Whatever happened to free software feminism?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 23, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I first wrote about sexism in free software in 2009. I was far from the first; Alex Bayley and a handful of others had been raising the issues for over a year. In fact, I had been inspired by a guest of honor speech by Angie Byron of Drupal at the Open Web Conference in Vancouver a few weeks before I wrote. It seemed something that needed talking about, and ever since, I have whenever I could. Recently, though, I have started worrying that the topic of women in free software is no longer news, any movement or activism having stalled far short of where it should be.

Not that feminist causes are no longer a concern. Free software is still full of women and men who support its tenets. Small groups continue local efforts to teach women to code, and the mentoring group Outreachy still goes from strength to strength. Today, conferences or projects routinely have a code of conduct, and many make extra efforts to attract women speakers. In free software projects themselves, documentation is purged of casual gender and code is starting to include more than a binary choice of gender.

However, these are small victories. I might argue that they are necessary ones if larger issues are to be tackled -- but that doesn't seem to be happening. Today, public shamings and denunciations seem to define feminism in free software more than any effort to create changes in working conditions or salary increases over an entire career. It sometimes seems to me that feminism in free software only advanced so far, and that the next level of organization necessary to implement major change remains out of reach.

Consider: about this time in 2015, The Ada Initiative, one of the main public faces of feminism in free software, closed down with brave justifications about having accomplished its mission that even its allies had trouble believing. One of its founders is now concentrating on her career, while the other used the organization as a springboard for a private consulting business -- a maneuver also carried out by Sara Sharpe, who was once a main critic of how the Linux kernel project operated.

More recently, Geek Feminism.org, once a center on the web for women in computing, has published two articles in the last five months. In fact, for a few days, the site was dark because nobody had renewed its web address -- hardly a sign of a thriving organization, let alone one capable of taking organization to a higher level.

The Uncertain Future
You can blame these events on burnout. The degree of viciousness that even minor accomplishments have generated is almost impossible to believe if you have never experienced it. It can leave free software feminists frustrated at the injustice, scared by the threats, and simply very, very tired. After several years of fighting, the need for a rest is understandable.

Sadly, though, the disappearance of strong feminist voices in the mainstream media means not only that the rate of change has slowed to geological scales, but that the story of the last few years is now being heard only through the interpretation of the misogynists. Thanks to people like Eric S. Raymond, activists are now being dismissed as "Social Justice Warriors"-- a term now used with the same disdainful dismissal as "political correctness" used to be. According to misogynists, feminist activists are newcomers to free software with no coding credits, intent on disrupting the meritocracy that has created a Golden Age.

More -- according to Raymond, many feminist activists are part of a conspiracy to seduce (male) project leaders, including Linus Torvalds, in an effort to discredit them.

This narrative is easily debunked. Activists like Valerie Aurora, Sara Sharpe, and Matthew Garrett have coding credentials second to no one, and a seduction conspiracy is beyond not only the imaginations of their supporters, but also their powers of organization and secrecy.

Yet despite the ludicrousness, such stories are being believed, and spread rather than laughed at. What bothers me, though, is the lack of responsible opposing views. A similar situation currently exists in science fiction fandom, where conservatives fearful of change having been trying for the last couple of years to rig the Hugo ballots in favor of their own tastes. However, while in science fiction circles, liberals have managed to resist such efforts, in free software, no one seems left who will even question the misogynist tales. Consequently, the tales will become many people's reality, and threaten to make the serious changes that are still needed more unlikely than ever.

I would like to think that I am wrong. I would like to think that the last six or seven years have left thousands of supporters quietly implementing feminist change as they go about their daily work or projects. And certainly a few like Angie Byron and Deb Nicholson are doing just that. A few, too, are continuing the Ally workshops that the Ada Initiative began.

However, I worry that there are not enough quiet agents of change, and that they are too few to make a difference or even hold on to the minor changes of the last few years. How long, I wonder, until even codes of conduct are neglected, as happened a few years after they were first implemented in the 1990s? I admire those who are still fighting on, but my worry is that, instead of making progress, they are now struggling to remain relevant.

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