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Just deserts

Food historian Polly Russell argues that Wikipedia’s underrepresentation of women in food reflects social attitudes towards gender roles – but it’s an imbalance that can be corrected


Interview: Ellie Costigan

There has long been a strong cultural association between women and food. And yet, when it comes to public status, there has also been a very clear gender imbalance. At the highest end of professional cooking, males have tended to be very much on top, with women largely confined to the domestic space – although that distinction is now finally breaking down.

While big male chefs, from Auguste Escoffier on, have enjoyed fame and celebrity, the settings in which women traditionally cooked – usually ones that garnered little or no pay – have been given much less public attention. Most of the writers who have addressed that domestic space – the preparation of food, the feeding of the family, the everyday labours associated with cooking – have also been women, and they too have often been overlooked.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this imbalance is clearly reflected in the content of Wikipedia – one of the modern world’s most important sources of information. In conjunction with the British Library and The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a group of us have been working on a project to improve the site’s coverage of women in food. We found there were some really surprising omissions.

One of our most striking discoveries was that the 18th century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, whose influence on British cuisine was enormous, had an entry of about four lines. Many amazing food writers, historians, scientists and cooks, past and present – the likes of Diana Henry, Judy Rodgers, Patience Gray, Eliza Smith – were either missing entirely or did not have the coverage you would expect.

Around three-quarters of Wikipedia editors are male, and this has perhaps compounded the gender bias, but the problem goes far beyond that – the site is a reflection of cultural and social attitudes that have led to women being less accounted for in almost every sphere. The beauty of Wikipedia, though, is that anyone can become an editor, so we have the power to put this right.

It is important to remember that Wikipedia is relatively new, and exists in a constant state of renewal and expansion. Our work is a reflection of some wider shifts: in recent years, there’s been increasing recognition of the importance of understanding food, and its connection to culture and history, so a lot of forgotten women are being rediscovered. A real audience has developed for all these brilliant female food writers and cooks, whose work is now being published, read and celebrated. While the gender division remains stark, I don’t feel bleak about it. The exciting thing about food is, there’s always more to uncover; it’s a rich seam, and one we will keep on mining.