lists of topics people can write about that are not already covered on Wikipedia.
Looking for inspiration? You can read through all the Wikipedia articles SusunW has written.
*Wikipedia editors are often identified by screen names instead of full names.
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Does the content on Wikipedia reflect the world’s diversity?
Every day, volunteers all over the world—like the ones featured on this blog—work on knowledge equity initiatives to help close knowledge gaps. Want to understand why this work matters? Watch this video, part of our A Wiki Minute series, to learn more.
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This blog is part of Open the Knowledge: Stories, a series which features volunteers from the Wikimedia movement who are helping the world truly find the sum of all human knowledge on Wikimedia projects. If you want to know more about what knowledge equity is, why it matters, and how you can help us achieve it, join us at Open the Knowledge.
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Ed Erhart is a Communications Specialist at the Wikimedia Foundation.