sexism or patriarchy?

I’m terrified about the galvanization of power that could result this November.  If there’s one good thing about how candidates have been framed in this election, it’s that the response has become very clear and articulate.  The analysis that Rebecca Hyman applies to the election and the cultural back-and-forth about Palin, Clinton, and gender that has come with it in her article Sarah Palin and the Wrong Way to Battle Sexism is really good and it articulates why the calls and campaigns for tolerance in a community like Bloomington seem so weak-sauce.

There’s a big difference between identifying sexist acts and undermining patriarchy, the system of power and privilege that reinforces and grounds particular stories about how men and women should behave, how sex and gender should be expressed, about who is rational and who is emotional, who’s a “fighter” and who’s a “babe.” These narratives are refracted and reinforced by the media and by people speaking from podiums, most certainly, but they aren’t the work of a few bad eggs.

To equate feminism with the fight against “sexism” is to imply that the work of feminism is that of changing or eliminating those individuals who perpetrate these sexist acts. If we could just stop the Chris Matthewses and the Norman Mailers, the Maureen Dowds and the Phyllis Schlaflys, the story goes; if we could just get people to stop watching FOX News, or write another letter to MSNBC, then somehow, someday, women will be treated with respect. And it’s the idea that feminists focus on individuals, rather than systems of power, that grounds the conservative caricature of feminists as a cardigan-flapping bunch of prudes, censoring a couple of good fellows who were just making a joke.

If all it took to free women, or African-Americans, or immigrants, or the poor, from the stories that make them seem “different,” menacing, irrational and emotional was “recognition,” then feminists should be spending their money dropping educational pamphlets from the skies. But these ideas about masculinity and femininity, sexuality and race — ideas that make the joke of the New Yorker cover instantly comprehensible, no matter what you think of the joke — are entrenched and crucial to the ways we in America have made the world make sense.

craft, code, gender, and computing

Embroidery is constructed (mostly by women) in hundreds of tiny stitches which are visible on the front of the fabric. The system of the stitches is revealed on the back of the material. Some embrioderers seal the back of the fabric, preventing others from seeing the underlying structure of the pattern. Others leave the back open for those who want to take a peek. A few integrate the backend process into the front of the fabric. The patterns are shared amongst friends in knitting and embroidery ‘ciricles’.

Software is constructed (mostly by men) in hundreds of tiny pieces of code, which form the hidden structure of the programme or interface. Open Source software allows you to look at the back of the fabric, and understand the structure of your software, modify it and distribute it. The code is shared amongst friends through online networks. However the stitches or code only make sense to those who are familiar with the language or patterns.

-Else Carpenter

I’ve been reading a book about gender and computing that looks to point to gender as a feature of the digital divide.  What is more interesting is that the authors, psychologists, seem to look at how computers are presented in an educational setting as a contributing factor to why boys and girls have different levels of comfort with computers and end up using them differently.

So, it was interesting to come across the blog post Open Source Embroidery: an interview with Ele Carpenter today because it seems to talk about the idea of technology at a very meta-level, drawing parallels between disciplines (craft and engineering) and media (embroidery and code).  I started knitting, and I guess part of the interest was that it was this gender-transgressive activity, but I also quickly saw the parallels to computer programming.  You can build things from scratch or from patterns (even the language is paralleled with pattern in software engineering referring to an algorithm for a reusable approach to a commonly repeated task in code) or a combination of the two.  Similarly, coming from an interest in FLOSS and the approaches that underly that kind of software and computing environments, I saw parallels in knitting in the multiple approaches that can be taken to reach a similar result.  Though there are many more parallels that can be drawn, the final one that was apparent to me was the vast amount of online documentation that I found for knitting and how it ranged from educational howto sites, to sparser patterns designed for an audience of similarly advanced skill level, to sites showing off the knitter’s prowess.

For better and worse, I think that I approach knitting in a very gendered way as I have a bag full of half-finished knitting projects in my closet.  This reminds me of the trainer who taught the secure programming class that I took earlier this week talking about his tendency to stop projects half-way through and how that had lead him to pursue consulting rather than development.  He ended this anecdote by saying, “for the ladies in the audience, I’m sure that you know what I’m talking about”, referring to the idea that their husbands also frequently started projects that they wouldn’t finish (which assumed that the women in the class were both straight and married which is a a whole ‘nother deal).

Ultimately,  I think that this discussion of software and craft is important because they show how similar skills, analysis, and culture has been constructed across a pretty vast gender divide.  To me, this is evidence that technical (or craft) ability is not tied to a particular gender and that the overall absence of women from computing (and in particular FLOSS) or men from crafting has less to do with the way their brains work and more to do with social construction.

gender and software

I was browsing the web looking for information about social justice movements and technology and I found a blog post talking about the involvement of women in free/libre/opensource software projects.  The conversation centers around the question of whether the disparity between male and female participation in FLOSS projects is because of fundamental differences in preferences based on gender; like women preferring more social interactions which some perceive as rare within the FLOSS-development world or women preferring not to allocate their leisure time towards software development; or  larger cultural factors (which seem to parallel some things I’ve read elsewhere about gender, power, and sexism).   The discussion is nuanced and civil and pretty interesting:

The reliance on long hours of intensive computing in writing successful code means that men, who in general assume that time outside of waged labour is ‘theirs’, are freer to participate than women, who normally still assume a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities. Female F/LOSS participants, however, seem to be able to allocate a disproportionate larger share of their leisure time for their F/LOSS activities. This gives an indication that women who are not able to spend as much time on voluntary activities have difficulties to integrate into the community.

Interestingly, this point seems to suggest that it is the domestic responsibilities, whether perceived or real, that make women feel they don’t have enough free time to contribute effectively to open source projects. I figured that women simply wanted to take on activities outside of technology moreso than men, and maybe this gives a possible reason why. If women have been responsible for certain aspects of home life for many centuries, then it is not hard to believe that they would feel even today that they did not ‘own’ their free time in the same way as men, even if in modern times these responsibilities don’t always exist.

Through the blog post, I found out about Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support project whose report on gender and FLOSS provided a lot of the context for the blog’s discussion.  I also found out about the GNOME project’s Women’s Summer Outreach Program.  Which got funding from Google to provide 3 additional allocations for Summer of Code GNOME projects for developers who were women.  I liked this from the program’s web page:

Isn’t this unfair to men? What about people who were rejected from Google’s Summer of Code?

The recent FLOSSPOLS report describes many opportunities that women miss out on when getting involved with computing and free software, ranging from being introduced to computers at a later age, being less encouraged to specialise in computing, having few female role models, having less free time to spend programming than men do, and being on the receiving end of sexism when they do try to get involved. We think it’s this imbalance that’s unfair, and we’re trying to help fix it.

As for whether this is unfair to Summer of Code applicants, we don’t think so – this is GNOME’s money to use how it sees fit, and we want to use it to correct a disturbing lack of participation from women in the GNOME development community. We’re doing this for outreach reasons as well as for technical ones, and so just adding another three projects to the twenty Summer of Code projects being sponsored wouldn’t achieve our stated goals. If you’d like to talk about this with us, feel free to get in touch.

Link to Women in Open Source II blog post from The Female Perspectiveon Computer Science blog.

notes on The Macho Paradox


When men were targeted for prevention efforts, in educational or community settings, they were often sseen as potential perpetrators. The message to them: you need to recognize the triggers for your own bad behaviors so you can interrupt the process before you have the urge to strike your girlfriend/wife. Or, you need to develop better interpersonal communication skills, like good listening, so you do not force yourself on women sexually. Or, if you occasionally or regularly drink alcohol and then behave in a manner you cannot defend when sober, you need to get immediate help with your drinking problem.

The first problem with this approach is that it treats gender violenec as an individual issue that is caused by man’s personality flaws. It presumes that gender violence is a type of dysfunctional behavior that can be cured with therapy or punished by jail time, rather than a specific manifestation of a deeply rooted system of male dominance. As we have seen, people constantly misrepresent gender violence as the behavior of a few bad apples.

p. 118

Men of color are more likely than white men to be held accountable for their crimes, especially if their victims are whire. For example, in the early decades of the twentieth century, thousands of African American men were lynched by vigilante mobs of white men, predominantly in the South, based on trumped up charges that they had raped white women. This racist legacy cannot be overlooked or wished away. But the solution to this disparity is not to ease the pressure on perpetrators; it is to seek fair treatment in the application of justice. If fewer men who assault women got away with it-including wealthy white men-the anticipation of negative consequences would reinforce the need to prevent it from happening in the first place.

p. 121:

Journalist Nathan McCall explains in his essay collection What’s Going On that he and some of his African American male cohorts in the 1960s and 1970s learned a lot about “manhood” from watching gangster films which featured ruthless Italian men who regularly assaulted each other and treated women as little more than property.  Gangsta rap in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century borrowed a lot from these cinematic portrayals.  Ironically, many young suburban white men today are powerfully influenced by black urban gangsta rappers, who in turn learned about how “real men” are supposed to act from white actors in movies that were written and directed by white men.

Aprite un po’ quegli occhi

Chiara took Florence and Oona to the opera last night and I went along.  We saw The Marriage of Figaro, a comedy with the score by Mozart and the libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.  It was first preformed in 1786 and it’s sad that media representations of gender have changed very little since then.  From a scene in the last act of the opera where Figaro suspects his new wife of meeting another man for an illicit nightime rendevous:

Just open your eyes,
You rash and foolish men,
And look at these women;
See them as they are,
These goddesses, so called
By the intoxicated senses,
To whom feeble reason
Offers tribute.
They are witches who cast spells
For our torment,
Sirens who sing
For our confusion,
Night owls who fascinate
To pluck us,
Comets who dazzle
To deprive us of light.
They are thorned roses,
Alluring vixens,
Smiling she-bears,
Malign doves,
Masters of deceit,
Friends of distress
Who cheat and lie,
Who feel no love
And have no pity.
The rest I need not say,
For eveyone knows it already.

You can also listen to an mp3 of the aria.

media check for the week of 2007-08-19

I decided to go to the IU library to check out the book The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? (ISBN-13: 978-1-56898-678-4) and found a wealth of other interesting books in the HN80.N5 section on the 7th floor. I also checked out There Goes The Neighborhood (ISBN-10: 0-394-57936-4), a book about the politics of race and class in Chicago neighborhoods, and passed on Praciticing Community (ISBN-10: 0-292-73118-3), a book about similar dynamics, but in Cincinatti, though it also looked good.

I heard an interesting recording of a Michael Parenti talk on Alternative Radio on WFHB on Monday, 2007-08-20 that was kind of all over the place, but mostly about how identity politics are exploited to divide people who are marginalized by race, gender, or sexual orientation. He also suggested that the division of power in this country often finds people with very different ethnic, gender, sexual, or other cultural identities on the same side of that power divide.

I read this article by Dave Zirin, author of What’s My Name Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the U.S., Welcome to the Terrordome, and other books about sports and politics. Zirin writes about the difficulties in sending copies of his books to a Texas death row inmate because

“It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”

The offending content, according to the TXDOC, included quotations such as this from baseball great Jackie Robinson:

“I felt tortured and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults. But it was really getting to me. … For one wild and rage-crazed moment I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s “noble experiment.” … To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.’ I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of [expletive] and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”

I use for managing my bookmarks. Often, I want to access my bookmarks through my browser instead of having to visit the site. The Bookmarks Firefox add-on lets me do just that.

Roy F. Baumeister’s talk, Is There Anything Good About Men? is really interesting. It talks about the different ways that culture have used men and women to achieve its ends. It also talks about how a fundamental difference between men and women is that men favor wider, shallower relationships and women prefer closer, more intimate relationships and how this has driven the different cultural realms that are inhabited disproportionally by men and women. At the base of this, claims Baumeister, is the evolutionary reality that far more women reproduce than men. The wider, shallower, relationships or more risk-taking activities favored by men, in general, facilitates the differentiation that will allow some men to reproduce.

On a somewhat related note, this is a program that my friend is working with. The program is trying to organize
Men of Strength (MOST) Clubs in DC and other communities. A friend who works with the Middleway House, a Bloomington shelter for women and children affected by rape and family violence says that young men who stay in the shelter really lack a community of other males to critically examine their ideas of identity and masculinity and to model ideas of gender or relationships that differ from the violence that they’ve experienced. These clubs seem like a rare example of something that might begin to provide this support/education. The clubs are described as:

Men of Strength (MOST) Club has provided young men in Washington, DC and California high schools and colleges with a safe and supportive haven to connect with male peers while exploring masculinity and male strength.

Exposing young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood, the MOST Club challenges members to define their own definition of masculinity and to translate their learning into community leadership, progressive action, and social change.


  • Provide young men with a safe, supportive space in which to connect with male peers through exploring notions of masculinity and male strength.
  • Promote an understanding of ways that traditional masculinity contributes to sexual assault and other forms of men’s violence, perpetuates gender inequity, and compromises the health of men and women.
  • Expose young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood.
  • Build young men’s capacity to become peer leaders and allies with women in promoting gender equality and preventing men’s violence.

I have Debian Etch with KDE installed as my workstation at work, and I had a hard time figuring out how to make Iceweasel (Debian’s all-free software version of Firefox) the default browser instead of Konqueror.  Turns out it was as easy as

$ update-alternatives –config x-www-browser