The Rise of Feminist Hackerspaces and How to Make Your Own
Building community spaces, a brief history of feminist organization in tech, and what comes next.
Six months ago, we decided to make a feminist hackerspace in San Francisco. Today, Double Union is a women-centered hackerspace with 80 members. This happened incredibly fast!
Our space has tables and workbenches, couches and chairs, a library of technical reference and how-to books, electronics supplies, and a growing collection of art, craft and technical tools. It’s home-like, well-lit and clean. We’re building furniture, drawing, making zines and coding. There’s a plan evolving to use a CNC router to make spindles for the “Fuzzy Side of the Force” knitters’ meetup. The circuits group is starting out with papercraft circuits, like light-up cards, books, and origami, then moving on to soft circuits, wearables and other things like a display board for how many minutes you have till the next nearby buses and trains leave the station. All the coders want to learn crafting and all the crafters are interested in technology. We’ll get some great synergy out of that.
We’d like to build spaces without harassment, without having to worry about jerks, and more ambitiously, with active encouragement to explore. The culture we’re developing supports making, learning, and teaching, which is a goal we share with many other hackerspaces. Ours is starting with a few extra values; intersectional feminism, support for feminist activism and strong respect for personal boundaries. We’re trying to build structures that help us form strong social ties and share responsibility.
It’s very exciting. I know what you’re thinking. You want a feminist hackerspace full of creative, talented non-jerks near you!
So How Did We Start Double Union?
Several of us who started Double Union knew each other from women-in-tech mailing lists, from geekfeminism.org and its online hangouts, from The Ada Initiative, the Anarchafeminist Hacker Hive, and from conferences like AdaCamp. Our personal friendships, and our relationships in other organizations, meant it was easy for us to share information. We have shared cultural values that run deep.
I believe that it’s possible to take the groups of people you know, and communities you’re in, and build a community workshop that serves its needs. Lots of us wanted our own spaces to make, invent, experiment, and hack in a welcoming environment. We wanted to make a physical institution that lasts beyond a weekend. Like a great conference or workshop — but all the time, and in our home town. The idea has so much potential!
A long and infuriating thread on the hackerspaces.org mailing list in January 2013 (Women and Hackerspaces) outlined many sexist and misogynist misconceptions, including that women are just not interested enough in “hacking” to be a large part of DIY, hacker or maker culture. One message in particular attracted lasting feminist mockery and ire: the infamous e-textiles message. There were dramatic readings of it performed and recorded all over the country! Humor and irritation together are a powerful catalyst.
The funniest part was: “If a hackerspace has one female and she wants more females in the hackerspace, then she should start a campaign to find more females. It could be that she host a class about e-textiles or whatever it is females like to talk about.”
We focused on the e-textiles message because we could make fun of it, not because it was especially horrible. That month there were many truly appalling, misogynist, sexist posts to the hackerspaces.org list. Guys kept saying that women don’t come to hackerspaces and aren’t hackers. The whole thing brought our alienation to a head.
If we aren’t at hackerspaces, it isn’t because we don’t make things, don’t code, or aren’t technical enough. It’s because men act like the space is theirs. Women face harassment ranging from assault to much milder, but more constant, come-ons and innuendos. Our geek cred is constantly challenged or belittled. 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.
That’s what we fight at tech conferences too.
“I went to Noisebridge…. Once.”
A lot of Double Union applications say something like this. That makes me super sad. It means we miss out on a lot of mindblowing coolness. Women go to hackerspaces because they sound amazing — full of equipment and materials to make things, people, and idealism about knowledge-sharing, open source and free culture and tech, like a fabulous grownup playground for learning and making. You get there and it’s all that.
But maybe it’s also kind of dirty and cluttered and there’s no toilet paper, and there is some creepy guy who won’t stop talking to you about how he wants to teach you things that you already know, while he backs you into a corner. There’s that level of harassment. Then there’s a lot of behavior that’s at a more “e-textiles” level, that’s irritating, annoying, where we have pressure to prove ourselves or our authenticity, where our knowledge and capacities are undermined. The message is, there’s this cool culture of invention, making and learning, but we aren’t expected to be part of it. Not all women experience this but quite a lot of us do and it’s a well known pattern in general in science, tech, engineering and math. When we know something deeply technical about materials and invention, then it gets gendered as something women do and therefore as not “counting,” as trivial. When we demonstrate knowledge about domains that are male-dominated, we are treated as intruders or impostors.
Some of the circuits supplies arriving at Double Union.
Unfortunately, there’s also much more direct violence against women to worry about in our spaces. After several years as a member of Noisebridge, I started the Anarchafeminist Hacker Hive, a mailing list and series of meetings that met at Noisebridge and another Bay Area hackerspace, sudo room. That was in response to several incidents of harassment, and the presence in these spaces of known misogynist, racist serial harassers, as well as people convicted of violence against women. We discussed how “hacking” or hacker ethics might change in the context of feminism. But we also discussed what we could do about creeps in our hackerspaces. It’s a constant stress that women like me are treated as “the sexual harassment reporting system”. We’re always be fighting upstream just to be seen as human beings.
So part of our movement to make feminist spaces is because we’re annoyed. We’re pissed off. What if we weren’t always fighting bad behavior, having to justify our hacker-ness, feeling like unicorns, being tokenized, having to be armored up against harassment?
Sophie Toupin describes these struggles in her article “Feminist Hackerspaces as Safer Spaces”: “When feminist and anti-oppression politics are not explicitly part of the ethos of a space whether virtual or physical, the burden of education will often be placed upon the people who are living these oppressions. The burden of educating about white supremacy will be placed upon indigenous or people of colour, while the burden of educating about gender analysis will be put upon women and queers… Hence, the creation of safer feminist spaces within hackerspaces may help to build community, find allies and move forward with sharing and learning skills, in a feminist and anti-oppression hacking environment.”
We want to fight those exact problems, but from a base of strength and support, rather than from a defensive position.
For those reasons, Double Union itself limits membership to women, defining women as broadly as possible and including anyone who self-identifies as non-male. We agreed to prioritize other women in the economy of our attention. We set boundaries to help us focus on our main mission as an organization.
Starting a Hacker or Maker Space!
In June 2012, a group of women in tech living and working in the Bay Area had great conversations about being feminist hackers and makers. We looked to The Attic, a feminist hackerspace which had recently opened in Seattle. At the AdaCamp unconference in San Francisco, Leigh Honeywell gave advice on how to start and sustain a space, based on her experiences as a founding member of Hacklab.to in Toronto and The Attic in Seattle. She emphasized that we could start small. Start with a core group of people, see what our budget could be, rent a small office. We all talked excitedly about what a feminist hackerspace could be, and might mean, for us.
Photo of a loom at Seattle Attic by Liz Henry.
Pretty quickly and simply it came down to this: Several of us in the room lived in San Francisco and were serious about committing time, energy and money to start a new space.
The day after our first discussion, about ten amazing women met at my house to brainstorm. We met every week after that — usually at someone’s house, with potluck dinners. A couple of months later we had completed the paperwork to incorporate. By October 2013, we had gathered enough money from our initial members to sign a lease.
Initial sketch for the layout of Double Union’s 750 sf space. Photo by Liz Henry
Here’s some advice based on what we’ve learned starting and building out Double Union:
Three or four people as a core group is enough to start. Two probably isn’t enough! Three is better to give more perspective and balance, and the more people you can agree with at the start, the better.
Brainstorm early in your planning. Come up with a description of your core values as a group, and what you want to make happen. If you can’t all agree, you may need to start more than one group. Some people left our group in the early stages. That’s going to happen in any new organization, so be prepared for that and try to take it in stride. It may be over philosophical differences, or simply working styles. If someone is just really aggravating or bogs down meetings, that’s enough to drive away people who may be more productive and will just silently drop away to do something else. So it’s pretty important to figure out who works well together and has a good dynamic. Stay aware of who steps up to lead and whether they get stuff done, and whether they’re leading in the right direction for the group.
Build communications and documentation infrastructure. Start a mailing list for internal group discussion, and another one to announce events for people who are interested. After a couple of months of meetings and emails, we were ready to get a bank account and look for a place we could afford to rent. Because it’s an expensive and long process to become a nonprofit, we researched fiscal sponsorship organizations. After much thought, Double Union signed up with a local arts umbrella non-profit that helps extend non-profit status to new community groups.
It’s a problem for activists and especially people from marginalized and underrepresented groups to find the time and energy to organize. It helped that we kept our meeting short, giving out action items to share out the work. We often had children around, so it was helpful to meet in people’s homes. Mothership HackerMoms is the only group I know about that was created from the start to be a creative space with childcare on site.
The hackerspaces.org Design patterns page has some good food for thought.
Money and space are hugely limiting factors for many groups. We collected money for several months in order to rent a small and inexpensive room in a friendly office building. We also lucked out in that several of us were able to pledge extra money. It’s important for social justice-focused groups to set up from the start to encourage donations or fees on a sliding scale, according to what people feel they can afford.
Sketch for tool storage and cafe-style work tables along the wall at Double Union. We wanted to create some more private-feeling workspace other than just the big tables. Photo by Liz Henry
Learning from Existing Organizations
Over the last 20 years I’ve watched technical women’s grassroots organizations coalesce and evolve. The Anita Borg Institute started the Systers mailing list for all women involved in the technical aspects of computing, in 1987. In 1998, Linuxchix started. The name of its mailing list, grrltalk, deliberately referenced the riot grrrl movement (which has many interesting points in common with hacker culture).
Dozens of other identity-centered interest groups arose over the next decade. In 2002, there was a long painful debate, mostly on non-public mailing lists, about whether there should be a women-only mailing list or not. Men’s feelings were hurt. Some women rushed to reassure them. Other men flamed out spectacularly.
Meanwhile, a core of interested women went ahead and started a new list. I came to see the Linuxchix grrls-only controversy as a touchstone example of the difficulties that women and other marginalized people face in political action. To find each other, we have to be visible to each other. We have to be able to communicate unmediated — to speak (and listen) unfiltered by editors or a central authority, and with some measure of protection from attack, derailing, and annoyance.
When women’s groups arose, I’d watch the debate about whether they should exist at all. Despite many accusations of “reverse sexism,” groups for women in many programming languages and areas of technology flourished and grew.
Geekfeminism.org, an online feminist space focused on geek communities including science, tech and gaming, emerged from conversations between Skud (Alex Bayley) and many other feminists in free/open source tech and culture. We asserted that we were here, that we had our own perspectives on our culture. In the blog and wiki for geekfeminism we spoke out about our values, in pages like the Timeline of Incidents which lists incidents that we felt were harmful to women. Documenting negative incidents over time helps us see that misogyny is systemic. It helps us detect patterns of behavior we want to avoid and discourage. Things like: don’t put random photos of women in bikinis into technical talks, and don’t make your archetype of “uninformed end user” be “your grandmother.”
Patterns help us strategize.
We collect lots of amusing and useful ideas, like the Unicorn Law, which states that if you’re a woman in tech, you will at some point in your career be approached to give a talk about being a woman in tech.
Articulating the Unicorn Law gave us a handy way to talk about exceptionalism and tokenism. It’s true in many ways for other people who get marginalized in open tech and culture. And even more so if you’re a person of color, LGBT and/or disabled. Everyone wants a (free) piece of you when you’re a Triple Unicorn.
The Geekfeminism wiki has documented patterns and experiences many of us have – not just looking at our experiences in technology careers or as open source coders, but the ways that those patterns are consistent across video gaming and other “geek” cultures. Many women come across it and realize they aren’t alone in their experiences. Even if they don’t agree with everything expressed on our sites, there are important commonalities that let us jumpstart our political consciousness.
Every time I’ve seen marginalized and underrepresented people organizing to create protected space for themselves and their communities, the ideas and space are attacked, often every step of the way. But once we can talk with each other safely, we can “name the problem”. We can see then that our problems are not always individual; they are often collective. We can start to build a consensus reality, one that comes from our collective lived experiences but that is infused with history. We can’t jump from 0 to 60, from nothing to solutions, without this foundation.
The Double Bind and the Hacker Ethic
In so many ways I love the principles of the Hacker Ethic. That’s an idea that has strong roots in playing with hardware, being adventurous and bold, claiming access to technology and information and opening that access to everyone. But for many of us, as women, those principles work against us or at least, don’t work for us in every situation as they may work for men, especially white men, or for some privileged white women. Sometimes “sharing” ends up meaning, in effect, that our labor is co-opted and exploited by men. Or worse, that what we are expected to share is access to our bodies and sexuality.
Openness, that’s great, right? Except oddly, openness can mean we get rape and death threats while at the same time, the only thing we can’t be “open” about is publicly naming a person who raped us. The “adhocracy” form of informal organizing sometimes look to us like the tyranny of structurelessness, where already-strong power structures and dynamics define our field, so already-powerful elites get stronger.
Free access to computers and the internet: super great, except when the boys bully us out of the computer lab and harass us when we get online. In theory, hackers respect each other’s achievements. But in practice as women, our experiments, beginnings, failures, aggressiveness, and leadership can bring us harsh penalties. There is no way to avoid falling into categories defined by misogyny no matter how we act. That’s especially true for women of color whose actions are often taken to be representational of their race and gender, not of their individual selves.
Calling ours spaces hackerspaces, and ourselves hackers and makers, is claiming our place and aligning ourselves with some aspects of geek and technical culture. A feminist hacker ethic is emerging where we get the tools, and control the space, to be explorers and geniuses together. One way out of the double bind is acting together politically to create new social contexts, and social and political change.
In many ways “hackerspace” is an elitist name for middle-class white guys screwing around with computers and making a big deal out of it. Come on. Every other block in this town has an auto body shop where more hacking takes place than y’all can imagine, and people have their own networks of friends and family and colleagues who learn stuff and create things. Nobody’s writing about that in Wired. That has to set off your bullshit detector a little.
Hackerspaces would be way more cool if every space partnered with a nearby auto shop. On the other hand I like technology and computers, and making a big deal out of it isn’t such a horrible thing. I grew up loving computers, with strong ideals about hacking, access to information, and open culture. Let’s take our part of that and let’s go for it, let’s make it our own thing. On the other other hand, I think the hype around it is going to be extra annoying for Double Union and its sister hackerspaces. I want to wave my hand like a jedi mind trick and say “There’s no hackers here. We’re just a few women making web sites and knitting. Nothing to see here….”
We took the ceiling tiles out when we discovered windows to the roof above.
What Feminist Hackerspaces Could Become
Double Union is an experiment. I hope it will free us from particular problems, and free us up to do other things than fight against what we don’t like. We want to do what we actually enjoy! Already, we have workshops on iPhone jailbreaking, lockpicking, fiber arts, adding electronics and lights to bikes, fighting impostor syndrome, making a feminist cryptocurrency, an incredibly outrageous and subversive comedy show, and yes… fucking e-textiles.
At this point I’ve read another 100+ application essays, many quite lengthy, from women who want to be part of Double Union. They keep on blowing my mind. People who are into so many things, who are engineers and artists, writers and knitters, musicians and inventors — not just one of those things but many at once. I have the sense of a powerful yearning to have all of our skills and aspects “count”. Rather than thinking that if we just learned a little more, coded a bit better or contributed to more public repos, built the most hard core bad ass robot, then we would really belong in a hackerspace.
Many of us feel special pressure to prove ourselves or prove our unfaltering technical expertise. What if what we knew already was enough?
At Double Union that’s what we’re declaring. I think we’ll do amazing things, some big and visible and some more on a personal level.
If you have a few friends, time for meetings, and can find a rentable space, you could follow the examples of The Attic, Hacker Moms, LOLspace, and Double Union to make a physical home for the culture you want to create! Good luck.
All photos used with permission. Photos not otherwise attributed are copyright Amelia Greenhall.