Origin Stories

Here, at yatima’s request, is Geek Feminism Wiki’s own Bess Sadler‘s response to our current Book Club read, Coding Freedom. Normal Book Club posts will resume shortly!

The stories we tell ourselves about where we come from are the mechanism by which we continuously re-create our current understanding of reality. This is what makes origin stories so powerful: the shaping of the first part of the story determines the possibilities of the next chapter. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in her book “Writing a Woman’s Life,” argues eloquently and convincingly that the narratives of biographies and autobiographies, especially the stories we tell about women’s lives, have suppressed the truth in order to make the “written life” conform to society’s expectations of what life should be. “Writing a Woman’s Life” has been deeply influential on me in understanding my own life’s path, on a par with Virginia Woolf’s famous exploration of an imaginary sister for William Shakespeare in “A Room of One’s Own.” Judith Shakespeare’s reality is far removed from her brother’s, for ‘while William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending.’

I am currently reading “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.” It is a much needed ethnography of the F/OSS movement, and I’ve already ordered a stack of copies to give as gifts, but the lack of discussion about women in F/OSS is already bothering me. The first chapter of the book is devoted to “The Life of a Free Software Hacker,” and it attempts (although the author is careful to add a disclaimer about the inherent impossibility of writing about a “typical” life) to describe the sequence of life events that lead many people to the F/OSS movement. The author does recognize the gender skew in her sample population; Eschewing more gender-inclusive pronouns, Coleman instead qualifies her interviews with the statement “I use ‘he’ because most hackers are male.” I haven’t finished the book yet, but skimming ahead and checking the index, this seems to be the end of any discussion of women within the free software community. In the spirit of Carolyn Heilbrun and Virginia Woolf, then, here is my auto-ethnography of how I became involved in F/OSS. I think it offers some interesting contrasts to the narrative offered in “Coding Freedom.”

“He taught himself how to program [at a young age] in BASIC, and the parental unit expressed joyous approval with aplomb (‘look, look our little Fred is sooo smart’)”

She was exposed to BASIC and LOGO via experimental programs at her elementary school. She loved it and did well at the exercises in class. However, she did not have a computer to play with at home, nor anyone outside the classroom with whom to discuss what she had learned. Some of the boys in the class were constantly pushing the envelope (having skipped ahead by practicing at home) and her teachers tended to spend more time with them. She concluded, based on the evidence available to her, that she just wasn’t as good at this as they were.

“Thanks to the holy trinity of a computer, modem, and phone line, he began to dabble in a wider networked world”

Not having a computer until she was almost in college, she was excluded from the BBS culture she heard the boys in class discussing. Although the boys in her honors classes were in some ways her friends and allies, in other ways being a socially awkward female made her feel like the only person who was more stigmatized than the socially awkward males surrounding her. She read science fiction avidly, and had a few male friends who shared this passion, but she was not permitted to attend their after school activities. Reasons for this included parental (“good girls don’t go over to boy’s houses”) and peer (“adding girls would ruin our D&D group”). She did not have much in common with other girls her age and was not interested in their activities. She spent most of her time in libraries and bookstores.

“Many hackers did not awaken to a consciousness of their ‘hacker nature’ in a moment of joyful epiphany but instead acquired it imperceptibly. In some cases, certain books, texts, movies and place of interaction sparked this association.”

Every day after school she would join her younger sister in watching a worn out VCR cassette of “Sneakers.” She loved the power the characters in the movie wielded, and how idealistic they were. She loved that there was a woman in the movie who was as smart as all the men and sometimes had to explain math to them. She would reflect on their shared obsession with this movie many years later when her sister became a well respected security expert for the telecommunications industry.

When exposed to the free software movement, it “seemed to describe his personal experiences with technology in a sophisticated yet accessible language”

When exposed to the free software movement as a teenager, via conversations at a radical bookstore about how we might imagine a more just society, it was couched in language like “liberating the means of production.” F/OSS as a system of production seemed to challenge in an immediate and concrete way the assumption that we must be alienated from our own labor. “The external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.” (Marx and Engels as quoted in “Coding Freedom”, p. 15)

“As he grew older and more financially independent (thanks to lucrative information technology jobs as a programmer or system administrator that gave him the financial freedom, the ‘free time’, to code for volunteer projects) […] he consistently interacted with other geeks at work”

In high school and college, financial independence was on her mind. She had been raised around culturally conservative and religious women who were financially dependent on men. She knew that the cruel things she heard about women like her, her weight, her lack of grace, her inability to engage with the sphere of traditional womanhood, were said out of love and concern, because snaring and keeping a husband was the only way many people around her could imagine that a woman could live comfortably. She had never been interested in the trappings of femininity, nor particularly eager to join a traditional marriage. She had seen many women forced to choose between staying with an abusive man or living in poverty, and she was determined never to have to make such a choice. She really liked her part-time job in the bookstore, and thought that if she learned how to run the computer inventory system the bookstore might give her a full-time job and she’d be able to support herself, so she sat down and taught herself database administration from a book during her night shifts.

“The conference is culturally significant because it allows hackers to collectively enact, make visible, and subsequently celebrate many elements of their quotidian technological lifeworld” (p. 28) and “most everyone arrives on an equal footing, ready to contribute their part” (p. 48)

During college she entered the phase during which a larval hacker typically “drink[s] himself silly with information” (p. 26), absorbing as much knowledge and skills as she could. Aided in this by women-run technology groups like “Grrls with Modems,” she embraced geek culture whole-heartedly. She loved the spirit of F/OSS conferences, and if the language was sometimes exclusionary, or if some of the men there seemed to be threatened by her presence, she tried not to let it distract her from what was great there. She encountered a new problem, though: She was no longer sexually invisible. She grew very tired of being the only woman at many of the events she attended, and she grew VERY tired of being seen more as a sexual prospect than as a peer. A few times men got angry and even threatening with her for rejecting their advances, and she did not react to this well. It seemed to actually make her sick, although she could not understand why or how. She had not yet heard the phrase “post traumatic stress disorder.” She knew she had been raped at age 12 by a camp counsellor and at age 17 by one of her high school teachers, but she did not yet have the ability to call this rape, except in her innermost secret thoughts, and she was sure it had not really affected her. She created a public persona guaranteed to avoid the issue, adopting masculine clothing, refusing to shave her legs, and adorning herself with the regalia of the gay rights movement. Now when she faced harassment it was more often couched in the language of homophobia, which at least gave her a community to call on for support.

“Developers who were self-employed or working in a small tech company that had few or no managers powered everything on free software, crediting the success of the company to solid technology as well as the money saved on software”

She has had a relatively successful upward career trajectory managing technology for bookstores, libraries, and human rights agencies, none of whom had much money but all of whom embraced the “the moral message of software freedom” (p. 38).  She became a DBA, then a unix sys admin, then a software developer. She contributed to, and later helped to start, open source software projects that focused on the problems confronting cultural institutions. She also decided that if F/OSS was going to be truly revolutionary it was going to need to be more inclusive, and she started trying to find ways to make it a more welcoming place for women and gender minorities.

3 thoughts on “Origin Stories

  1. KJ

    Thank you so much for writing this. I liked “Coding Freedom” when I read it, but couldn’t help but feel under represented, as usual. Your story /life is brave and inspirational.

  2. Ducky

    Thank you for sharing this. Your story reminds me of how far we’ve come, but we are still playing catch up.

    The difficulty that continues to plague us is often reflected in other STEM fields, if you want to fit in, you must first prove yourself to not just be equal in skill to your male peers, but have to actually be better. To have no errors in your code or work, because even though your peers are allowed errors, any mistake on your part is seen to be a fault of being a woman.

    And then there’s the social aspects of it, where we feel like to fit in, we have to play along as “one of the guys”, denying any femininity, eschewing any signs of womanhood in the office. You have to pretend to laugh at the misogynistic jokes, or be told that you’re “too sensitive” or worse.

    Oh, and I got to play D&D with the guys, but I always had to be the healer. Because that is what girls who play are expected to do. Not be a warrior, kicking ass and taking names.

  3. AntiSlice

    Thanks for writing this! I haven’t read Coding Freedom (yet, probably), but I think I’ll have a similar reaction to the excerpts you posted. Out of the women I know in software (mostly not F/OSS), I think most of them have alternative origin stories to the “typical” one outlined in the book.

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