Hacking Feminism

women editing on laptops

Talking tech at a Los Angeles feminist hack-a-thon co-sponsored by the Fembot Collective. Photo by Margaret Rhee.

Last week, thousands of feminists around the world engaged in one job: editing Wikipedia. I joined a group of diligent Wiki editors hunched over laptops in the Los Angeles offices of Ms. magazine, all of us determined to add and improve entries about women on the evolving encyclopedia to help right the site’s gender disparity

Though Wikipedia aims to democratize information, less than 13 percent of people who edit Wikipedia are women and the encyclopedia underrepresents female artists. That reflects the gender gap in the tech industry: only 17% of Google’s employee force are women, for example.  

On the weekend of International Women’s Day, groups met up at 80 different sites around North America and Europe to chip away at Wikipedia’s lack of female editors and underrepresentation of women artists.  Over the course of Saturday afternoon, our cadre of 26 editors created new entries on 1950s activist group Sojourners for Truth and Justice, 91-year-old American inventor Barbara Beskind, and added information to entries on artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Vietnam-based artist Tiffany Chung, and civil rights icon Rosa Lee Ingram

The day after the international Edit-a-Thon, tech-minded Los Angeles feminists also met up at a Hack-A-Thon that was also co-sponsored by Ms. and the Fembot Collective.  

“I study history and I see that issues that occurred 50 years ago are still an issue,” said 17-year-old Darcy Elizabeth Stone, who came to the Hack-a-Thon event with her aunt. “We need to create modern ways to fight ancient issues that need to get fixed.”  Over the past four years, the annual Wikipedia Feminism & Art edit-a-thons and groups like the Fembot Collective have aimed to work on those modern solutions. 

Based out of the University of Oregon’s Center for the Study of Women and Society, the Fembot Collective is a nonprofit that consists of just over 300 scholars, students, librarians, coders, artists, and makers in the US, Canada, and Europe interested in studying and making new media and technology that deals with gender. The collective takes its name from the blonde and leggy Fembot popularized in the Austin Powers films, a spoof of sexploitation-film robots who are equipped with guns that protrude from the tips of their breasts. Members of the Fembot Collective work on a variety of different feminist-minded projects.

fembot logo books aren't dead logo

The Fembot Collective’s logo and the illustration for their podcast, Books Aren’t Dead. 

At the Hack-a-thon at the University of Southern California, Fembot members worked on revamping a digital map of sexual assaults on campus. Last year, Fembot members made a Twitter bot that found tweets containing certain sexist and racist hashtags and auto-replied to them with the line, “That tweet was hurtful to people I care about. You should try to use different language.” The Fembot Twitter bot lasted for only a few minutes before it was reported as spamming, but its creation speaks to how tech can be used to rewire denigrating sexist language through coding, making, and collaborating. It also shows us what is possible when feminists create technology: a world where denigrating language is checked, but in a way that is respectful and does not reify violent responses.  

Officially founded in 2011, the Fembot Collective emerged from a series of conversations in 2008 among feminists in Oregon. As University of Oregon journalism professor and Fembot Collective co-founder Carol Stabile explains, a group of tech-minded feminists started talking about their dissatisfaction with some aspects of academia and how digital platforms “can led to collaboration and access on a scale we never imagined.” Because of the vital work of people like Stabile, co-founder and professor Radhika Gajjala, librarian Karen Estlund, and Bryce Peake the Fembot Collective has grown into an influential entity in academia that’s helping transform how we think about feminist scholarship. The Fembot Collective publishes Books Aren’t Dead, a weekly podcast featuring feminist authors of science, new media, and technology, and twice-annual open access online journal Ada, which centers each issue around themes like “feminist game studies.”  They also run Fembot Labs, a virtual and sometimes site-specific space where experimentation with technology and media is encouraged. Fembot focuses on access to tech and on racial justice, which has led to scholarly articles published on pressing issues such as #BlackLivesMatter and online harassment of women of color. 

The current Fembot media and technology journal Ada, “Hacking the Black/White Binary.” Read artist Ameryah Henderson’s short essay about the cover. 

“I like Fembot because it’s action-driven to make the Internet a safer place,” says all-star Wikipedia editor and Fembot Collective member Sarah Stierch. “It’s also an opportunity for someone like me, with no interest in a Ph.D. to have a chance with a publication like Ada, and work with the most brilliant minds in feminist theory.” 

I first heard about Fembot in 2009, when I met Carol Stabile at HASTAC V, a technology, art, and education conference at the University of Michigan. At the time, I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and I was presenting with my collaborators Allyse Gray and Isela Gonzalez on From the Center, our digital storytelling project for women in the San Francisco Jail. Academic conferences are typically not necessarily friendly places, but Stabile kindly came up to us, talked to us about the presentation, and provided vital encouragement. She continued to be a formative mentor for me and to the feminist project as a whole. USC Professor and Fembot Books Aren’t Dead editor Hye-jin Lee also recalls meeting Stabile as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, “Feminist scholars know theory, but can brush off people and be hostile, but Carol was welcoming. She pays attention to you regardless of who you are.”  That spirit of mentorship and collaborative work is what makes Fembot powerful as a group. Fembot applies the ideas of grassroots organizing to the often-cold worlds of academia and tech.

While the tech industry is dipping its toes into discussions of diversity, Fembot is pushing the conversations about how race, feminism, and technology intersect. For example, the most recent issue of Ada is all about “Hacking the Black/White Binary”—I co-edited the issue along with Brittney Cooper in response to recent cases of police brutality.  Another example is the Fembot Collective project Schools of Shame, which emerged from a conversation between Stabile and Hye-jin Lee in 2014. Schools of Shame is a map that shows the discrepancy between reported sexual assaults on college campuses and estimates of actual sexual assaults. It’s meant to be a resource for prospective students in deciding what college to attend and to keep campuses accountable.

Fembot teaches us that when you build a robot, the most important thing is not necessarily the gears, sensors, microcontrollers, and wires, but the way the parts of the machine all work together. When I asked Stabile about Fembot’s strength as a collective, she said, “We knew feminist politics would be the glue.”

Related Listening: Our “Wired” podcast focuses on feminism and technology.  

Margaret Rhee is a feminist poet, new media artist, and scholar. She holds a Ph.D. in ethnic studies and new media studies from the University of California Berkeley. She is currently the Institute of American Cultures Visiting Researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

by Margaret Rhee
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