I’ve been travelling this week, so it’s taken me a while to get around to this, but as founder of the Geek Feminism wiki and blog I wanted to respond to the posts by Nice Girl, Rikki Endsley, and others linked and listed in this post.
To Nice Girl and Nixie, I want to say I am sorry this happened to you at OSCON, and that you were made to feel unwelcome by people who identified themselves with the Geek Feminism community. It’s provoked a lot of discussion among us, and we agree — inasmuch as a loose affiliation of people with no official structure can agree on anything — that it’s not in keeping with the values we wish to espouse.
We are taking a few different steps to address the specific concerns raised. One is that we are reviewing our wiki pages to make sure that we have information on slut-shaming and that it is appropriately cross-linked with articles about sexualised environments at geek events to help reinforce/educate people that criticising an individual woman’s choice of clothing is very different from criticising (for instance) a business that uses booth babes as a marketing device.
The second thing is that we are setting up a process so that people can contact us if they experience harassment by someone associated with GF. This is a work in progress, especially since GF is (as mentioned) a loose affiliation with no official membership, and because we may be asked to deal with harassment that occurs outside our own spaces. However, if someone is harassing another person under GF’s name or in a way associated with GF, then we want to provide a private way for people to contact us, and respond appropriately.
Now, on a more general note, I would like to address a few of things I’ve seen mentioned lately.
Firstly, Geek Feminism — like feminism in general — is not monolithic or homogenous. People come at it from all kinds of perspectives and with all levels of experience. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to say what tenets or beliefs we hold as a group.
As a short list, people who have publicly associated themselves with Geek Feminism (eg. by being a regular blogger or frequent wiki contributor) include: men, women, trans and genderqueer people, married people, single people, polyamorous people, monogamous people, parents, childless people, people of colour, mixed race people, immigrants, people of a variety of religions or no religion, people with disabilities, heterosexual, bisexual, gay and lesbian people, asexual people, people with > 20 years experience in technical fields, members of the “digital generation”, students, academics, unemployed people, people who wear suits every day for work, professionally published writers, artists and crafters, community managers, open source developers, people who work with proprietary/non-open source software, gamers (online and off), science fiction fans, anime and manga fans, vegetarians and vegans, femmes, butches, androgynous people, people who have worked as sex activists and educators, people who produce erotica/porn, people with PhDs, people with no degree, introverts, extroverts, people on the autism spectrum and off it, people with other mental health diagnoses… I said it was going to be a short list so I’d better stop now. And these are just among the “regulars” I can think of; when it comes to our wider community, including people who read our blog or regularly refer to our wiki or support us in some other way, I can’t even begin to imagine the range of backgrounds and perspectives. (Which is not to say that our diversity is perfect — we certainly have clusters where some backgrounds/perspectives outweigh others — but that we are not all alike in our views or opinions.)
A while ago I was talking to Mary, offline, about how we would define Geek Feminism. We weren’t really able, though we came up with a few ideas to characterise the style of feminism that tends to happen around here. We never published them or really took them anywhere because, again, they’re not entirely representative, though I think they do give a little insight into the overall tendencies of this community. So, I present them here, but ask that you take them with a big grain of salt and do please feel free to disagree or suggest other ideas if you have them.
- Documentation: our main tactic is to document things. To some extent this grows out of my original (very personal and individual) reason for starting the GF wiki back in 2008: I was making an effort to learn more about women’s experiences in geek communities and to contextualise that within the framework/jargon that feminism had already developed in non-geek contexts. My tendency when learning something new is to write documentation to help cement the idea in my own mind and to (hopefully) be of use to others in the future. And so, I created the wiki, which has been fairly central to GF since then.
- Scientific/logical: without trying to imply that everything we do follows the scientific method and is peer reviewed (because it’s obviously not) I do think we have a more science-friendly approach than many other branches of feminism. Some feminists tend to see science as a tool of the patriarchy, and distrust it by default, whereas we more often believe in science as a Good Thing even if we might criticise the methodology of participar research. As geeks, we also tend to fall more towards the “logical” end of the logical-emotional spectrum than is common among women and in other branches of feminism — noting, of course, that the very divide between logical and emotional is a cultural construct! We also communicate easily using scientific language and concepts.
- Minority women environments: Most of us operate in minority-women environments (eg. tech industry, online gaming, science fiction fandom) which makes for a very different style of feminism from majority-women movements. As minority feminists, we talk a lot about “increasing the number of women” or “making a space welcoming for women” and we deal most often with issues of invisibility, marginalisation and harassment. Women in majority fields, on the other hand, have to face issues like having their work recognised as “real” work, and being fairly remunerated for it. These differences lead us to make all kinds of assumptions about who our community of interest is and what strategies/tactics work for us.
Again, I think these are just tendencies and I want to be clear that I’m trying to be descriptive not prescriptive here, but I do think those ideas are indicative of the way GF tends to think and operate as a community.
I don’t think we can say much beyond that. Many of GF’s regular posters try to operate with an awareness of intersectionality, but I don’t think we could claim it as universal; many of us consider ourselves sex-positive, but probably not all; many of us have left-leaning politics, but then again I haven’t polled everyone so who knows. My point, I suppose, is that when we talk about “what Geek Feminism does” or “what Geek Feminism is” let’s remember that it’s a large, diverse community and that generalisations tend to fall flat.
I’ve identified as a feminist for most of my life, but I only recently started really learning about (and, I hope, starting to understand) the complexities of it.
Like many feminists before me, I went through a stage of “girl stuff is icky”. I thought that feminism was about levelling up into male-equivalent privilege: being allowed to do boy things, being treated as one of the boys, being paid as much as men were. I eschewed anything feminine, and thought I was morally superior for doing so.
In my time, I’ve been a fan of all kinds of problematic media, up to and including Robert Heinlein, and not seen anything wrong with them. I’ve said things that were racist, ageist, ableist, transphobic, and, yes, sexist. I still do sometimes. Sometimes I’ve done it right here on the GF blog. At times I’ve been called on my *-ism, and deflected or derailed or made some excuse for it. I might be doing that right now — it’s hard to tell, actually, because defensiveness is such a natural reaction, and so hard to recognise and correct for.
Like everyone else, I grew up in a deeply sexist society, and I was trained from childhood to be a part of it. That training takes deep hold, and stays with you for life. We call it internalised sexism.
Someone said to me the other day, “I can’t imagine anyone from GF saying those things to Nice Girl”. I can. I might have said them myself. I might even still say them myself, if I were tired and/or cranky and/or had had a couple of drinks and/or wasn’t carefully filtering what came out of my mouth — all things that tend to happen to me at OSCON (which, to be clear, I didn’t attend this year or last.) I might have blurted something out, thinking I was being funny or making an in-joke, then realised a moment later that I was being a jerk and then not known how to gracefully extract my foot from my mouth.
It happens. It happens to all of us. Every feminist is on a steep learning curve when it comes to this stuff, and we’re all constantly battling our way up that hill while carrying all the baggage of our upbringing in a sexist society.
So to those people who say it couldn’t have happened: of course it could. To those who say it shouldn’t have: you’re right. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that the person saying it wasn’t a feminist, or that feminism (or Geek Feminism) is broken because of it. Saying that internalised sexism is the “Dark Side” of (Geek) Feminism is like saying that bugs are the “Dark Side” of Linux. Sure, Linux has bugs, but the point is that the community is committed to solving them together when they show up.
Another idea I want to touch on is that of the Overton Window, which is the narrow band of political thought that is considered reasonable/non-extreme. Someone actually introduced me to this idea early in my GF days and I’ve found it very helpful.
Unlike most other women-in-technology or women-in-whatever groups, GF explicitly identifies as feminist, right there in the name. Lots of people find this challenging, threatening, or overly strident. I’m okay with that.
I remember more than a decade ago, when the LinuxChix group first started. If I recall correctly, it was the first community for women within open source/free software. There was enormous negativity towards it at the time, and lots of people thought it shouldn’t exist, as if the very idea of a women’s group was threatening. These days, “X Women” groups within open source are commonplace. What changed? Well, one part of it is that LinuxChix and some of the other groups have been around for a while, and everyone’s got used to them. But I think another part of it is that, compared to strident activist groups like Geek Feminism, a mailing list for women to support each other and maybe a dinner at the annual conference seems pretty mild and unthreatening.
We see the same thing with harassment policies at conferences. The Ada Initiative’s Conference Anti-Harassment Policy project (hosted on the Geek Feminism wiki) is fairly uncompromising in how it defines harassment and how it suggests dealing with it. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a few cases where conferences have been lobbied by their attendees/speakers/members to adopt the policy, and have said “We don’t want to, because it’s too strict. But we’ll write our own policy instead.” Then they publish a policy or a “diversity statement” which is less firmly worded. Much as GF people might roll their eyes at this and say it’s wishy-washy and unactionable, the fact is that a conference just made some kind of statement about diversity and/or standards of behaviour, when they hadn’t before, and that that statement had seemed — in comparison to the GF version — to be uncontroversial. Think back a few years, and you might remember that even the mildest of diversity statements was a big deal. Now it’s commonplace.
That’s the Overton Window shifting. By being strident activists, we open up room behind us for moderates to say, “Well, I’m not as extreme as them, but I think we should do something.”
So, overall, when someone says that GF is too loud, too strident, too extreme, too pushy, I tend to consider it a feature not a bug. Feminism, and any political movement, needs people to be loud and pushy so that the moderates can look moderate.
Finally, I’d like to talk about “the opposition to Geek Feminism” that Bruce mentioned in his post. Geek Feminism — feminism in general — already has an opposition. It’s called the kyriarchy. It’s nothing new; we’ve been dealing with it forever.
What we have here is feminists (some self-identified as such, some not, but I don’t know how to describe them otherwise) from different communities/backgrounds/allegiances disagreeing over implementation details. This is common, and happens in all political communities. When it comes to feminism, people often trade on these disagreements to paint the whole movement in a bad light: see, for example, the so-called “Mommy Wars”.
Let’s please try and remember that there is room under the feminism umbrella for many feminisms. In fact, diversity in feminist tactics, just as in communities in general, is a strength. Not everyone has to agree with GF or take part in our community, though we do hope that some of the resources we provide are of use to other groups regardless of their focuses and methods.
It’s trite, but I’m going to ask that we remember that we’re all on the same side. While there are still people sending death threats to women in the geek community, no feminist group is “the opposition” to another.
In re: comments… I’m still travelling, and am going to be out and about with only my phone for the rest of the day, and on a train with limited Internet tomorrow. I apologise in advance if my responses are slow.