Tag Archives: intersectionality


in memory of nina reiser

Trigger warning for lethal violence against women

I picked up Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries with trepidation, because it’s at least nominally about the Hans Reiser murder trial, and Nina Reiser’s murder fucked me up. Her kids are the same age as mine. Her career counselor is my next door neighbor and friend. And her husband and mine are both Linux kernel programmers. They worked together at a Palo Alto startup during the boom, where Hans sometimes cornered my husband to rant about the extremely acrimonious Reiser divorce.

When news of Nina’s disappearance broke, I asked my husband:

“Do you think he killed her?”

He thought about it for a minute and said:

“I am not saying no.”

Trust me, this is not a thing you ever want to hear.

Elliott’s book is gorgeously written and as a San Francisco memoir has a great deal to recommend it; and it’s not really about Nina and Hans. The trial is more or less just a backdrop to Elliott’s wandering around the Mission District and Bernal Heights and taking too many drugs. I loved it, and I do not mean to suggest that Elliott should have written a different book, or no book at all – here I am writing about Nina to exorcise my own personal bullshit, after all.

I have two – not even criticisms, let’s say two observations to make about the book. The first is that I am sad, still sad, continually endlessly sad and angry at the way everyone else’s narratives collude to obscure Nina and her life. It’s not that she was a saint or a celebrity – the hagiographies that dwell on her “movie star good looks” set my teeth on edge – but she was an extremely intelligent and tough woman, coping admirably in a horrible situation, and by every account a wonderful, playful, caring and responsible mom.

And because she was murdered she is now, in some sense, public property. Everyone, myself included, projects his or her own personal issues all over her frozen image. Hans’s supporters call her a whore. Stephen Elliott remakes her in the image of his dead mother. Her death has become a set of Meanings that overwhelm her life, which had its own meaning, and which was her own. I mourn the Nina who was alive, and really nice and clever and ordinary. It’s not fair. It’s really shitty that she’s dead, and I hate it.

My second point is a little bit harder to make, but here goes. Elliott, God love him, has the creative professional’s lofty disdain for those of us who work in cubes. A brief stint as a search engine optimization specialist at the end of the boom has qualified him to rule on the working world once for all time, apparently. We are not an interesting set of stories, he concludes. We are too simplistic, and the world we inhabit is too black and white.

I actually find this endearing (I have a whole other rant about how people who don’t work in an office can’t write about working for a living and can’t begin to imagine how intricate and interesting it really is, a multi-dimensional 15-puzzle played with and by chimpanzees), but I think it misses part of what was going on with Hans, and maybe a big part. It misses Namesys.

Joshua Davis’s brilliant article in Wired (part of the inspiration for Elliott’s book) joined the dots between Hans’ code and his character, but a company is also an expression of a person’s soul. His brilliant Russian mail-order bride was a big part of Hans’s self-image as the startup entrepreneur who could afford to date, let’s face it, way out of his league. And much of the savagery of the divorce seemed to stem from Hans’s fears that Nina would imperil or claim for herself some part of his hoped-for payout from Namesys.

Hans felt that his intelligence gave him special privileges. (Did I mention that he and my husband worked together at Rearden Steel? Yes, named for the company in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. You can’t make this shit up.) Armed with his titanium sense of entitlement, Hans insisted on what he saw as his rights. And it seems that when Nina stood up for herself, he choked her to death in the driveway of his mother’s home while their children were playing in the basement.

He probably didn’t intend to kill her. My husband makes the macabre point that if the murder were premeditated, Hans would have been better prepared for it. Having done it, though, Hans thought he ought to get away with it. He thought he could outsmart the police. He thought that his intellect was so great that it was only reasonable that he should get away with murder.

Hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the way Silicon Valley-style technocratic capitalism can reinforce the kyriarchy.

But here I go again, indulging the temptation to make Nina’s death a metaphor, a political point, an argument, instead of what it is, which is a tragedy. Today, on the fifth anniversary of her murder, I remember Nina.

Magical linkspam sparkles (26th May, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Where are all the linkspams? (14th March, 2011)

  • Betsy Leondar-Wright and ana australiana write about the impenetrability of middle-class activism to working class people, and about how the sidelining of middle-class subcultures isn’t equivalent to systemic oppression: It’s not “them” — it’s us!, Equivalences.
  • “Very rarely do stories of women and technology vary in tone from the gender gap theme. Where are the women? Well, heck, we’ve been here all along – something we’ve recently pointed out in our Valentine’s Day piece about ENIAC.Writes Amber Bouman in MaximumPC for Women’s History Month.
  • sqbr is interested in user stories about the use of image descriptions on Tumblr. my arguments have all been about hypothetical users and it would be useful to have some evidence against the “but noone who needs descriptions would use a visual medium like tumblr” argument. There’s lots of feedback in comments.
  • s.e. smith: Why I’m Leaving Feminism: So many disabled people, nonwhite people, transgender people, people of colour, poor people, adamantly refuse to identify with feminism in its current incarnation in the United States… The model of feminism we see is one where oppression perpetrated in the name of “activism’ is acceptable, where casual ableism, racism, classism, transphobia run so deep that many of us don’t even bother to point it out anymore.
  • A bit of history: Carl Sagan’s appeal to the Explorers Club to admit women.
  • Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research: Women’s reluctance comparative to men to accept the [offer] wasn’t really a reluctance to have casual sex, but rather a response to a different offer than the men got — the didn’t think the men would be as much fun.
  • Heidi Grant Halvorson on the difficulties of high achieving girls: What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science.
  • Gaming industry finally recognizes the work of a pioneer: It was back in the mid-1970s that [Jerry] Lawson developed the first video game console system, breaking ground in more ways than one. You see, Lawson, 70, is black. And while we often try to pretend that's neither here nor there, the truth is it is here — and it was even more-so there, when Lawson arrived in the valley in 1968.
  • Inoculation Against Stereotype: …choice isn’t as simple as people think. People assume that these choices are free choices, based on talent and interest and motivation, Dasgupta said. …Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don’t like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don’t belong.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Things I don’t have to linkspam about today (20th October, 2010)

Say hello to Ms Spam-Spam! We’ve put in a special account for linkspams to make it more clear that linkspams are a group effort here. All the old linkspams are now listed with this account too.

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Double Major

I’m back in school, as some folks have probably already gathered from my microblogging. I’m finishing up a double major in Computer Science and Equity Studies at the University of Toronto, and if all goes according to plan I’ll be graduating in May 2011.

While this may sound like a strange combination, it makes perfect sense to me – I’m interested in equity issues within the STEM fields, especially computer science.

It turns out the combination of fields come in handy in unexpected ways some times. After proofreading a paper I wrote for a Women and Gender Studies class for me my friend Valerie suggested that some quantitative data might be useful in supporting one of my assertions. In my paper I argued that while early feminist scholarship on sexual harassment failed at intersectionality, more recent scholarship has embraced it. To support this, I wanted to compare the number of citations for Catherine MacKinnon’s Sexual harassment of working women: a case of sex discrimination to Kimberle Crenshaw’s Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. These are both profoundly influential works, but I wanted to quantify how their relative influence on scholarly work.

So I did what any self-respecting CS student would do – I wrote a script to scrape Google Scholar for citation numbers over time and made a graph comparing the two :)

For your edification, here’s scholargraph.pl:

# (c) 2010 Leigh Honeywell
# Licensed under the Simplified BSD License, reuse as you will!

use strict;
use LWP::Simple;
use LWP;

# set up LWP user agent and cookies; pretend to be Firefox 4 just to be cheeky
my $lua = LWP::UserAgent->new(
    keep_alive => 1,
    timeout    => 180,
    agent =>
"Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; rv:2.0b7pre) Gecko/20100921 Firefox/4.0b7pre"

# edit in your citation numbers from google scholar and the appropriate
# date ranges for what you're trying to do
my $crenshaw = getCites( "10759548619514288444", "1977", "2010" );
my $mackinnon = getCites( "2195253368518808933", "1977", "2010" );

sub getCites {
   (my $cite, my $startyear, my $endyear) = @_;

    for my $year ($startyear .. $endyear) {

        #construct the query URL using the above data
        my $post =
          $lua->get( "http://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites="
              . $cite
              . "&as_ylo="
              . $year
              . "&as_yhi="
              . $year );

        # scrape the returned page for the number of results
        if ( $post->content =~ m#of (?:about )?(d*)</b># ) {
            print $cite. "," . $year . "," . $1 . "n";
        elsif ( $post->content =~ m#did not match any articles# ) {
            print $cite. "," . $year . ",no resultsn";
        else {
            # some kinda error happened, most likely google caught me!
            print $cite. "," . $year . "errorn";
    # don't kill google's servers
return 0;

Oh and if you’re curious, Crenshaw’s paper was cited far more than MacKinnon’s, pretty much as soon as it was published. Intersectionality FTW!

And as these things always go, of course I spend the evening working on this only to find that there’s a Perl module as well.

She Geek: Women and Self-Labeling in Online Geek Communities

Courtney is an MA student studying Victorian science fiction at Texas A&M University. She blogs about feminism, geekery, and academia at From Austin to A&M.

This post originally appeared at From Austin to A&M.

My intent in this project was to examine the labeling of female-oriented geek spaces on the internet. What I found was that self-labeling of geek women often defeats the potentially subversive act of creating a female-oriented geek community.

I would argue that the mere creation or and participation in geek communities labeled “for women” are aggressive acts towards male-dominated geek culture. One of the reasons we can see these communities as a challenge to mainstream geek culture is the still-prevailing myth of internet neutrality.

This myth argues that since we are “disembodied” on the internet, everyone begins on equal ground.

Bodies don’t matter in cyberspace. This is not how it works in real life, however, particularly in geek spaces. It is true that until you mark yourself as Other than the privileged class—male, heterosexual, cisgendered, abled, middle-class, and white—you will be assumed to be those things. However, this will not protect you from hate speech or sexist, racist, and homophobic “jokes,” since geek communities often engage in these forms of discourse. Even objecting to these discursive acts, without revealing the state of one’s own body, will immediately mark you as Other, and leave you vulnerable to harassment and denigration. By labeling their spaces as for women, female geeks challenge the neutrality myth, by making their female bodies conspicuous and by demonstrating a need for safe cyberspaces for women.

In a study of the language of male gamers playing within a Quake server, Natasha Christensen claims that

Even though the world of cyberspace allows for the possibility that gender can be transformed, men in Jeff’s Quake Server continue to relate to each other in ways which support male dominance and heterosexual male superiority. […] In the bodiless realm of cyberspace, it is fascinating to note that men who are able to create an alternate world where masculinity is defined differently do not take this opportunity. Instead, real life is mimicked not only by taking on the physical attributes of strength, but also by using ways of talk that emphasize aggression and sexual dominance.


Therefore, in the same way that sports and war help to perpetuate the concept of male dominance through physical strength, the Quake server also promotes the idea of success through aggression and violence. […] Sports and war games became a way for white middle class men to fight their fears of social feminization. At the turn of this century, online computer games are being used in the same manner. Computer geeks who are especially vulnerable to the accusations of being less than manly are able both through the actions and discourse on Quake to demonstrate the qualities required of hegemonic masculinity. Emphasis is placed on the strength of the masculine body while discourse sets the players apart from anything that is feminine.

The same patriarchal standards that put women at a disadvantage also disadvantage computer and other geeks. Often, geeks cite an experience of growing up with bullying and teasing, precisely because they do not live up to hegemonic masculinity. Instead of using cyberspace to fight against hegemonic masculinity, however, geek men often use it to buttress those standards and fulfill them discursively instead of physically. This is precisely why geek women find online geek spaces—necessarily discursive spaces—to be so unwelcoming and hostile. And it is through alternative discourse, whether blogging or forum writing or fanfiction, that women challenge this culture of hypermasculinity.

Continue reading

Quick hit – rock and roll and geek subcultures

Over at Tiger Beatdown, Sady and Amanda take on rock and roll, relating the sexism in rock subcultures to other subcultures and “outsider” groups:

AMANDA: I see the same sad sexism in a lot of different subcultures, and I think women are often drawn to these spaces because they’re outside of the mainstream — because the mainstream marginalizes them, but perhaps in a different way than it does sensitive rocking Kurt Cobain haircut boys.

SADY: Agreed!

AMANDA: So on the one hand, you’d think the subculture would be totally interested in accepting women — how rejecting of mainstream values is that! — but on the other hand, the subculture is also about building a culture around the primacy of the sensitive rocking Kurt Cobain haircut boy’s particular flavor of marginalization, and when women come in with some other shit to talk about it tends to threaten that dynamic.

On different degrees of othering:

AMANDA: BUT. I wonder if some of the disconnect here is in these guys thinking that their asymmetrical haircut or interest in Magic: The Gathering is like the most intensely othering experience that a human can have? And are unaware that there are some other people around who may have that experience of being othered no matter which subculture they attempt to access.

And the part that struck closest to home for me, from the part of the discussion about Renfolk and other such nerdy subcultures:

SADY: Oh, man! And, yes: I think we even did a Ye Olde Sexist Beatdowne, about this, in Oldyn Tymes! My experience of lady-nerds is that they tend to be huge and fairly hardcore feminists. And I was like, “that’s funny, I never thought of feminism as a particularly nerdy thing,” but then I realized (a) I was on the Internet, and (b) male nerd subculture tends to be like INTENSE in its misogyny! Lady-nerds seriously grab on to feminism like it is a buoy and they are drowning, because it is! And they sort of are! And women in music sometimes do the same thing, see: Riot Grrrl, duh. Formed in reaction to dudes with floppy Kurt Cobain haircuts, at least one of whom was ACTUALLY KURT COBAIN. (Though he was a huge feminist, God bless.)

You’re not gonna reach my linkspam (31st March, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

FLOSS inclusivity: pragmatic, voluntary, empowering, joyous

Lucy Connor’s “Diversity at what cost?” and Benjamin Otte’s blog post on equality got me thinking about the backlash against diversity and outreach initiatives in open source. Specifically, I sometimes see arguments that inclusivity

  • is a slippery slope into coercion and quotas
  • should not be a FLOSS value, or
  • competes with the core mission of his/her software project.

In response to Otte’s thoughts on whether the principle “all men are created equal” stands in opposition to core GNOME and Fedora goals, I said in part:

The words “equality” and “inclusive” can be easy to misinterpret. Advocates often use them as a softer way of saying “don’t be sexist/racist/etc.” and “let’s give due consideration to people we’re inadvertently leaving out.” Perhaps [critics] are misreading this suggestion as greed for market share, or conflating cowardice with the intention and practice of thoughtful inclusivity.

Yes, it is an important principle that all people deserve to be treated equally *by the law*, and as an ideal to reach toward, it’s laudable. However, it’s a straw-man argument to suggest that advocates for equality and inclusion propose that all seven billion people’s opinions should have equal relevance in every endeavor and choice.

Every organization has a specific mission, such as “change the government’s policies to improve the environment” or “maintain an excellent Linux distribution with cutting-edge innovations.” This is its “value proposition,” in US English. It embodies some of its core values. The Fedora project is indeed facing a tension between its value proposition and one facet of inclusivity — suitability for novice users. But there are many other aspects to inclusivity and an interest in equality, such as accessibility, nonsexist language, university outreach, and documentation. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

You may also be interested in http://geekfeminism.org/2009/11/29/questioning-the-merit-of-meritocracy/ for thoughts on meritocracy in FLOSS.

… If you simply find any good product unstylish as soon as a certain proportion of the population starts to benefit from it, that strikes me as needlessly snobbish, and implies a misanthropy that will permanently be opposed to even the least controversial inclusivity initiatives.

We linkspammed Connor’s piece a few days ago, and commenter koipond noted:

I hear the sentiment, but it’s kind of missing the point. No one is saying “Diversity at all costs” where they want to force people in who don’t want to be there. It’s more a case of trying to break down the barriers that prevent people who might be interested but see a toxic morass and refuse to swim in the pool.

My comment was along similar lines:

When I read http://geekfeminism.org/ or the http://geekfeminism.wikia.com wiki, or listen to the women on the Systers mailing list, I don’t hear a general and undifferentiated “WE MUST GET MORE WOMEN INTO FLOSS” or tech agitprop agenda. I see lots of initiatives to help underrepresented groups — African-Americans, women, people from developing countries — get in on the joy and empowerment of hacking.

I think there is a separate argument to be made that everyone, of every gender and from every socioeconomic, ability and ethnic background, should be generally technically literate, which means being able to code a “hello world” in some decent language and feeling empowered to modify their computing environment a little. To extend the analogy, I know it ruined your [Connor’s] enjoyment of Model UN when the teachers forced everyone to participate, but you’re not against the goal of everyone learning a little about how international politics works.

And because these sexist behaviors and attitudes keeping women out of high-status and high-paying professions are just now starting to fade, it’s important to take an extra look at seemingly innocuous traditional attitudes to make sure they don’t conceal yet more barriers and discouragement. As Kirrily Robert pointed out in her OSCON keynote, the community as a whole grows organically and benefits greatly from (voluntary, of course) women’s participation:


Like you, these advocates like helping people. Check out http://gnomejournal.org/article/88/the-un-scary-screwdriver for an example of the kind of noncoercive, entirely opt-in outreach that most advocates, well, advocate.

As I noted to Connor: Sure, coding, and open source work, are not really intrinsically appealing to lots of people. But because there are so very many external factors keeping interested girls and women away from tech careers and open source, I’m comfortable prioritizing breaking those down, so that maybe in fifty years people’s intrinsic interests will shine naturally through. And then we’ll talk and see what interesting patterns show up.

Link roundup to watch out for (13th October, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.