Wikipedia wars: are there really novelists and 'women novelists'?

How many brilliant writers will be sorted away entirely, never making the cut as novelists because they're weighed down with the tag "woman"?

Bad news if you're an American, a novelist and a woman: Wikipedia has decided that you don't count as an American Novelist and have to go in your own sex specific sub-section called Women American Novelists. Well, not Wikipedia itself – Wikipedia is a platform, not a unified entity, and it makes no more sense to talk about it as the possessor of a single corporate mind than it does to imagine that your Facebook feed is the carefully curated output of one editor. Better to say instead that certain Wikipedians decided the best way to organise fiction was with women on the outside.

Since Amanda Filipacchi drew attention to this in the New York Times, there has been a lot of serious discussion on the the American Novelists talk page, as editors work out how to resolve such a highly scrutinised issue. A few have defended it as a neutral decision designed to reduce an untenably huge category, but to most involved, the sexism seems obvious: such a system of ordering makes men the default type of human, and women a subset. One contributor suggests creating the category American Men Novelists as a solution, only to be hit with the objection that this would leave the parent category populated solely by those who identify as neither male nor female — a curiously narrow group to represent the literature of a nation.

It's not just America which is to be sifted by sex. I took a look at Victorian Novelists, and there you can find a single subcategory: Victorian Women Novelists. While some women get to sit in the main section, many don't — including George Eliot. George Eliot, arguably both the finest novelist and the most Victorian of all Victorian novelists, tucked away in a feminine dependency of literary history. No such fears of perverse classification for Hardy or Dickens, of course: Victorian Male Novelists doesn't even exist as a category, because to be a man is to be neutral of gender in this system. It doesn't feel like we've shaken off all that much of the sexism which caused Mary Anne Evans to publish Middlemarch under a male pseudonym, does it?

The problem is, it's not just Wikipedia doing the classifying and it's not just novelists getting classified. We live in a world where everything is furiously sorted along gender lines. As a parent with feminist pretensions, I've been discretely appalled to see both my children (one boy, one girl) start sorting things by gender. For example: jumpers turned out to be a boy thing, cardigans a girl thing, and no amount of cajoling could persuade either child that they weren't committing gender treachery through knitwear. Of course, I felt somewhat shocked and then betrayed that my children had turned against my principles — until I'd had a moment to think about the example they had to work with.

I might not always love my place in the gender binary system, but I certainly don't want to be outside it. Through my clothes, through my make-up, through my manner, every day I do a hundred small things that announce my fealty to femininity. I sort myself — almost all of us do. And such sorting is not particularly malevolent in itself, except that it tends to spread and then become a kind of destiny. There's a hierarchy to it, too: I've heard my daughter describe a classmate derisively as a "girly girl, one who just likes girl-girl-girl-girl-girl stuff." Not putting on your gender properly is traumatic, but too much femininity is something to be scorned.

It's this same way of thinking — male as the mainstream, female as a diminished subset — that led to faint murmurings against Hilary Mantel's inclusion on the shortlist for the 2013 Women's prize for fiction. Having already won two Bookers, the murmuring goes, why should she get a run with the ladies as well? She's already proven herself as a novelist, no gender qualifier required. In success, she sheds her sex. Of course, if I object to Wikipedia categorising women novelists apart, perhaps I should object to prizes that do the same – and I do, or rather I object to the necessity for them.

The Booker has been won twice as often by men as by women, and I refuse to believe that's because men are twice as talented. Until there's parity there, the Women's prize does a sadly needful job of celebrating female authors. Its existence perhaps perpetuates the need for it to exist, and yet I can't think of a better answer to pervasive sexism than just pointing out that women are, and the culture we make matters. That culture should not matter only within gender bounds though, and if we sort and sort until we have sorted ourselves into separate spheres entirely, God knows how many brilliant writers will be sorted away entirely, never making the cut as novelists because they're weighed down with the tag "woman".

Hilary Mantel, after winning her first Booker prize. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here