This paper examines the recent emergence of feminist hackerspaces in
the United States. As little data exist on this practice, this paper is based
on interviews undertaken with intersectional feminist, queer and trans hackers
who have been involved in the development of feminist hackerspaces. Through
this paper, I demonstrate that for feminist hackers, makers and geeks the open
space concept enshrined as the core of the standard hackerspace model is
largely undesirable. They envisage a different role for their hackerspaces,
one in which boundaries offer both safety and a platform for political
resistance. In doing so the trajectories of hacker and feminist culture are
feminism, hackers, hackerspaces, diversity, inclusion, separatism,
intersectionality, LGBTQ, technology, techno-feminism
Between 2013 and 2014 three new hackerspaces popped up in rapid succession along the west coast of the USA. These spaces were significant; they offered, for the first time, a clear vision of how intersectionally-inflected feminist principles might inform a new breed of hackerspaces. New models of hackerspaces seemed capable of narrowing the gap between hacker and feminist cultures.
Feminist hacker, maker and geek initiatives have existed, in the USA and elsewhere, under different shapes and forms — both physical and virtual — for more than a decade. North American feminist geeks connect virtually via Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Twitter or the Geek Feminism wiki and blog, meet face-to-face at conferences (such as WisCon — a feminist sci-fi convention — Ada Camps, and others) and participate in groups such as LinuxChix, Lady Py and Girl Geek Dinners. But until recently, more permanent hackerspaces attuned to feminist principles have been largely nonexistent.
Hackerspaces have spread rapidly across North America throughout the past five years. They have been influenced by the dominant German model, based on a particular understanding of openness: anyone interested in hacking and technology is welcome to attend open nights and, ultimately, become a member. Despite the ideal of openness at the heart of this model, groups such as women, queers, people of color, etc. have remained either largely underrepresented or completely absent from these spaces. In order to attempt to correct this lack of diversity, a number of hackerspaces have crafted or proposed remedial strategies, such as women-only hack nights and the adoption of codes of conduct, among others. Some of these strategies, such as the women-only hack night, have been met with controversy; It is and often deemed to go against the sacrosanct principle of openness.
As a new phenomenon, very little scholarly work has appeared on the subject of feminist hackerspaces to date. However, criticisms of mainstream hackerspaces have appeared recently in personal and non-scholarly venues, written primarily by feminist hackers, makers and geeks. These written tracts have been buttressed by numerous informal and verbal discussions on the subject — and as a result there has appeared a marked desire to rethink the core concept of openness from the perspective of feminist hackers, makers and geeks (see Henry 2014; Toupin 2013). [i] Critics have highlighted the need for spaces to enable feelings of safety rather than simply openness. They also point to issues of privilege commonly obscured by open and meritocratic cultures (or what Nafus (2012) calls “pushyocratic” cultures). These tensions within hackerspaces and the hacker community (see Spinks 2013; Wolf 2012) have led some feminist hackers, makers and geeks to desire spaces of their own, framed by their own boundaries.
The following women-centered/feminist and/or people of color-led hackerspaces have emerged in the past years: Mz Baltazar’s Laboratory in Vienna (feminist space created in 2008-2009), Liberating Ourselves Locally in Oakland (people of color space created in 2012), Mothership Hackermoms in Berkley (women-centered space created in 2012), Seattle Attic in Seattle (intersectional feminist space created in 2013), Flux in Portland (intersectional feminist space created in 2013), Double Union in San Francisco (intersectional feminist space created in 2013) and Hacker Gals in Michigan (women-centered space created in 2014).
In this article, I apply feminist standpoint theory in order to better understand the ideologies at work in feminist hackerspaces and the communities, which surround them. Practically, this means analyzing the unique experiences and positions of the women, genderqueer and trans individuals who comprise the membership of these hackerspaces. As most of these recently created spaces adopt principles of intersectional feminism, I will at times adopt the framework in my own analysis. Intersectional feminism is a framework that looks at the world through plural perspectives highlighting the relationship and intersection between gender, sexual orientation, geographical location, ethnicity, class, among others. At a practical level, intersectional feminist hackerspaces aim at being inclusive in creating safer space while also recognizing privileges that certain individuals have in society and which play out in hackerspaces. Also, I will argue that feminist hackerspaces’ contribution is towards a different understanding of the concept of openness based on feminist principles. Feminists debunk the myth of openness and meritocracy associated with hackerspaces culture, question the use and/or the narrowness of the term hacker and hacking in addition to foregrounding a new understanding of openness which is at the intersection of feminist and hacker culture. My focus is less on the subject of feminism, and its tensions, but rather on the ways in which feminist hackerspaces are redefining and reconfiguring the meaning of openness, which is what unites them. This helps not get bogged down by irreconcilable tensions, but nonetheless does not shy away from outlining them. Moreover, I will argue that feminist hackerspaces function as the spatial manifestation of a feminist hacker, maker and geek culture. The emergence of feminist hackerspaces furthers the visibility of feminist hackers, makers and geeks and seemingly helps cement a different social imaginary of feminist hacking practices. Their shared vision enables them to maintain a certain form of association, or what Kelty (2008) calls a recursive public, while not necessitating the establishment of identical boundaries in their respective spaces. The different feminist practices that are embodied in the newly created feminist spaces of hacking help move scholarship away from discussions of female hackers (Adam 2003; Jordan & Taylor 2004; Taylor 2003) and their absence, and towards discussions of a vital community of feminist hackers, makers and geeks. It will become clear that this community has firmly consolidated its existence through the establishment of feminist hackerspaces.
Data and Methodology
By combining feminist principles with the popular hackerspace model, Flux, Double Union and Seattle Attic are unique additions to the US hacker scene. Together, they represent my primary source of data. Other hacker- and maker-spaces such as Liberating Ourselves Locally or LOL (Oakland), Hackermoms (Berkeley), Mz Baltazar’s Laboratory (Vienna) or Hacker Gals (Michigan) also belong, at least to some degree, to this new kind of hackerspace — particularly in the way they carefully manage the boundaries of their space — but they are not directly represented in the research presented here. A similar line of research relating to people of color/anti-racist hackerspaces is, in my estimation, deserving of its own specific analysis. Unfortunately, the length of this article is too short and the scope too narrow to effectively cover both feminist and people of color spaces of hacking. I have thus decided to focus this research solely on feminist hackerspaces and, even more narrowly, on those with intersectional inflections. This research strives to give voice to the founders of these initiatives and highlight their reasons for doing so. My aim is to relay their perspectives, realities, inscriptions and experiences — positions which are at times marginalized, made invisible or discredited by the hacker mainstream. In reference to de Lauretis (1988), Skeggs (1997, 25) writes that experience “is the basis of feminism in the sense that feminism began the moment women started talking to each other about their experiences.” Presenting experiences showcases specific ways of seeing the world. As Haraway states, “The struggle over what will count as rational accounts of the world are struggles over how to see…” (Haraway 1988, 375).
In keeping with feminist standpoint theories (see Haraway 1988; Harding 1986, 2004; Collins 1990), I acknowledge that experiences are processed through practice, discourse and interpretation (Skeggs 1997). Standpoint theory originated in Marxist research which sought to elucidate the experiences of the working class. During the 1970 women’s movement it was appropriated and transformed into a feminist context (see Jaggar 1983; Harding 2004, 2009; Hartsock 2004). Harding (2009, 193) argues that feminist standpoint theory is “committed to the production of information women want and need in their struggle to survive and flourish,” committed to the political engagements of oppressed groups (194), not value-neutral (195) and offers a sound methodology towards the production of knowledge about marginalized groups, to describe only a few of the theory’s features.
While feminist standpoint theories have been criticized for valorizing the agency of those in the margins and for positing chasms between knowledge communities, Harding (2009, 193) argues that such logics of inquiry exist unchallenged in other disciplines. They are “widely used in research projects focused on race, class, sexuality, and studies in postcolonial research, though in these contexts the logic is only occasionally labeled as being in the standpoint tradition,” she writes. I acknowledge a tension in the following research between speaking and silencing (see Skeggs 1997 for more on this distinction): by focusing on the voices of the creators of feminist hackerspaces, the voices from the mainstream hackerspace culture can incidentally be silenced. However, this can be seen as balanced by broader discourse; While the study of hackerspaces is relatively new, voices and practices from mainstream hackerspaces are represented regularly — and routinely omit feminist and post-colonial stances (see Farr 2009; Grenzfurthner and Schneider 2009; Kostakis, Niaros and Giotitsas 2014; Maxigas 2012).
In this contribution I hope to promote and make visible the feminist component of this flourishing culture. As an activist and independent researcher involved in the creation of a feminist hackerspace in Montreal called FemHack (previously known as FouFem), and a participant at Ada Camps, my interest in the emergence of other feminist hackerspaces is natural. Learning about Flux, Double Union and Seattle Attic via mailing lists and twitter feeds, I decided to investigate further. From November 2013 to January 2014 I conducted twelve semi-structured interviews with the women, queer and self-identified women involved with these spaces. Each lasted between 45 and 90 minutes. Follow up emails were also sent to some of the interviewees as a way to continue the discussion and to clarify certain points. When reaching out to feminist hacker, maker and geek activists, I have always offered to use encrypted means of communication to ensure safety and confidentiality. Additionally, all quotes in this article have been anonymized to ensure interviewees’ further protection.
While every hackerspace featured in this study identifies as feminist, they do not all identify as women-only — understandings of feminism differ from space to space. However, all interview subjects identify as women, queer or trans. It is worth noting that the majority were Caucasian, abled and from middle class backgrounds. As a point of clarification, I would like to point out that not all women, queer or trans individuals feel attuned to a feminist stance or, when they do, share the same feminist principles. Feminism, like any other theory or praxis, varies in its principles and manifestations — at times differences are irreconcilable. Additionally, not all women, queer and trans persons feel the need to belong to or take part in a feminist hackerspace. There are also male-bodied and male-identifying people who want to be part of such endeavors. This clarification is part of the non-essentialist feminist stance I am attempting to adopt in this article.
Using a feminist methodology to write this article also demonstrates that feminist issues are crucial to understand the experiences of those who do not identify and/or fit in the dominant hacker/hackerspace culture (see Nafus 2012). This article contributes by recording the histories and experiences of feminists in the context of the broader hackerspace community. Keeping in mind the existent diversity in hacker practices and values (Coleman & Golub 2008), I maintain that feminist hackerspaces represent a break from many tenets of the mainstream hackerspace model and enable some new practices for feminist hackers, makers and geeks. Many tensions exist in hacker culture and are highlighted by a feminist analysis: the tensions surrounding liberalism in hacker culture (Coleman & Golub 2008), the meaning of openness in Free, Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) design and participation (Nafus 2012), and (highlighted most specifically in this article) the meaning of openness in hackerspace culture. Given the current paucity of literature on the subject of feminist hackerspaces, the research and analysis which follows is deemed significant.
Feminism and Intersectionality
Feminism has been under strain in recent years. In the late 1990s, intense debate over difference and identity left feminist academics exhausted (Carbin & Edenheim 2013). Differing strands of feminism became embattled, particularly on the subject of identity. For instance, Brown recognizes that identity-based claims are part of a liberal discourse that legitimates identities (Brown 1995). She states that “politicized identities are generated out of liberal, disciplinary societies” and are part of late capitalist formations (Brown 1995, 65). Intersectionality has taken hold among many feminists as a way around these divisions. In fact, Nash argues that intersectionality provides a “vocabulary to respond to critiques of identity politics” (2008, 2).
The term has become a buzzword in feminist circles. In the most typical formulation, intersectionality highlights a desire to see the world from intersecting, pluralist perspectives — this is to say, considering as many different experiences as possible. Intersectional feminists argue that feminism cannot be studied, understood, or practiced from a single, immediate, standpoint; understanding requires engagement with culture, class, sexuality, ethnicity, gender and other power structures which engender inequality. American sociologist McCall defines intersectionality as the “relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations” (2005, 1771). Nash defines it in the following terms: “Intersectionality, the notion that subjectivity is constituted by mutually reinforcing vectors of race, gender, class, and sexuality, has emerged as the primary theoretical tool designed to combat feminist hierarchy, hegemony, and exclusivity” (2008, 2).
Many scholars locate Crenshaw’s 1991 article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color” as the concept’s origin point. This article and the subsequent work of Hill-Collins (1990, 1998) drew upon radical black American feminist writing to show, for example, how white feminists excluded black women from the feminist movement by setting a white, middle-class agenda. In Collins’ work, for instance, the development of black feminist thought is explicitly linked to black feminist experience. The result is an example of feminist standpoint epistemology.
According to Carbin & Edenheim (2013, 235), Collins and Crenshaw’s use of intersectionality was to highlight the different power structures at play in feminist and anti-racists movements. Moreover, Nash argues that Crenshaw engaged with legal questions as a means to criticize identity politics: “While liberal critiques of identity politics criticize its failure to transcend difference, Crenshaw argues that the real problem of identity politics is that it elides intra-group difference, a problem that intersectionality purports to solve by exposing differences within the broad categories of ‘women’ and ‘blacks’” (2008, 2). Other scholars, influenced more by structuralist ontologies than by American radical black feminism, have attempted to utilize the principles of intersectionality at the levels of theory (Yuval-Davis 2006), methodology (McCall 2005) and paradigm (Hancock 2007). McCall, particularly in an article titled “The complexity of intersectionality” (2005), attempts to elaborate the concept into a common grounding for all feminist research.
As an epistemological complement to standpoint theory, intersectionality embraces the inclusion of many voices in its account of social reality construction (Mann 2013). It also recognizes the political potential for unvalued knowledge to undermine dominant discourses and proposes ways of seeing which run counter to those normalized (Mann 2013). But intersectionality also draws criticism on multiple fronts (see Nash 2008). Scholars such as Skeggs (1997, 2004) suggest that equivalent gender, race and/or class analyses are often performed without drawing upon an intersectional framework. In the words of Nash, intersectionality has simply “provided a name to a pre-existing theoretical and political commitment” (2008, 3). Moreover, critics have argued that the all-inclusive agenda of intersectionality might itself mask the exercise of certain power dynamics, obscuring opportunities for intervention in the process. When taken as a guarantor of inclusive politics, intersectionality might actually “impede profound engagement with racism, since attention to the ‘intersections’ rarely serves to transform relations of power,” as Carastathis describes it in her PhD dissertation (2008, 15). Increasingly, she elaborates, referral to intersectionality has become a way to embody a non-racist feminist identity–enabling, in some ways, the compromising history of white feminism to be forgotten.
In practice, intersectional feminism aims at acknowledging and tackling privileges, oppression and relations of domination which manifest themselves in a variety of forms. It is the dominant theory used by feminist hackers, makers and geeks in the US in order not only to make room for diverse voices, but more importantly to take into consideration the histories and lives of individuals whose experiences have often been ignored, dismissed or silenced. It is a way to bring light and ultimately to challenge systems of oppression. Intersectional feminism tries to be inclusive in a radical way in acknowledging the persistence of these systems and the importance of addressing the structural dimension of power rather than only looking at individual that are problematic (such as with the bad apples). For a hackerspace taking an intersectional feminist stance means that both at an institutional and individual level privileges and relations of domination are acknowledged, addressed, and challenged. It is a different kind of ideal than the principle of “openness”. This ideal is about creating a space where agency, fulfillment, empowerment, diversity, and social justice is its core.
Brief History of Hackerspaces
Hackerspaces are volunteer-run spaces where one can tinker with hardware, software or any other types of technology and socialize. Some write computer code while others solder, play with Arduinos or hack clothing. Public hackerspaces have existed for a long time in Europe, but are a relatively recent phenomenon in North America. While private spaces such as the Boston-based L0pht have existed since the 1990s (Farr 2009), the more-public and open variety only began to mushroom after the year 2007. This was in part triggered by The Hacker Foundation’s project Hackers on a Plane (HoaP), which encouraged technologists from North America to visit hackerspaces in Europe in the lead-up to the 2007 Chaos Computer Camp (CCC) organized by the largest association of hackers in the world, the Chaos Computer Club (CCC). A few months later at the 24th annual edition of the Chaos Communication Congress (24C3), a panel entitled “Building a Hacker Space” gathered a set of common features into a standard model. And at 25C3, the following year, a panel examined the phenomenon from an international perspective, inviting hackers from North America and Europe to share and compare experiences. That same year the Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference in New York featured a panel entitled “Building Hacker Spaces everywhere: Your Excuses are Invalid.” Suddenly, the North American iteration of the movement was full-blown. In recent years, populist forms of hackerspaces have grown to overshadow older, more political hacklabs located throughout European social centers and squats (see Maxigas 2012). According to the inventory provided by hackerspaces.org, more than 500 hackerspaces are in operation at the time of writing. Hackerspaces now span the globe: from Seattle to Montreal, Guatemala city to Amsterdam, Nairobi to Seoul, and on. Whether established in the United States, Europe or elsewhere, hackerspaces tend to attract and retain a very specific set of users. Despite attempts at openness and inclusivity (Tuesdays, for example, are often maintained as night where all are welcome), hackerspaces have generally found it difficult to attract and/or retain women, lesbian, gay, trans and queer (LGBTQ) persons, gender non-conformists and people of color, among others.
The feminist spark
One cannot identify the specific catalyst which provoked the emergence of feminist hackerspaces; many different trajectories and forces have been integral in their creation. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that feminist hackerspaces can trace their genealogy to a dual source, to both hacker and feminist cultures.
One online project has been particularly central to the rise of feminist hackerspaces. The Geek Feminism wiki (started in 2008) and its blog (started in 2009) functioned as a core around which feminist hackers, makers and geeks could build an online community. The project was, in many regards, a consciousness raising initiative. Individuals shared experiences, documenting instances of sexism, sexual harassment and discrimination which arose in the course of their relationships with geek culture. [ii] The Geek Feminism project helped highlight the ubiquity of sexual harassment at tech and open source conferences — topics which were rarely discussed — and demonstrated that these incidents were not isolated, but arose as the result of deeply engrained structural problems. In addition to enabling these vital issues to be discussed, Geek Feminism’s wiki and blog functioned as the venue through which many feminist geeks came to know one another. Many of the project’s administrators also became founding members of feminist hackerspaces. In some ways these spaces can be understood as extensions of the project Geek Feminism initiated — they are a direct reaction to the problems identified by its community, and in many instances have been explicitly designed to offer alternatives which might lessen or counter the problems identified and discussed. Geek Feminism and its participants were starting to hack the dominant concepts relating to hackerspaces.
A feminist organization called Ada Initiative provided another crucial thrust towards the establishment of feminist hackerspaces. Founded in 2011, the non-profit supports women involved in FLOSS and the broader tech industry. Among other activities, Ada Initiative produces codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies which are then offered to conferences, hackerspaces and other events for use under a Creative Commons License. Ada Initiative was established after numerous reports of groping, sexual assaults and other sexist incidents at conferences appeared in the Geek Feminism wiki. Many of its founders and advisors continued to contribute actively to Geek Feminism, and have themselves initiated feminist hackerspaces. Ada Initiative specifically positions itself as an intersectional social justice organization, which is open and friendly to women and gender non-conformists: “The Ada Initiative welcomes women of all kinds, and specifically welcomes trans women and genderqueer women. We strive to be an intersectional social justice organization.” [iii]
The organization also launched Ada Camps, a yearly conference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. [iv] It brings women, queer and trans individuals together to “build community, discuss issues women have in common across open technology and culture fields, and find ways to address them.” [v] During the 3rd Ada Camp, which happened in San Francisco in June 2013, Seattle Attic organized a presentation on how to build a feminist hackerspace, highlighting the intersectional dimension. This presentation, and the gathering of feminist, queer and gender non-conformists helped crystallize feminist hackerspace projects in the USA by directly inspiring the creation of Flux in Portland, Oregon and Double Union in San Francisco, California. At present, discussions to open up additional feminist hackerspaces in Washington, Chicago, Boston and other cities are ongoing. In some ways, one could draw parallels between the reception of Seattle Attic’s HowTo workshop at AdaCamp and the presentation at 24C3 which kicked off the hackerspace movement more generally. The workshop has clearly been significant in seeding new feminist hackerspaces. However, a significant difference lies in the fact that Ada Camps run its discussions using Chatham House Rule: very little record of Seattle Attic’s workshop is thus available in the public realm, a trade-off for ensuring the camps function as a safe space for talking, debating, making and hacking. However, in keeping with the hackerspace ethos of sharing and openness, design patterns which explain how to start a feminist hackerspace have been made available on the Geek Feminism wiki and are a collective endeavor. [vi]
A consideration of Kelty’s (2008) conceptualization of recursive publics is useful in understanding the feminist hacker, maker and geek cultures that have created feminist hackerspaces. “Recursive publics are publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them [geeks] to come into being in the first place and which, in turn, constitutes their everyday practical commitments and the identities of the participants as creative and autonomous individuals” (2008, 7). The recursive public of feminist hackers, makers and geeks differs from the dominant hacker stereotype in significant ways. Their online embodiment and actions are different from the dominant hacker (see Coleman 2010, 2012) and feminist hackerspaces distinguish themselves significantly from the cultures of mainstream hackerspaces (see Maxigas 2012). While feminist hackers, makers and geeks concern themselves with advancing online projects like Geek Feminism and offline projects like Ada initiative — they are also hard at work shaping the very conditions which underwrite their debates and projects. In other words, a concern for the kind of hackerspaces they want to hack in — and how such spaces can be actualized — is at the heart of their association. In some ways, this social imaginary could be understood as the defining aspect of feminist hackers, makers and geeks. They want spaces responsive to their desired boundaries — that they may hack in peace without encountering the everyday sexism prevalent today both online and off. This recursive aspect reveals the true significance of feminist hackerspaces, demonstrating how these individuals work to shape the very institutions which make them hackers: they hack hackerspaces. While all hackers function as a recursive public, the establishment of feminist hackerspaces can be regarded as the first explicit fragmentation to occur within the hackerspace community itself.
Before I explore the ways in which feminist hackers, makers and geeks debunk concepts inherent to mainstream hackerspace culture, it seems useful to show the ways women hackers have been represented in existent scholarship. As will be clear, current conceptions of feminist hackers, makers and geeks must be supplemented by appeal to new experiences and perspectives.
Perception of female hackers and their (in)visibility
For over a decade scholars have asked the same question in different forms: Where are the women hackers? Why are there so few women hackers? Are there any women hackers? (Adam 2003; Jordan & Taylor 2004; Taylor 1999; Turkle 1984). Psychoanalysis is often drawn upon to explain this invisibility or absence: women, it has been suggested, are simply less interested in penetrating into computer systems. Such assumptions are typically based on a rigid and narrow understanding of hacking as an illegal activity perpetrated by hacker criminals (Taylor 1999).
While recognizing that women hackers are relatively underrepresented, Adam (2003) has argued that from their practice has emerged an ethic which differs from the one commonly attributed to hacker cultures. She calls it an “ethic of care” (2003, 143). Adam’s research is interesting and provided a take on women hackers that was, at the time of its publishing, unprecedented. Her study fits with what Coleman & Golub (2008) have demonstrated, the hacker ethic is not a set of uniform values and practices, but rather is heterogeneous. This is also the nuanced approach I am trying to take by concentrating on self-defined feminist hackers, makers and geeks, and their struggle to create space and define their own boundaries. In this way, I aim to expand a conception of the hacker. I argue that feminist hackers mark a new development poised to open up the hacker ecology to further diversity and nuance. While conceptions presented in scholarship lack robustness, the actions of hackers themselves seek to fill the void. Today, feminist hackers, makers and geeks are growing loud following reports of groping, discrimination and harassment. They have taken a clear stance that codes of conduct are needed in hacker conferences, hackerspaces and other venues. Some feminist hackers, makers and geeks have experienced verbal abuse following their online and offline criticisms of sexism or misogynist behaviors (see Spinks 2013, Wolf 2012). One hacker I interviewed stated:
A lot of people really appreciate the criticism. The people who don’t like it are very, very angry. I get rape threats, death threats, harassing emails. I had to remove all the comments from my blogs. I can’t read Reddit and Hacker News and my stuff shows up on 4chan.” (Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, November 22, 2013)
Despite frequent abuse of outspoken feminist hackers, makers and geeks online, feminist hackerspace initiatives have been mostly accepted in the hacker, maker and geek culture. Often to the surprise of feminists:
The reaction to our feminist hackerspace has been very positive. We got a stunning response to our fundraising campaign. It really exceeded our expectations. That’s definitely encouraging. People were excited about our space. I am surprised that there was not a backlash. (Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, December 10, 2013)
As has already been noted, feminist hackerspaces have emerged for a multitude of reasons. Conflicts inside mainstream hackerspaces; conflicts over the meaning of openness; difficulties in recognizing and acknowledging privileges along the lines of gender, race, ethnicity and class; and patriarchal behaviors offer a handful of reasons and one need not look far to discover others. Another reason comes from the plainly stated desire to hack in peace: that is, the refusal to tolerate everyday sexism in one’s space and the desire to focus economies of attention on feminist projects and ideas without distraction. In what follows, I hope to demonstrate the way feminist culture dovetails with hacker culture in the creation of feminist hackerspaces. Primarily in the 60s and 70s, but also the decades which followed, the need for delineating spaces with clear boundaries was recognized by feminists as a major need. This was particularly common during the women’s liberation movement in the US. They hosted women-only face-to-face discussions and meetings which served primarily emancipatory purposes — aiming to help women understand that their situation was not unique or uncommon, but was rather rooted in general, structural and systemic processes. These spaces known as consciousness raising groups also offered relative safety and collective respite from the patriarchal behaviors found elsewhere such as in the leftist movement (Echols 1989).
Some of the best-known examples of these spaces are those maintained by Redstockings, Cell16, The Feminists and New York Radical Feminists (Echols 1989). These groups “agreed that gender, not class or race, was the primary contradiction and that all forms of social domination originated with male supremacy” (Echols 1989, 139). This view grew from a discontent shared by many white women who had experienced sexism within the larger leftist movement. Radical-feminists saw female-only space as instrumental in redressing one of the multiple imbalances they observed in the course of their activism; In these spaces they could raise awareness about issues of patriarchy and sexism–a term coined in these very discussions. Such views, and their origins among white feminists, have however been highly contested by post-colonial and intersectional scholars (Crenshaw 1989, 1991; Hancock 2007; Hill Collins 1998; McCall 2005) as well as from the points of views of queer (Butler 1990, 2004; Ferguson 2003; Muñoz 2009) and trans ontologies (Salamon 2010).
The feminist hackers, makers and geeks who initiated the first feminist hackerspaces are aware of these histories — and the hegemonic form of feminism which often promoted a white woman’s agenda to the exclusion of others. This historical awareness that intersectional feminist hackers, makers and geeks are trying to take coupled with their own felt experiences of marginalization within dominant hackerspace and hacker cultures, seems to have granted them at least a desire to recognize analogous forms of oppression. The founders of feminist hackerspaces are trying to recognize and empathize with the oppression of others along similar trajectories, even within social categories beyond their personal experience.
I think that the word feminism needs to be constantly qualified to be explicitly anti-racist and inclusive of queer and trans feminism to account for the violent histories of feminisms excluding people. (Queer Feminist hacker, interview, December 18, 2013)
Looking at the history of the feminist movement, we have a terrible history with people of color and especially with black women. When we started our space it was obvious that it would be an intersectional feminist space to try to counter that history. (Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, December 10, 2013)
Feminist hackerspaces often state that they are intersectional or adopt an intersectional analysis of feminist issues. In this way they express a desire to acknowledge and include many voices. Moreover, as they themselves have felt excluded by dominant hackerspace cultures, they seem anxious to extend this feeling to the experiences of others. As previously stated, Double Union, Seattle Attic and Flux each align themselves explicitly as intersectional spaces. The desire to adopt a non-racist feminism which avoids the historical pitfalls of white feminist agendas cannot be overstated — but as the following quote highlights, simply advocating these principles and claiming intersectionality does not magically eliminate the problems:
The same issue that we see in feminism as a whole we see it in feminism and tech. It is dominated by white cis-women like me, middle class like me who are in these very privileged positions and dominate the conversation and who are given more space to talk about the issues that affect them. Within feminism, we had a huge marginalization of anybody who did not fit in those specific spaces. Women of color, women with disabilities, trans women, genderqueer women, native women, all on the gendered spectrum. (Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, November 18, 2013)
Thus, intersectionality is recognized as an important framework for feminist hackerspaces. The gender dimension of this framework seems to be particularly crucial to the setting of boundaries. While the language and the boundaries used by the three feminist hackerspaces under study differ, they all share a belief in the necessity of boundaries as a common ideological ground. The concomitant rejection of spaces which are completely “open” in the manner espoused by mainstream hackerspace further unifies their practice. Double Union presents itself as:
[A] feminist makerspace to be located near the Mission in San Francisco. The goal is to create a space where women feel comfortable working on projects together: art, writing, computer programming, woodworking, printmaking, fabric arts, etc. To keep the focus on a great space for women, all members must be significantly female-identified. Members can host guests of any gender or age. [vii]
Seattle Attic embraces a somewhat different set of boundaries, evident in the following description:
This summer, a group of idealistic intersectional feminists started a hackerspace in downtown Seattle. […] We’re building something new and cool in downtown Seattle – a feminist, woman-centered, and trans- and queer-inclusive space where tinkerers, makers, crafters, and hackers of all genders encourage each other to work, teach, learn, and collaborate. [viii]
Finally, Flux imagines yet another set of boundaries, open to all genders and placing emphasis on social justice politics. They also describe their project as an attempt to create a new culture:
We are working to create a space for a new culture of makers/breakers/fixers and benders in Portland, Oregon. […] We recognize that the technology world is often a binder full of testosterone, and are working to make technology inclusive for people of all backgrounds and genders. We do our best to maintain an explicitly intersectional feminist space that welcomes members and guests of all genders, racial and cultural backgrounds, and levels of ability. We must make our space safe so we can be dangerous together! [ix]
Boundary-making spaces have been utilized differently over time by a variety of minority groups, including women, people of color, LQBTQ, youth, and others. The establishment of boundaries can serve a variety of different goals, in a variety of different contexts. One very powerful explanation in favor of the practice comes from Faith Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble.
It should be remembered that separatism among a minoritarian (disenfranchised) group is not negative. It’s not sexist, it’s not racist, and it’s not even necessarily a hindrance to democratic development. There is a distinct difference between using exclusivity as part of a strategy to make a specific perception or way of being in the world universal, and using exclusivity as a means to escape a false universal. There is also a distinct difference between using exclusion as a means to maintain structures of domination, and using it as a means to undermine them.
In a chapter entitled “Choosing marginalization as a space of radical openness”, the pioneering black feminist theorist bell hooks proposes a form of marginalization which is infused with political potency:
I am located in the margin. I make a definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance — as location of radical openness and possibility. (1990, 209)
hooks understands separatism as a political act, a response to domination. Even more, it is a site where participants can be transformed both as individuals and as a collective. Viewed through such a lens, strategies of separation and/or boundary-making can be viewed as marginalizing, isolationist, empowering and politically effective all at the same time, and without contradiction.
Hacking the space
While feminist hackerspaces grapple, on the one hand, with questions emerging from their feminist history, they are also firmly embedded in the hacker and hackerspace culture. True to form, members display curiosity regarding how things are made, a do-it-yourself and do-it-together approach to learning, a desire to bond over their love of technology and its workings, and other hacker truisms. These sentiments were frequently expressed in my interviews with feminist hackerspace members.
The really cool thing about the Hacker-Maker movement is that when you come together and share skills and stuff like that, people who could not change the things around them can. (Co-founder and Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, December 18, 2013).
We are trying to pick the good parts. The parts that are about curiosity, collaboration, and leave [out] the parts that are about shit testing and, you know, that are about competition. (Co-founder and Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, January 2, 2014)
Questions surrounding openness in mainstream hackerspace culture are intrinsically linked to marked hesitancy in addressing issues of privilege and meritocracy — what Nafus calls “pushyocracy” (2008). The struggle to acknowledge, discuss and attempt a resolution to these challenges has created a level of disillusionment and frustration among feminist hackers, makers and geeks. Freeman’s (1972) article on the “tyranny of structurelessness” — a work quoted extensively by the feminist hackers, makers and geeks interviewed — cautions against open spaces. Freeman argues that the lack of formal structures (which could be read as boundaries) deployed by a group or in space ends up favouring those who already enjoy gender, class, and race privilege, ultimately reinforcing the informal power of certain individuals or cliques.
Moreover, as Ahmed (2012) underlines, those who would point to sexism or racism in a space often encounter resistance. She calls such blockages “walls”. Even after banging ones head against the wall multiple times, an act which requires physical and emotional labor, “the wall keeps its place and it is you who gets sore” (Ahmed, 2012, 156). However, for those with privilege the walls appear transparent leaving them largely unconcerned by the problems which do not directly affect them. Focusing energy away from the hard work of breaking walls and towards the creation of something new has helped feminist hackers, makers and geeks move forward.
With feminist hackerspace we were able to move forward rather than try to prove that sexism, racism, misogyny was something that happened [in hackerspace]. People rarely believe that others are treated differently because of their race, that they are being sexually harassed because of their gender. Getting beyond those 101 level conversations and mov[ing] towards something more productive was amazing. And so having these spaces allows you not to be run down from dealing with this and eventually stop because you cannot deal with this anymore. (Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, November 18, 2013)
In talking about whether one should struggle to change an existing space or simply start a new one, one of the co-founders of a feminist hackerspace said:
One of the realizations I had in starting our hackerspace was that there was a lot of discussion around cultural change versus creating new spaces. How toxic and ineffective sometimes it can be to change spaces. We realize it would be way more fun to set the boundaries from the get go rather than change the culture of an already existing space. (Co-founder and Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, January 2, 2014)
While some hackerspaces qualify their openness with limited rules — filed with good intention, such as Noisebridge in San Francisco’s one-rule, ‘be excellent to each other’–it is often not enough to create spaces where privileges are acknowledged, challenged and confronted. [x] While the limitations imposed upon minorities by the dominant white, heterosexual male culture that typically prevails in hackerspaces is obvious enough, some feminist hackers, makers and geeks I interviewed also suggested that the entrenchment of these norms impacted negatively on the very individuals it supposedly favors.
I found that now, when I look in the [hacker]space that I still love and am part of, it’s falling into the easy route … of mostly men sitting around and playing on things and it’s detrimental to them, and it’s not as diverse as it could be and they are getting very little out of it in comparison to what the possibilities are.” (Queer feminist hacker, interview, November 18 and December 6, 2013)
Feminist hackerspaces attempt to open up possibilities for feminist hackers, makers and geeks by creating spaces where affinities are prioritized, and a different social imaginary and culture are foregrounded.
By using the F word [feminism] we are filtering [out] a really large set of assholes and at the same time, in addition to filtering out assholes, we also positively open[ing] up possibilities for people who, you know, will be making jokes involving feminist theory — and that’s a pretty unique set of filters.” (Co-founder and Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, January 2, 2014)
People felt they were not welcome in hacker-maker spaces and decided to set up their own spaces. They set up their own political space. (Queer feminist hacker, interview, November 18 and December 6, 2013)
It is about being able to go to a place and work on something you are passionate about without worrying constantly about protecting yourself, defending yourself, explaining yourselves. (Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, November 18, 2013)
A reconfiguration of concepts
In addition to a desire for safe, bounded spaces, feminist hackers, makers and geeks also display a hesitancy to identify with the dominant hacker culture because of its close association with white, heterosexual male culture. The notion that gender, race, sexual orientation, class and ability can be ignored because all that matters is how well one can “hack” (a view often hegemonically identified as “the hacker ethic” — but in actuality is not uniformly shared among hackers) is deemed by feminists to effectively disregard the ranging privileges enjoyed by different individuals.
There is this whole meritocracy thing. My theory is: hackers have this intense belief that they got where they got on their own merits and if they are confronted with the idea that there is discrimination that means that the one who quote, unquote got there had it easy. It runs counter to the idea of meritocracy.” (Co-founder and Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, January 2, 2014)
Feminism is also often dismissed for being a moralizing project or a form of imposition. Ahmed (2014) argues that social norms, such as those associated with feminism, are often quickly equated with the managing and governing of the behaviors of others. The existence of sexism, racism, ableism, and others, often hidden, biases work against the lionized ideal of “openness” — the practical outcome of their maintenance is the exclusion of entire demographics of hacker, makers and geeks. “The fantasy of spaces as egalitarian can participate in the enactment of logics that render them deeply unequal spaces–indeed can make those spaces hostile and unlivable for those who are unwilling to participate in the terms being used (Ahmed 2014).
A discomfort with the term “hacker” and the culture surrounding it has led many to prefer being associated with terms like “maker” or “geek”.
I do identify as a geek. However, part of me is pulled away from that identity [the hacker identity], just because of what it means to be in those spaces [hackerspaces]. That’s a very hostile environment for people like me. (Member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, November 18, 2013)
I consider myself a hacker, but not in the computer sense, but rather looking at infrastructure and cooking in the holes. Also: I consider myself as a maker because I like developing on top of what infrastructure there is. (Queer feminist hacker, interview, November 18 and December 6, 2013)
Hacker is this kind of word that other people call you because it is complementary. So it is definitely part of my identity. Making, tinkering is much more about something I do, than something I am. (Co-founder and member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, January 2, 2014)
The hacker identification specifically [in] the computer security field… what a horrible misogynist culture. So why would you want to identify with that?” (Co-founder and member of a feminist hackerspace, interview, January 10, 2014)
The creation of feminist hackerspaces is about the reconstruction and reconfiguration of what feminism means in a hacker, maker and geek context. It is about differentiation, coalition and agency. It is about hacking hackerspaces and all associated concepts.
Feminist hacker, maker, geek praxis is animated by a desire for transformation (Ahmed & all, 2000). Individuals are driven by a need to realize change. They express this imperative of transformation and renewal by questioning the central idea of openness — a challenge they manifest both physically and ideologically by creating new spaces of hacking. Feminist hackerspaces engage in a politics of location and boundary making, and constitute an ethic of address. They attempt to make visible the invisible, as exemplified in the following statement.
Taking a feminist stance sets the tone so clearly for what sort of space we want. It [the feminist hackerspace] provides the structure [so that] any exchange you have will be based on a feminist analysis. We acknowledge cultural, social and economic issues and how they affect us. It is assumed that those aspects [cultural, social and economic issues] will be a part of any conversations that will happen so you get to progress the conversation further. So instead of it being: Well are there really gender issues? We already know there are and now are we tackling them. One’s hope. (Queer feminist hacker, interview, November 18 and December 6, 2013)
Through feminist hackerspaces, feminist hackers, makers and geeks claim the power and authority to define their own social reality, to create their own meaning, which emerge from their culture, practice, discourse and interpretation. Feminist hackers, makers and geeks are acquiring epistemic privilege by resisting the dominant hackerspace mantra. They are also making visible new tensions — that they might attain centrality in hacker and hackerspace cultures more generally.
With the emergence of a new breed of hackerspaces, we are able to intuit new tensions at work in our understandings of openness. In recognizing these tensions we open up new possibilities for hackerspace culture, and discover the imperative to acknowledge and challenge the multiple forms of subordination at work on those who do not fit in to — or do not want to be associated with — the dominant hackerspace culture. The material manifestation of feminist hackerspaces performs the first steps in a synthesis between feminist and hacker traditions. Feminist hackerspaces advance an understanding that systemic and structural problems (racism, sexism, transphobia, queerphobia, etc.) are societally embedded and thus manifest in hackerspace culture. They attempt to challenge a variety of oppressive systems through an intersectional stance, while foregrounding a clear emphasis on gender. Ultimately, these spaces attempt to hack the concept of the hackerspace — reshaping the meaning of hacking itself as a way to hack life in all its forms so as to (re)gain autonomy. In this article, I have shown that for feminist hackers, makers and geeks the open space concept enshrined as the core of the standard hackerspace model is largely undesirable. They envisage a different role for their hackerspace, one in which boundaries offer both safety and a platform for political resistance. In doing so they counter the myth that open spaces are necessarily inclusive and egalitarian, revealing the issues of privilege which lurk behind such platitudes. By simultaneously sharing principles and establishing disparate boundaries and definitions, feminist hackerspaces collectively express an alternate hacker, maker and geek culture. In doing so the trajectories of hacker and feminist culture are brought together. Though feminist hackers, makers and geeks have previously affirmed their collective identity both online and face-to-face, their expanding material manifestation in feminist hackerspaces has rendered their nascent culture increased visibility and accessibility.
The author wishes to thank all of those who took time to speak with her (this would not have been possible without you!), the editors, Maxigas and Peter Troxler and the reviewers for their constructive comments on the article. Finally, special thanks to Johan Söderberg and Matt Goerzen for the extra comments and revision.
[i] In this article, I use the term feminist hackers, makers and geeks rather than simply feminist hackers in order to include those who do not identify or do not want to be identified with the term hacker.
[ii] The Geek Feminism Wiki Timeline of incidents is accessible at: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/index.php?title=Timeline_of_incidents.
[iii] Ada Initiative: http://adainitiative.org/
[iv] Ada Camps have taken place in Australia (2011), Washington D.C. (2012), San Francisco (2013) and Portland (2014).
[v] Ada Initiative: http://adainitiative.org/
[vi] Feminist Hackerspace Design Patterns: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Feminist_hackerspace_design_patterns
[vii] Double Union: http://www.doubleunion.org/
[viii] Seattle Attic: http://seattleattic.com/
[ix] Flux: http://fluxlab.io/
[x] Noisebridge has recently worked on an anti-harassment policy, available at: https://github.com/noisebridge/bureaucracy/blob/master/code-of-conduct/anti-harassment-policy.md
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