Gendered Risk: Feminist Programming

I recently heard Audrey Bilger of Claremont McKenna’s Center for Writing and Public Discourse talk about the ways that social media can help bring certain feminist issues to the fore – in her example, the exclusions of women of color from mainstream feminist movements by way of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag. While a lot went wrong in the mainstream coverage of that story, including the elision of Mikki Kendall’s role in initiating the conversation, it is true that a social media event helped to continue an important conversation

At the same time, the recent furor over Twitter’s user blocking policy change and then quick reversal reminds us that social media spaces are also sites of potential threat and abuses, where stalkers and trolls often are able to work with relative impunity. Women are systematically harassed not only in media venues, but in online gaming and knowledge building communities as well. There is a reason that less than 10% of Wikipedia editors are women. Things don’t look much better from the tech infrastructure side either – as HASTAC director Cathy Davidson notes, the number of women entering the field of computer science has declined since 1993.

Enter into this space Arielle Schlesinger’s “Feminism and Programming” blog on HASTAC. Schlesinger’s questions are important – how do we abstract in non-normative ways? What would it mean to encode our knowledge and to shape our interfaces in ways that would recognize differences through non-binary paradigms? Is it possible to imagine a feminist programming language? What is at stake in Schlesinger’s research are life opportunities – the ability to inhabit digital and analog spaces without having to sacrifice some fundamental part of your life or your being. Sound hyperbolic? It’s not. Our tools mediate every part of our lives and our ways of being. The logic of our (computing) systems can inhibit thinking through questions of race, class, and gender, as Tara McPherson suggests, and these compartmentalized habits of thought inform our everyday lives.

The question that Schlesinger’s research asks then, is how can our technologies – here programming languages – be less violent, do less violence? It is a practical and ethical question of great importance. I’m delighted that Schlesinger is raising it in her work and in a public space like HASTAC. I’m also heartened by the wonderful responses – many by computer scientists/programmers – in that forum. There is an opportunity for some powerful engagement and thinking to occur.

At the same time, however, Schlesinger has now become a target – while HASTAC conversations have been productive, those on Reddit and 4chan have not been. Schlesinger has become a target on Twitter as well. As is so typical these days, a parody of the project, under the name “Feminist Software Foundation” attempts to undermine a genuine conversation. Consequently, Schlesinger’s efforts to bring her research into a public discussion teach us again about the gendered risks entailed in public intellectualism and open inquiry. For some – it isn’t entirely safe to even ask a question

Want to follow the conversation? #femtech. Working bibliography on this topic.

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