The week of September 7, 2014

Me IRL: Leigh Honeywell

By S.E. Smith

The online DIY movement is huge and growing all the time. But what does that mean for women?

In offline spaces, women are traditionally treated as the queens of DIY—and DIY has been historically regarded as a lesser craft and art form precisely because it’s perceived as female-dominated. With the rise of Maker Faire, artisanal crafts, and the hipster revolution, that’s starting to shift, with men taking over the craft movement.

Online, however, DIY and “craft”—as defined in this sense by hacking, coding, and shifting environments to create something new—has always been dominated by men. Women have always been pushed to the background, despite their role in the development of computing from the beginning. (Ada Lovelace, Grace Murray Hopper, and Sister Mary Kenneth Keller were some of the formative influences in computing and programming.) Those pushing to assert their role in the server room and beyond often face an uphill battle. Many identify their work as explicitly feminist, and assert the critical need to change the dynamic of the online DIY movement.

It’s time for women to have their fair share.

The Kernel talked to Leigh Honeywell, feminist, coder, hacker, and organizer, about the rise of feminist hackerspaces and what they mean for online DIY.

“We’re more focused on the doing than the performance of DIY—we’re not competing with each other.”

First screenname: Lost to the mists of TCP/IP, but by age 12 I was roaming Internet Relay Chat (especially Comic Chat) and talking to strangers on ICQ. The Internet was a kinder, gentler place in 1997.

Earliest memory of the Internet: I remember being SUPER EXCITED to discover streaming music via RealPlayer, and trying to explain it to a friend of my parents, who just couldn’t see why it was better than just turning on the radio.

What would you define as a “feminist hackerspace,” and what do these environments look like, both on and offline?

I think of feminist hackerspaces as being a cross between the consciousness-raising groups of second-wave feminism and the standard nerdy treefort/library/toolshed feel of a mainstream hackerspace. We write code and solder electronics and 3D print but also practice our negotiation skills, discuss which companies have the most women-friendly cultures, and beta-read and beta-test each others’ work.

The various online spaces that hackerspaces use—fileshares, chat rooms, wikis, mailing lists—tend to reflect the culture of the physical space. Everyone is so nice on the Double Union [a women’s hackerspace in San Francisco] mailing list. There’s a huge emphasis on writing documentation and making things explicit rather than implicit (a lesson from the Python programming language), so many things in the physical space are well-labeled, and people take care to document things on the wiki or via a heads-up to the mailing list. I bought a Polaroid-style instant camera for the space a few days ago, and writing this reminded me to email everyone and let them know that it’s on a shelf above the 3D printer, ready for everyone to use!

You’ve been instrumental in the creation of physical as well as digital spaces that put a heavy emphasis on DIY tools for women in programming and related tools. How do you think DIY empowers women?

Despite all the “get girls into code”-type programs, there is so much gatekeeping around the field—from the guidance counselor who discourages female students from going into CS [computer science] to classmates and professors who question women students’ abilities at every turn. Hobbyist programming and electronics short-circuits that. You can order parts from adafruit, a woman-owned electronics shop, learn from their tutorials or others by folks like Leah Buechley of MIT’s High-Low Tech lab.

What do you think defines DIY communities, and how are women online changing the nature of what DIY looks like through hackerspaces?

DIY community, to me, means in-person community focused on making things, whether or the things are useful or artistic, physical, or digital. There have always been in-person DIY communities whose participants were mostly women—the local yarn shop is the classic example. Women-friendly hackerspaces just shift the focus of what is “in scope” to include electronics, programming, and 3D printing, often also combining those with things like fiber arts and papercraft in fun new ways. We’re more focused on the doing than the performance of DIY—we’re not competing with each other.

How do hackerspaces, physical and digital, contribute to larger cultural shifts?

Hackerspaces, as intentional communities with their own cultures and standards, get to be little laboratories for new social models. We get to say: For these 800 square feet, this is the world we want to build, these are the rules we agree to play by. In the case of Double Union, we encoded our values in a document called our “base assumptions.” I want to see other communities be more thoughtful about what their values are, especially around whose participation they are prioritizing. Are they willing to kick out assholes?

Another model of how a physical community can model culture change is Hacker School in New York. Hacker School is a “programming retreat” modeled after the retreats writers have done since long before Thoreau went to Walden Pond. I’m going for a two-week residency later this month, and I’m super excited about it. They have a set of “social rules“—things like “no well-actuallys” and “no subtle -isms” that give people a shorthand to intervene in a situation and redirect it for the better. Reading them has definitely changed how I interact with people in some interesting ways—I’m much more conscious of my tendency to “well-actually” at people now that I have a term for it.

Do you see hackerspaces like Double Union changing perceptions of what women can and can’t do when it comes to hacking?

We’re just starting to see the impact that Double Union is going to have, and I think more so than on others’ perception it will change how the members see ourselves. My dreams for Double Union include women leveling up at all kinds of skills, technical and otherwise; having a rich network of peer and more senior mentors; members starting businesses together or finding new and better jobs; and most importantly, a place to go where there are others like us, where we’re not the only woman in the room, where our participation isn’t questioned.

What kind of response have you seen to the “coder grrrls” of DIY programming, community networking, and offline in digital spaces?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s so clear that a space like Double Union was needed. We closed membership earlier this year so that we could figure out our processes and get to know all the new members, and when we re-opened for new members in July, we had over 90 people apply in two weeks. There is enough interest in San Francisco for more than one feminist hackerspace, and that’s great. We’re not going to be the perfect space for everyone, but I want there to be a hackerspace that suits everyone’s needs out there.

How do you advise women who are interested in making their own hackerspaces? How about those who want to take over an existing hackerspace to make it inclusive and radically friendly?

There is a ton of documentation on making hackerspaces, and even on making feminist hackerspaces, despite the latter movement being just over a year old. (Here’s a talk I gave on starting a hackerspace at the Southern California Linux Expo a few years ago.) The feminist hackerspace design patterns are a set of lessons learned in the past year and a bit of feminist hackerspaces, which were themselves inspired by the original hackerspace design patterns drawn from many years of hackerspaces in Europe and North America.

Sophie Toupin’s essay “Feminist Hackerspaces as Safer Spaces?” and Liz Henry’s “The Rise of Feminist Hackerspaces and How to Make Your Own” are also both essential reads on understanding and building feminist hackerspaces.

When it comes to changing an existing space, it can often be an uphill battle that requires a lot of emotional labor. I’ve chosen to prioritize starting new things over working with existing communities for the past couple of years because I don’t find arguing for basic things like an anti-harassment policy to be a good use of my time. I’d rather spend that energy finding people who share my values and building a community that has those values baked in.

If you are going to work on changing an existing community, make sure that you have a core group of people who share your values and work with them on culture change efforts. If you don’t have three to five people at minimum, you’re much easier to dismiss as an “outsider.” At the same time, three to five people is the same number you need to start your own hackerspace—so decide how much energy you’re going to put into the existing space and if your attempts to change it fail, go build your own.

Illustration by J. Longo