Geek Feminism's Opposition Emerges

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 01, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

(Disclaimer: I wrote in support of The Ada Initiative, a Geek Feminism off-shoot, in the first months of its existence. From June to November 2011, I was on its advisory board. I then resigned and wrote more critically about it once or twice. Since then, I have written several times about feminism and computing, sometimes discussing as individuals people associated with both groups.)

Given my history, at first I may seem the last person to comment on accusations that Geek Feminism is hostile to more conventional women and how they dress. Nor do I want to be guilty of "mansplaining" -- assuming that I know more than anyone else simply because I am male. However, I maintain that my mixed background provides me with more insight than most people into the accusations. Judge for yourself if that's true.

The accusations began when a blogger who uses the name of Nice Girl wrote about how she and her friend had been harassed at a conference by "Geek Feminists" -- that is, apparently, people associated with the Geek Feminism Blog.

According to Nice Girl, she and her friend were criticized for their sexy choice of clothing and some of the superficially stereotypical comments they made. Her account was peppered with links to the Geek Feminism wiki, apparently to imply that the harassment was officially encouraged by members of the site or at least supported by their beliefs.

This post inspired my writing colleague Rikki Endsley to say in her own blog that she had received similar treatment, which was "Why I'm not a 'Geek Feminist.'" "The problem." Endsley writes, "is that there are some really nice women and girls who are getting hurt by some members of a movement that is meant to be helpful." She then goes on to relate experiences similar to those described by Nice Girl. Several hours later, Leslie Hawthorn posted her own comment, whose title, "My Feminism Isn't Good Enough for You," also accurately summarizes its content.

These blogs were discussed on both Facebook and Google+ under Jono Bacon's, Leslie Hawthorn's, and Randi Harper's names. In these discussions, a number of women attacked Geek Feminists in particular and feminists in general, suggesting they were out of touch and overbearing towards more conventional women. 

For example, Anneyce Teasson wrote on Facebook, "It seems that the breed of feminists who stand out as such are trying to either copy or adapt men, which is can only lead to epic fail, [because] women are not men and vice versa. Being 'different' doesn't mean 'bad.' Yet this breed of women takes the right to speak for all other women and would not realize that they practice the same dictatorship and dogmatism they'd criticize so much." 
Similarly, Randi Harper wrote that opposing Geek Feminism was "standing up for sanity."

On the other side, feminists immediately distanced themselves from the accusations. For example, on Facebook, Mackenzie Morgan responded by saying, "There's nothing feminist about the behavior of the person who tried to police the way the woman dressed. And on the Geek Feminism blog, Terri Oda said, "Going out of your way to judge and bother other women doesn’t really help anyone . . . . Fundamentally, you’re being as bad as the jerk who goes around declaring that some geek women aren’t geeky."

These comments were only somewhat undermined by the Geek Feminist's comment moderator, who censored Jono Bacon for using "idiot" on the grounds that the word was an "ableist slur" (that is, language prejudiced against those with mental or physical challenges). While the moderator had a point, the pedantic insistence on corrections was exactly the sort of self-righteousness that many of those hostile to feminism condemned.

Otherwise, Geek Feminists made clear that they didn't endorse harassing other women for how they dressed or acted, and that they sympathized with the victims. But that didn't stop the accusations from continuing, or from being far more hostile than the original polite posts by Endsley and Hawthorn, both of whom might be called moderate feminists (although they might not use the name).

Who's Afraid of Feminism?
I don't question Endsley's and Hawthorn's original posts. Nobody doubts that what they describe happens. I know nothing about Nice Girl, although her account is plausible, but that is somewhat beside the point.

Instead, what unsettles me is the anti-feminist comments that their legitimate concerns provoked -- and not just because many were made by women (I've known for years that some of feminism's worst enemies were women), or because the characterization of feminists had little resemblance to the ones with whom I've interacted.

But the lack of self-awareness disturbed me, because, while condemning feminists for generalizing and stereotyping, the anti-feminists were generalizing and stereotyping feminists.

However, when I reflect, the only surprise is that such criticisms took so long to be publicly discussed. Randi Harper made similar comments on the FLOSS Weekly podcast in January 2010, and at the barcamp for the 2011 ApacheCon, Danese Cooper said much the same thing. Similarly, in conversation, I have also heard several people use "scary" to describe the Geek Feminist Wiki, a repository of resources for fighting sexism. In some circles, disquiet about Geek Feminism seems to have been growing for several years.

All of which leaves me wondering: why do some women in the free and open source software (FOSS) community have reservations or even outright hostility to feminists? 

Part of the answer is probably that the community likes to think of itself as a meritocracy open to everyone. Anti-feminist women, having gained acceptance themselves, may assume that any other woman can do the same.

Nor are they likely to appreciate Geek Feminists calling attention to the fact that this myth is only partly true. After all, few people can gracefully accept their basic assumptions being disproved.

Another part of the answer may be that Geek Feminists make easy scapegoats. The majority are intelligent, and make no attempt to hide the fact. They analyze what few people bother to analyze (which means that their articles are almost always worth reading if you value original thought). On their wiki, they have not only anticipated and cataloged many of the responses to their ideas, but considered counter-arguments to the responses.

In my experience most Geek Feminists are polite, even when disagreeing with you. However, the amount of preparation they have done can have a disconcerting effect on those who haven't thought as deeply, as outsiders have found when blundering on to the site. 

If you are ambiguous about gender roles, I imagine it must be easy to project your doubts on to such an already-disturbing group, and to condemn them as patronizing and condescending. You can even justify such demonizing with a little selective vision, by insisting that the minority who lecture passersby represent all Geek Feminists.

Even more importantly, Geek Feminists have never articulated a common set of principles. The group is far too diverse and loosely organized for that to happen easily. In fact, until their opponents started using the term, I suspect that many would not have described themselves as "Geek Feminists," viewing themselves instead as occasional contributors to a discussion blog.

So far as clear thinking goes, such diversity is a strength. It prevents being boxed in by orthodoxy. But in this situation, it also means that by default Geek Feminists are defined by those who oppose them -- and the labels that they have been given include "radical" and "crazed." 

The trouble is, Geek Feminists have left the framing of their issues to their opponents. That means that they are at a disadvantage in public, since disproving counter-arguments is always more difficult than making the original argument. It means, too, that, outsiders first encounter the anti-feminist view of them -- and may not look further to make up their own minds.

A backlash coming?
Geek Feminism is only a few years old, so its lack of definition is hardly expected. Yet, now that the opposition has become public, it may need to define itself before anti-feminists do so for them. What we may have been witnessing in these comments is the emergence of a backlash of the sort that Susan Faludi described twenty years ago against the second wave of feminism. 

Historically, this is just the point where such a backlash might occur. Today, Geek Feminism as a movement has managed to make the community -- or at least its leaders -- aware of genuine problems. Corporate sexism no longer goes unremarked, and the adoption of anti-harassment policies at conferences stands as an initial recognition of the problems women face in high-tech. The group has become just noticeable enough that people are no longer just dismissing it. Instead, opponents are starting to feel threatened.

The Geek Feminist Wiki includes some entries on how to make an apology. So it is not surprising that its contributors did the right thing by quickly disavowing those who make other women feel uncomfortable. 

But to avoid getting bogged down in an endless opposition where it is at a perpetual disadvantage,  it needs to develop a more mainstream appeal. Women (and men) need to feel welcome rather than intimidated by a minority. It needs to define itself, and study the art of community building -- the discussions on its blog are frequently thought-provoking, but generally they are feminists talking to feminists.

Unfortunately, right now Geek Feminists seem to have little awareness that they might need to do more than prepare snappy comebacks to misogynists. But, very soon, they may need to anticipate more aggressive attacks. Otherwise, the consensus of the community could turn against Geek Feminism, and make it ineffective.

Meanwhile, the only good thing about this situation is that it clarifies issues. I may have had differences with individual Geek Feminists, but, in such circumstances, the answer to the question, "Which side are you on?" suddenly becomes very simple. The Geek Feminists have the potential to improve the FOSS and free culture communities. Those who atack them can only assure that the present state of affairs continues.

I don't know about you, but I'd call that a clear choice.


  • Follow-Up

    I've posted a follow-up blog to the one linked above:
  • Re: geek feminism

    Since I was talking about marketing ideas, I'm not sure why you are discussing what people wear. The last thing I would do is tell anyone, man or woman, what they should wear.
  • geek feminism

    I think the author makes a horrific statement saying that women need to attractively package opinions that there is sexism in tech. I think there needs to be more discussion and understanding of the battles fought, and the tactics used. I love the new generation of femme techies, but a little anthropology will go a long way towards understanding. NOT wearing pink, less makeup, and more practical clothes was 1. fashion in the 90's. Remember grunge? 2. required for the 80-100hr early techie work week. 3. ABSOLUTELY required in the 80's to dot com era for male geeks to take you seriously. Also, costuming (showing my theater geek) for your professional persona has to take social attitudes into great consideration. Dark colors and strict lines (re masculine) are more authoritarian. A firefly t-shirt shows instant geek community. A prada suit and 3" heels shows that you will not be the one crawling under the desk to fix the computer. It also implies, unless you brought a gym bag, that you will not be there at 3am. Failing to honestly examine and discuss corporate culture IS idiotic.
  • Know the enemy

    In other circumstances, of the kind that Geek Feminists have so diligently documented, we would not blame individuals with similar characteristics, or blame all men, for an individual act or the acts of an individual. Geek Feminists do not say all men are harassers / molestors / oppressors - no matter how many events they document, nor how widespread the misogyny they encounter.

    Be careful that a well-deserved kick in the butt does not turn into a witch hunt against feminist geeks, because there are certainly many men (and even more pseudo-women IDs) who would welcome any and every opportunity to undo the work of Geek Feminists.
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