Feminist Hackerspaces: The Synthesis of Feminist and Hacker Cultures

This article was publish in the Jounal of Peer Production in October 2014. The following is an excerpt for the publised text. To read the full article visit: http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-5-shared-machine-shops/peer-reviewed-articles/feminist-hackerspaces-the-synthesis-of-feminist-and-hacker-cultures/

By Sophie Toupin


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.

To continue reading visit: http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-5-shared-machine-shops/peer-reviewed-articles/feminist-hackerspaces-the-synthesis-of-feminist-and-hacker-cultures/