tl;dr.: Why we should stop worrying about stereotyped feminism and learn to love (or at least appreciate) what it is really about

About a week ago, in a post entitled Designers and Women in Open Source, Usability (UX) designer Vitorio Miliano argued that Open Source culture isn’t as egalitarian as it sometimes promises. Pulling together a bunch of discussion threads, Vito argued that Open Source Culture, while promising to be welcoming to all, tends to marginalize the input of people who cannot/​do not code (including, but not limited to designers). In particular, I was interested in the fallout from one particular passage of Vito’s post…

in Vito: I believe the problems with open source not being able to handle non-​programmers in their projects is the same problem as the rampant sexism: open source culture is not feminist. (Designers and Women in Open Source)

Via Twitter:
Joel Johnson: @unruthless @anildash That just made me realize why I hate the term “feminism”. And why I may be wrong. 6 days ago

Anil Dash
: @joeljohnson i find everyone who hates the word “feminism” defines it differently from those of us who identify as feminists. 6 days ago

I’ve been working on a long response to Vito’s beautiful short post. In the meantime, I thought I would post a subsection of that response that might help frame the conversation about feminism and Open Source culture.

Consider this a brief, easy-​to-​read, Primer on Feminism to help folks who are not familiar with it move beyond some of the stereotypes and excesses of the movement.1 Note that this is my version of feminism and its story. It’s a history and definition that is, for the most part, shared by a lot of feminists who I know and work with (so it’s not completely out of left field).

Feminism, like any movement, is an constant state for flux. So what it appears to be now is different than it was ten years ago and is different from what it will be ten years from now. Accepting that there are multiple forms and approaches to feminism is, in itself, a key feminist move.

Generally speaking, feminism arose out of efforts to combat discrimination against women in Western culture. From voting rights, to issues of equity in salary, to birth control, the first wave of Feminism identified areas in which culture treated women as being *less* than men. These fights happened in all areas of society: from government and politics, to the private sector and the home, to the academy. Generally speaking, the goal was quantitatively equal treatment between men and women.

A key tool that emerged out of this phase was the “binary” – Men and Women. Moral and Immoral. Good and Evil. Marked and Unmarked. 0 and 1. – pairs of objects and ideas that define each other through their relation to each other. At the time they were often thought of as hard oppositions: you could only be one or the other. In theory, binaries are said to be equivalent (of equal value). Feminists and others who were simultaneously attacking other forms of discrimination, argued that, in practice, they never were. One was always valued more than the other within a system.

As real gains toward equality were happening in the political and social spheres, feminist activists began to investigate how that original Male/​Female binary, with it’s embedded power relations, was built into every aspect of society. To do this they asked big provocative questions and took extreme positions: because human made, subjective (female) ideologies were part of every system, pure-​objective (male) science was a myth; pornography was fundamentally abusive to women and therefore immoral. These sorts of positions, typically the stereotypical version of feminism represented in (especially conservative) media, came to be labeled “second wave” feminism.

The third wave (what I consider current feminism) arose out of critiques of the second wave. Female and male scholars and activists recognized that second wave feminists, in their attempts to push through the dominant cultural ideologies, had sometimes thrown the baby out with the bathwater.2 In particular, three important lines of thought emerged:

  1. This wasn’t about binaries. You not only could not reduce the world and it’s problems to Man/​Woman, but such a move often created new discrimination in that it implied one universal “man” and one universal “woman.” Race, nationality, culture, sexuality, age, class, religion, you name it, had to be removed to make “man” and “woman” work as categories (and the moment you remove any of those pieces, you create blind spots in your ideology).As an extreme simplification: feminism was at risk of becoming trapped by its tools: turning the world into one big nail​.So as Donna Haraway, a matron saint of third wave feminism would say, attention refocused to the fact that are no universals, and that groups have as many differences as similarities. This attention to non-​gender differences has led feminism to addressing inequalities of all types — including those that simply cannot be reduced to gender.
  2. Second, if there are no binaries, then we need to rethink the entire opposition thing. Third-​wave feminism works to accept the world as a “messy” place — contradictions not only exist, but live quite comfortably along side each other in “real life.“This move resolved many of the perceived extremes of the second wave: some porn could be misogynistic, but there could be feminist porn as well. Likewise, it might be impossible to have a completely “pure” objective science, but that didn’t negate the fact that we could come to a shared objective understanding our world (forces like gravity happen).
  3. Finally, recognizing that binaries and oppositions had stopped being productive created an opportunity for third-​wave feminists to escape the trap of snap moral judgments. Instead of imposing the fundamental “us vs them” binary on every situation (with us being “right,” “good,” “innocent,” “oppressed,” and “moral” and them be “wrong,” “bad,” “evil,” “oppressors,” and “immoral”), it allowed a space to see people as, for the most part, trying to do the best they can with what they had. It opened up the possibility of working within the system to transform it rather than starting from the position that the system needed to be burned to the ground and rebuilt by “us.”

Third-​wave feminism is still concerned with inequalities (including gender). And none of this should be taken to suggest that morals or binaries have been completely abandoned.

But beyond being critical (telling people what’s wrong with a system), it’s also interested in helping work to change the system (drawing upon the activist roots of the feminist movement). In other words it critiques with care and out of caring.

From my perspective:

  • Just pointing out gender discrimination is not feminist. Refusing to engage with systems that discriminate is not feminist. Working to identify and work with a group to address issues of discrimination is feminist.
  • Calling anyone caught up in a system of discrimination an evil bastard or a slave of ideology is not feminist. Starting from the position that, until they prove you wrong, those people are just trying to do what they think is right and are open to collaborating to make things better is feminist.

Modern feminism, as I understand it, is about trying to live ethically in world full of contradictions and inequalities. It’s about finding ways to balance the needs of individual and groups, relativism and absolutism, and objectivity and subjectivity. It’s about finding ways to approach situations where all too often, in the moment, there are no hard and fast rules for how to interact. It’s about accepting that sometimes someone has to be hurt or excluded and then trying to find ways to protect that individual. Finally, it’s not about my knowing what’s right for others, but rather collaborating with others to find what’s best (not perfect) for “us.”

So Vito’s post has started a conversation about the issue of discrimination in Open Source Culture. If all it does is generate moral recriminations or resigned acceptance of the problem as it exists, then it (and the conversation it generated) is no more feminist than the culture it critiqued.

I’ll spill a lot more pixels on this by the middle of next week… In the meantime comments are definitely welcome.

About a week ago, in a post entitled Designers and women in open source, Usability (UX) designer Vitorio Miliano argued that Open Source culture isn’t as egalitarian as it sometimes promises. Pulling together a bunch of discussion threads, Vito pointed out that Open Source Culture, while promising to be welcoming to all, tends to marginalize the input of people who cannot/​do not code (including, but not limited to designers). In particular, I was interested in the fallout from one particular passage of Vito’s post…

in Vito: I believe the problems with open source not being able to handle non-​programmers in their projects is the same problem as the rampant sexism: open source culture is not feminist.

joeljohnson Joel Johnson @unruthless @anildash That just made me realize why I hate the term “feminism”. And why I may be wrong.

anildash Anil Dash @joeljohnson i find everyone who hates the word “feminism” defines it differently from those of us who identify as feminists.

I’ve been working on a long response to Vito’s beautiful short post. In the meantime, I thought I would post a subsection of that response that might help frame the conversation about feminism and Open Source culture — consider this a brief history and definition of Feminism. Note this is my version of feminism. It’s a history and definition that is, for the most part, shared by a lot of feminists who I know and work with (so it’s not completely out of left field). This is an attempt at a quick-​and-​dirty primer to help folks move beyond some of the stereotypes and excesses of the movement.

The first thing to understand is that Feminism, like any movement is an continuous state for flux. So what it appears to be now is different than it was ten years ago and is different from what it will be ten years from now. Accepting that there are multiple forms and approaches to feminism is, in itself, a key feminist move.

Generally speaking, feminism arose out of efforts to combat discrimination against women in Western culture. From voting rights, to issues of equity in salary, to birth control, the first wave of Feminism identified areas in which culture treated women as being *less* than men. These fights happened in all areas of society: from government and politics, to the private sector and the home, to the academy. Generally speaking, the goal was quantitatively equal treatment between men and women.

A key tool that emerged out of this phase was the “binary.” Men and Women. Moral and Immoral. Good and Evil. Marked and Unmarked. 0 and 1. Pairs of objects or ideas that define each other through their relation to each other. At the time they were often thought of as hard oppositions — you could only be one or the other. In theory, binaries are said to be equivalent (of equal value). Feminists and other’s who attacked discrimination, argued that, in practice, they never were. One was always valued more than the other within a system.

As real gains toward equality were happening in the political and social spheres, feminist activists began to ask how that original Male/​Female divide/​binary, with it’s embedded power relations, was built into every aspect of society. To do this they asked big provocative questions and took extreme positions: because human made, subjective (female) ideologies were part of every system, pure-​objective (male) science was a myth; pornography was fundamentally abusive to women and therefore immoral. These sorts of positions, typically the stereotypical version of feminism represented in (especially conservative) media, came to be labeled “second wave” feminism.

The third wave (what I consider current feminism) arose out of critiques of the second wave. Female and male scholars and activists recognized that in their attempts to push through the dominant cultural ideologies, second wave feminists had sometimes thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In particular, three important lines of thought emerged:

(1) This wasn’t about binaries. You not only could not reduce the world and it’s problems to Man/​Woman, but such a move pretended that there was one universal “man” and one universal “woman.” Race, nationality, culture, sexuality, age, class, religion, you name it, had to be removed to make “man” and “woman” work as categories (and the moment you remove any of those pieces, you create blind spots in your ideology). As an extreme simplification: feminism was becoming trapped by its tools — a specific strain of feminist ideology was turning the world into one big nail. So as Donna Haraway, a matron saint of third wave feminism would say, the attention focused to the fact that are no universals, and that groups have as many differences as similarities. This attention to non-​gender differences has led feminism to addressing inequalities of all types — including those that simply cannot be reduced to gender.

(2) Second, if there are no binaries, then we need to rethink the entire opposition thing. Third-​wave feminism works to accepts the world as a “messy” place — contradictions not only exist, but live quite comfortably in the world. This move resolved many of the perceived extremes of the second wave: some porn could be misogynistic, but there could be feminist porn as well. Likewise, it might be impossible to have a completely “pure” objective science, but that didn’t negate the fact that we could come to a shared objective understanding our world (forces like gravity happen).

(3) Finally, recognizing that binaries and oppositions had stopped being productive created an opportunity for third-​wave feminists to escape the trap of snap moral judgments. Instead of imposing the fundamental “us vs them” binary on every situation (with us being “right,” “good,” “innocent,” “oppressed,” and “moral” and them be “wrong,” “bad,” “evil,” “oppressors,” and “immoral”), it allowed a space to see people as, for the most part, trying to do the best they can with what they had. It opened up the possibility of working within the system to transform it rather than starting from the position that the system needed to be burned to the ground and rebuilt by “us.”

Third-​wave feminism is still concerned with inequalities (including gender). But beyond being critical (telling people what’s wrong with a system), it’s also interested in helping work to change the system (drawing upon the activist roots of the feminist movement). In other words it critiques with care and out of caring.

From my perspective:

Screaming gender discrimination is not feminist. Refusing to engage with systems that discriminate is not feminist. Working to identify and work with a group to address issues of discrimination is feminist.

Calling anyone caught up in a system of discrimination an evil bastard or a slave of ideology is not feminist. Starting from the position that, until they prove you wrong, those people are just trying to do what they think is right and are open to collaborating to make things better is feminist.

In many ways, modern feminism, as I understand it, is about trying to live ethically in world full of contradictions and inequalities. It’s about finding ways to approach situations where all too often, in the moment, there are no hard and fast rules for how to interact. It’s about accepting that sometimes someone has to be hurt or excluded and then trying to find ways to protect that individual. Finally, it’s not about my knowing what’s right for others, but rather collaborating with others to find what’s best (not perfect) for “us.”

  1. And it’s also an argument for why I’m a feminist and you should consider being on too []
  2. I have to admit that I’m in a constant struggle about how to fairly represent Second Wave feminism. It’s clear that it was necessary and it’s clear that in the long term it helped get things to a better place. At the same time, there’s just so much of it that is so far outside of my own pragmatist thinking/​ethos that I just don’t know what to do with it. []