Feminist hacking practices

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About this worksession

In this session we will look at the context of hackerspaces and FLOSS communities that lack diversity and inclusion, as well as the practices of feminist communities that respond to this phenomenon. How do the origins of hacker culture contribute to the creation of gender-based social exclusions? How can we answer to the sexism and misogyny reproduced in the geekdom?

Feminist hack/tech communities work towards creating safe spaces for excluded individuals to gain agency with technology and FLOSS. Most of all though, they redefine who counts as a hacker, and what counts as hacking. Their practices encourage collective Do-It-Together proccesses in inclusive-diverse environments, and provide spaces to imagine alternative utopian technological futures.

Hackers, Hackerspaces & The issues of Openness

Hackers, hacker ethics and hackerspaces

Steven Levy, in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, describes the birth of computer hacking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the '60s. In the famous Rad Lab of MIT, the first groups of obsessed tech tinkerers and programmers gathered. The protagonists of this story, young, curious, well-educated, white men would gradually form a community characterised by a particular culture. Hacking became a self-conscious and widely noticed practice, with its own intellectual pursuit and values.
‘Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age’ - 1985 TV documentary about the hacker community.

Levy's description of hacker ethics and principles:

* Access to computers should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!

* All information should be free.

* Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.

* Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position.

* You can create art and beauty on a computer.

* Computers can change your life for the better.

Hackers are committed to FLOSS, while they are also passionate advocates of free speech and expression. Their culture of openness is also extended to their spaces. Hackerspaces are open community spaces where hackers gather to hack, tinker with technology, experiment and socialise. The operating principles of hackerspaces coincide with those of Free, Libre and Open-Source Software (FLOSS), inviting everybody to share code, ideas and projects.

Most hackerspaces state to be free and open to everyone. For example Noisebridge, a hackerspace in San Francisco, imposes only one rule: “Be excellent to each other”. Such abstract, yet well-intended suggestions, have been critiqued by scholars as insufficient to ban several forms of misbehaviour. Hacker culture has in cases tolerated sexist, misogynist and discriminatory expressions in the name of freedom of speech. The most vulnerable hackerspace participants feel discomfort and stress by the lack of formal guidelines to declare inappropriate behaviours.

Openness and Structurelessness

Hackerspaces and FLOSS communities usually have informal organisational structures. They may assume that diversity and inclusivity will grow organically, but unfortunately, that's not the case. On the contrary, they reproduce their dominant white, male, geek culture, that fails to invite or retain women, lesbian, gay, trans and queer persons, gender non-conformists and people of colour, among others. In Tyranny of structurelessness, American feminist Jo Freeman analysed the power relations within radical collectives formed in the context of the '70s Women's Liberation Movement. She argued that when a community is lacking formal structures, it will possibly end up favouring those who already enjoy gender, class or race privileges. Therefore, structurelessness hides the informal power of specific individuals or cliques.

Supporting excluded people in FLOSS

Mary Gardiner, open-source developer and co-founder of the Ada Initiative, mentions that “people are scratching their heads over why women would avoid such a revolutionarily free environment like Free Software development”. They often doubt if any bad incident even happened. Diverse feminist initiatives give answers to such questions.

  • In 1987, American computer scientist Anita Borg founded a women-only mailing list to support women in computer science and related fields, in response to issues patriarchal domination in physical and virtual spaces.
    Systers, the name of this mailing list, derives from the combination of the words systems + sisters.
  • In 2008, the Geek Feminism Wiki, followed by the Geek Feminism Blog in 2009, constituted an online space for feminists to document incidents of sexism and harassment in the tech industry, FLOSS projects, gaming, comic book fandom, conference rooms and social media.
  • ADA-initiative, a US-based feminist organisation, started in 2011 to address issues of sexism in FLOSS communities, producing Codes of Conduct (CoC) and anti-harassment policies.

CoC are community guidelines, responding to issues of exclusion, harassment, hate speech, threats, and others. Such documents are useful for setting up rules and accountability, while they help communities to formulate common values around their projects. According to ADA-initiative, an effective CoC should:

* List specific common behaviors that are not okay
* Include detailed directions for reporting violations
* Have a defined and documented complaint handling process

ADA-initiative also organised several AdaCamps: unconferences dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture.

Further reading

Feminist hackers

Hacker praxis, with its contradictions and conflicts, has inspired diverse groups of people in various contexts. Feminists, who believe in the emancipatory potential of hacking, decided to shape communities of their own. They have multiple good reasons to do so: disagreements on how mainstream hackerspaces operate, issues raised because of a problematic and abstract openness, reproduction of sexist behaviours, among others. Bravely enough, they appropriate the term of hacking, combine it with feminist pedagogies and stretch it to acquire new meanings.

Safe spaces

In contrast with the politics of openness of FLOSS and hacker communities, feminists groups have been using the tactic of creating safe-spaces prioritising or even allowing only the participation of minority groups. This method aims to set clear boundaries which ensure the safety and empowerment of identities traditionally excluded from a space or field. It's up to each community to decide what's critical for them, depending on where, when and how they operate. Separatism is an urgent step that feminist hackers take, in order to form their own voice and identity.

In the words of Faith Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble in Notes on the Political Condition of Cyberfeminism:

It should be remembered that separatism among a minoritarian (disenfranchised)
group is not negative. It’s not sexist, it’s not racist, and it’s not even necessarily
a hindrance to democratic development. There is a distinct difference between
using exclusivity as part of a strategy to make a specific perception or way of
being in the world a universal and using exclusivity as a means to escape a false
universal. There is also a distinct difference between using exclusion as a means
to maintain structures of domination, and using it as a means to undermine them.

Examples of Feminist hack/tech collectives


ASCII (1999-2006) - the Amsterdam Subversive Center for Information Interchange, was one of the early hacklabs starting in 1999 as a free internet workplace in the Netherlands. ASCII was a technological as well as political space, part of squatting culture and anarchist movements. Most people running the ASCII were men, with engineer or computer science backgrounds, having experience with pirate radios, electronics or coding. Video from the ASCII archive

Interview with Donna Metzlar, core member of Genderchangers, co-founder of the Eclectic Tech Carnival and the Systerserver

The very few women who were active in ASCII hacklab were concerned about the same
thing. When you asked one of the guys in ASCII to help you or explain something,
like how can you install LINUX on your machine, all of a sudden they just take over,
and they start telling long stories with jargon that you can't follow.

The women of ASCII created the initiative of GenderChangers Academy (GCA). GCA started in the early ‘00s as a women-only gathering, with the motive to exchange technical skills, unimpeded by typical competitiveness of male geeks. In their first learning circle, they helped each other to install Linux on their computers collectively. They initiated a series of workshops to make more women interested in technology and free software.

About the term GenderChangers

We did not make up this term, we are re-using it. The tech industry created it. Technically and literally a gender changer is a
computer part. It is an adapter that changes the "sex" of a port. Ports with pins are said to be male, ports with holes are said
to be female. In the situation where two pieces of hardware both have the same port, an adapter saves the day and makes a
connection possible. We are reclaiming the term to mean a person interested in the gendered aspects of technology.

Eclectic Tech Carnival

The Eclectic Tech Carnival (/ETC) started as a Genderchangers-On-The-Road event, but it developed into an international project of its own. /ETC became an annual gathering of feminists, who critically study, use, discuss, share and improve everyday information technologies in the context of free software and open hardware movements. /ETC, like the Genderchangers, was at first a women-only event, but currently it supports the participation of people across a spectrum of gender, women and female-identified, transgender and queer persons.

What is /etc? - (FAQs - Eclectic Tech Carnival, n.d.)

/ETC comes from the Unix file system directory which contains all the important configuration files for a computer and
networking (hostname, hosts, networks), users (group), mail (mail.rc) and the rc.config and the directory init.d with the
initialization-scripts. The name was picked as it contains all kinds of socialisation and computer configuration.

TransHackFeminist (THF!)

The TransHackFeminist convergence (THF!) is an annual gathering of queer feminist and visionary hackers. The first TransHackFeminist (THF!) convergence took place in Calafou, in the summer of 2014. THF! includes discussions, workshops and sessions where intersectional feminists, queer and trans people of all genders gather to work together and discuss several subjects.

THF! adopts an intersectional feminist approach. This framework emphasises the complexities brought by the intersection between gender, sexual orientation, geographical location, ethnicity, class, among others.

From the THF! Convergence Report, Calafou, 2014

THF! is about being aware of and acknowledging one’s privileges. It is about
understanding the relations between privilege and oppression. A THF! practice is
about being anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, anti-homophobic,
anti-transphobic, and using hacking as a mean of resistance, sabotage and

Diversity of activities, workshops and sessions

The famous Hardware Crash Courses - GenderChangers and /ETC

DIT (Do-It-Together) and DIWO (Do-It-With-Others)

Performative events and Embodied pedagogical practices

Care and inclusivity

Sociality and care are in the centre of attention for feminist hackers. Processes, behaviours and relations of people who work together on a hacking project are valued even more than the project itself.


Self-managed events, Morning Assemblies, Switching roles

Most feminist hacker events organise gatherings to decide, review and discuss the practices of the community. During the /ETC in Athens, there was an assembly every morning, in which participants talked about the tasks of the day and assigned roles for everybody to contribute in the ways they can. Responsibilities included cooking, recycling, cleaning, documenting, informing and supporting in workshops.

Backstage communication tools

Willing to control the technologies that mediate their social relations, feminist hacker groups choose alternative, decentralised, and open-source tools for their backstage communication.

More examples

Further Reading

Feminist Servers

Feminist Infrastructures

* From a feminist perspective technology is neither neutral nor deterministic. 
* Within the socio-technical systems there are existing inequalities such as race, class, nationality and gender. 
* A feminist technology wants to deal with all the layers around technology with a desire to deconstruct, change, reprogramming our lives, practices and infrastructures/technologies.
* Feminist infrastructures as autonomous networks are challenging androcentrism and new forms of colonialism or exploitation at the very local level
* Participants believe in the importance of building both online and offline local networks.
* Shared experiences in processes of building and maintaining community networks, or other collective forms of ICTs, have the potential to challenge the way in which broadband, wireless or radio connections have been implemented in rural areas and the periphery of urban centres

Gaps in FLOSS/Activist movements

* Even in activism or free software and open technology environments, hegemonic narratives on networks are often naturalised and presented as universal
* Lack of consideration of multiple voices and internal inequalities in community-based projects and measure success mainly by the number of nodes this community connects.
* Internet access provision and network stabilisation being considered the primary concern and neglecting discussions and proposals that could be more intersectional
* Making collective spaces and infrastructure designs more “on the ground”, welcome and supportive to different people and their values and practices are perceived as a waste of time

Autonomous Servers

WHAT IS a server?

Autonomous servers provide hosting and online services. Each collective has its own policies, terms of use, sustainability models. By running your own server you can have full control over your/collective's personal data. List of autonomous servers

Feminist Servers

A feminist server is a concept that combines the need for autonomous technical infrastructures with feminist urgencies. It is an ongoing effort to provide technical literacy and means to ensure that works, publications, data and memories of feminist communities are properly accessible and managed.

A feminist server does not only provide storage and services to preserve and protect feminist websites, wikis, mailing lists and social networks. It is also a powerful thinking tool that raises questions around technology today, e.g. issues of dependency, expectations, availability, openess, privacy and so many more.

THF! Convergence Report describes that the need for feminist servers is a response to:

* The unethical practices of multinational ICT companies acting as moral and hypocrite censors;
* gender based online violence in the form of trolling and hateful machoists harassing feminist or women activists online and offline;
* the centralization of the internet and its transformation into a consumption sanctuary and a space of surveillance,
control and tracking of dissent voices by government agencies among others

Two feminist server examples

Two feminist servers projects were rebooted during the TransHackFeminist convergence in Calafou in 2014 (previous initiatives http://samedi.collectifs.net/ in 2006 in Brussels):
the Systerserver project which was originally launched by Genderchangers and the Eclectic Tech Carnival and which focus on hosting online services; and Anarchaserver which was launched by Calafou inhabitants and people involved in the organisation of the THF! and focus on hosting leaving/dead/transitional data.

Syster server: The server was bought by women, installed by women and is managed by women. This in itself is unusual in the tech world. There are two main aims to the project: a) a place where women can learn to be system administrators and b) hosting select services which feminist initiatives can use.
Available to general public: No - available to friends and trusted networks.
Founded: 2002

Anarcha server:
AnarchaServer is a "slow, friendly, no drama, experimental online and offline project" that aims at setting up different spaces to support feminist collectives in their transitional data needs and to strength the collective memory around decolonialist cyberfeminism around the world. Currently AS hosts a mediawiki for the documentation of the server and the different THF!
Available to general public: No - available to friends and trusted networks.
Founded: 2014


Feminist server manifesto

In 2013, Constant, a non-profit, artist-run organization in Brussels, hosted the workshop Are you being served?
During the session: First Feminist Server Summit, artists and activists reflected on questions around the potential of a Feminist Server practice. The collective discussions brought the following outcome: A feminist server manifesto

A feminist server… 

* Is a situated technology. She has a sense of context and considers herself to be part of an ecology of practices
* Is run for and by a community that cares enough for her in order to make her exist
* Builds on the materiality of software, hardware and the bodies gathered around it
* Opens herself to expose processes, tools, sources, habits, patterns
* Does not strive for seamlessness. Talk of transparency too often signals that something is being made invisible
* Avoids efficiency, ease-of-use, scalability and immediacy because they can be traps
* Knows that networking is actually an awkward, promiscuous and parasitic practice
* Is autonomous in the sense that she decides for her own dependencies
* Radically questions the conditions for serving and service; experiments with changing client-server relations where she can
* Treats network technology as part of a social reality
* Wants networks to be mutable and read-write accessible
* Does not confuse safety with security
* Takes the risk of exposing her insecurity
* Tries hard not to apologize when she is sometimes not available

A Feminist Server Manifesto 0.01

The cyber/technofeminist cross-readings: This cyber/technofeminist cross-reader made by Manetta Berends "connects the Term Frequency Inverse Document Frequency algorithm, or TF-IDF in short, that finds the most important words of a document with a collection of cyber- and technofeminist manifestos.

The cyber/technofeminist manifestos connect feminist thinking to technology, introducing feminist servers, cyborg figures, cyberwitches, or pleas for the glitch as cultural digital artefact. This collection, which is obviously incomplete, brings a diverse set of technofeminist documents together that are published between 1912 and 2019. The manifestos speak about very different concerns and questions, but they connect in terms of energy level. Urging to make a statement, ready to activate."


Further Reading

Feminist speculative fiction

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.
Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K. Le Guin on The Human Spirit


Further Reading


What would you do?

Annotations on a Feminist Server Manifesto

Feminist Speculative Fiction