Inside the Feminist Hackerspace

Hackerspaces are comfortable: That’s sort of their whole point. “We learn, share, and make things,” declares one of the original hackerspaces, NYC Resistor. Equipped with tools like 3D printers and lasers, hackerspaces are collaborative environments that offer access to technologies that are often unavailable to everyday folks. As with many extensions of startup culture — like open seating plans and kombucha on tap — most hackerspaces tend to be full of dudes, or more specifically, white dudes.

Women and people of color join hackerspaces all the time, but some have faced the same harassment and discrimination all-too-common in Silicon Valley offices. “Our geek cred is constantly challenged or belittled,” Liz Henry, founder of feminist hackerspace DoubleUnion writes. “You might be there coding, and you want to stop for a while and draw in your notebook and think, but if you’re not staring at a black and green screen or, like, melding your brain with an Arduino every second, some dude is going to come up to you and act like you need his expert lessons in how to hack.”

In addition to condescension, other women faced hackerspace leadership who condoned sexism. As one member tells it, in the Guide to Feminist Hackerspaces zine: “[A woman] was working on something and this kid next to her was like bragging to her about how he had gotten a woman online to show him her breasts by threatening to hurt a kid. And she was like ‘What is going on here? Why are you telling me this?’ And she looked at the guy who runs the space and pays the rent here and was like ‘Are you going to do anything about this?’ And then, like, he didn’t.”

To relieve feelings of exclusion and isolation, women in tech have formed their own spaces, aiming to build communities where women feel welcomed and encouraged, where they don’t need to worry about encountering harassment or acting according to male expectations.

feminist hackers

Seattle Attic is one example, a hackerspace founded by “intersectional, idealist feminists.” When Sarah Fox moved to Seattle for her PhD in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington in 2013, she discovered the hackerspace community, eventually learning the Attic was part of an unofficial network of feminist hackerspaces, the others mostly in the Bay Area. So Fox visited DoubleUnion in San Francisco and Mothership Hackermoms in Berkeley.

After months of participant observation and interviews, Fox wrote an academic paper, “Hacking Culture, Not Devices: Access and Recognition in Feminist Hackerspaces.” But as she got to know the women who organize today’s feminist hackerspaces, Fox knew she would have to find a way to extend her academic paper to a broader audience. “I don’t want to just talk to a small group of academics who are privileged in many ways,” she said, talking via Skype from South Korea, where she was attending a conference on human computer interaction. “And particularly when working with communities, I don’t like the model of just going in and studying something, writing a paper about it, and then never talking to the the people I studied again.”

To move away from the jargon-filled, isolating format, Fox recruited two experienced zine-makers to turn her paper into a condensed, illustrated booklet, “The Guide to Feminist Hackerspaces, or “Feminist Hackerspaces: Hacking Culture Not Devices.” Amy Burek, founder and sole member of the Awkward Ladies Club, helps scientists in South America and Asia prepare manuscripts for publication in English when she’s not creating zines like “Dad Tweets” and “Never Date Dudes From the Internet.” Illustrator Emily Alden Foster runs the Womanzine delivery service, packaging and delivering zines by women.

feminist hackers

Together, they’re distributing the Guide to Feminist Hackerspaces via pdf and in print, passing it out at the Feminist Zine Fest and Seattle’s ShortRun fest. The easy URL/IRL nature of zines makes Fox’s goal of reaching a broad audience less of a lofty ideal. Whether people are drawn in by the new word combination (Example conversation starter: “Hello, what is a hackerspace? And could you define feminism?”) or Alden Foster’s binary code quilt cover illustration, takers will find that the Guide is an effective starting manual for a complex concept.

“Hacking here becomes more than just tinkering with electronics,” the Guide states. “– it is also an opportunity to look inward for means to build and maintain a sense of purpose. Feminist hackerspaces have become sites for members to gather and discuss workplace issues, personal identities, and goals, through workshops on topics such as impostor syndrome or ‘failure clubs.’”

In April, DoubleUnion is hosting a fundraising Q&A. In February, they drank dirty vodka martinis and talked about starting collaborative feminist publications. Seattle Attic regularly organizes Figure Drawing Sundays and Introvert Nights, when inward-facing people get to read books and crochet, together.

This kind of agenda evokes the start of a feminist dream sequence, or the basis of a Portlandia episode. But as we see more of these spaces soon, expect also to adjust to the utopian ideas presented in The Feminist Press’s upcoming book, “The Feminist Utopia Project.” FUP, as I affectionately call it, presents feminist fantasies from people like Transparent writer Jill Soloway — her essay is called “Lesbo Island” — and Janet Mock.

While no feminist hackerspace is explicitly described in the anthology, it wouldn’t be out of place. Since the idea already exists in practice, maybe the utopian version is a feminist hackerspace in every major city around the world. With a bigger network of open, collaborative tech environments, the girls who are closing computer science’s gender gap could effectively globe trot, knowing they always have a place to go.

Photos: Sarah Fox

Lead Photo: Amelia Greenhall for Double Union