Ten encyclopedic books from 1913 inspired me to contribute to Wikipedia for the first time. These volumes were published by the Delphian Society, a women-centric educational organization founded in Chicago around 1910. But you wouldn’t have learned that from Wikipedia before this year.
The Delphian Course of Reading initially intrigued me with its gilded art nouveau embellishment on the spine and cover on the outside, and the colorized plates delicately covered with vellum on the inside. But what made me buy the whole set was its use of the words “liberal arts.”
Spanning ancient civilizations to contemporary history, The Delphian Course positioned itself as "a systematic plan of education, embracing the world's progress and development of the liberal arts," to be used by groups of women across the United States.
“What are you going to do with a liberal arts degree?” is an all too familiar question. I wish I had responded earlier with, “Contribute to Wikipedia!” because as the Delphian Society writes, "No amount of heterogenous reading can compare with the systematic tracing of one subject from its early manifestations to its present forms."
With its name, the Delphian Society paid homage to the Oracles of Delphi as knowledgeable and powerful women. The society wrote, “No vapor can inspire sudden revelations -- the result only of faithful effort and earnest thought. Yet the story of the ancient oracle charms us still and when a name was sought for a national organization, that had for its avowed purpose the promotion of educational interests in a continent, none were deemed more suitable than that which for so many years cast its gracious spell from one sea to another.”
When I tried to cite this source on Wikipedia, I was unexpectedly intimidated by the raw code and the tools meant to aid in constructing lines of code. I briefly considered holding off until I could get a male high-schooler who studies AP Computer Science to help me. Then I pushed on.
Much like the Oracles of Delphi, women in 1913 still relied on middlemen to bolster the credibility of their proclamations. The council of review for The Delphian Course included men from various universities. The introduction to The Delphian Course makes no special mention of women aside from the Oracles of Delphi, and refers mainly to the “enduring thoughts of men.”
One such man was the influential Harvard president Charles William Eliot, who encouraged “fifteen minutes a day of good reading” to sustain lifelong learning. According to some collectors, chapters of the Delphian Society were expected to take the course in pieces over six years. While most women were probably capable of reading more than fifteen minutes a day of academic material, perhaps it was still not socially acceptable to do so.
Though I’ve always known that I could contribute to Wikipedia, the only person I've met who frequently did so was a young woman I met in college. Known as Enchanting Catalyst on Wikipedia, 25-year-old Aleja Boland says, "I started editing Wikipedia for grammar and punctuation while I was in high school, but I finally made an account when I found a more glaring error." She discovered the error while researching the Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende for her Spanish class, and had to fight to defend her substantiated correction.
She was the first person to explain to me that Wikipedia operates on a merit-based system, which only allows trusted members to edit controversial pages, like the one for the Holocaust. It had never occurred to me that there was a hierarchy, but apparently there were few women, like Boland, at the top. According to the London Telegraph, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales "thinks Wikipedia still, to too great an extent, appeals to geeks: they tend to be male and comfortable with using Wikipedia’s programmer-style editing language."
In the male-dominated universities of the early 21st Century, peer-reviewed academic materials were not readily available to the average American woman. Whether it was considered radical at the time or not, the Delphian Society strategically placed the national struggle for women’s rights in the homes and communities of women all over the United States.
As I researched how to format my entry in Wikipedia, I signed up for Code Academy. I took a break and came across a Los Angeles Times article that revealed the everyday sexism Silicon Valley’s few female programmers endure. Organizations like Girls Who Code, fighting to level the playing field with access to coding classes, embody the same spirit as The Delphian Course.
The last paragraph of the course's introduction reads, "If those adopting the Delphian Course as the basis of their reading find that with its aid they are enabled to accomplish more satisfying results; if they finally discover that with its guidance one can make more intelligent use of [her] own library; if a love for things worthwhile -- the lasting and enduring thoughts and sentiments of men [and women] -- increases, and the desire for wider knowledge is aroused -- the hopes and ambitions of the Delphian Society shall have been largely realized."
Living in a time when more women attend college than men, it is difficult to imagine how hard women had to work for their education before they even had the right to vote. Holding the finely crafted volumes of The Delphian Course in my hands is the closest I have been able to get.
And as I saved my edits to Wikipedia's Delphian Society page, I had a renewed appreciation for how far women have come in this country -- and how much further we have to go.