Where are the women in the history of open source?

by Sumana Harihareswara on May 21, 2015

Hi – Sumana Harihareswara here. You might remember me from [my April guest post about free/open source software, licensing, and codes of conduct in open
communities](https://crookedtimber.org/2015/04/10/codes-of-conduct-and-the-trade-offs-of-copyleft/). In that piece I took a stab at thinking about some useful vocabulary and distinctions that help us understand the political values and intuitions common to those communities. Today I’m considering where we got frameworks that we free software/open source folks often take for granted, and specifically what might have been erased from our intellectual heritage due to sexism.

As a soundtrack to this piece, consider [“Erase Me” by Ben Folds Five](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzfXD5igRDM) (off *The Sound of the Life of the Mind*) and [“Whatever You Want” by programmer Vienna Teng](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4wzzLkwAog)(off *Dreaming Through the Noise*; I recently heard tell that “Whatever You Want” is inspired by the film *Office Space*, which is amazing.)

**What’s missing?**

If you ask some people about the history of free software, you hear about Richard Stallman creating the [GNU Public License](https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html) and formulating the Four Freedoms. And if you ask some people, you hear about that, and about how it was actually a return to normalcy, because after all we’d been sharing source code freely in academia and industry and hobby groups, until it was possible to sell binary-only software to the masses, and until Bill Gates’s Open Letter to Hobbyists, and so Stallman was restoring the proper state of things.

Some people will tell you a bit about Stallman, and then discuss how Eric S. Raymond wrote “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and articulated more pragmatic language for open source folks to use, and how permissive licenses helped popularize open source.

And some people might say, well, it wasn’t so much Raymond as it was the rise of personal internet access in the First World in the 1990s, so that instead of schlepping disks around, we could collaborate online on projects like Linux.

But in any case — where the fuck are the women?

I recently started looking back at the narrative I’ve been told about the origins of free and open source software, the male-centric narrative about Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond that I’ve repeated a zillion times as a teacher. I’ve corrected my understanding of my general software engineering heritage to correct for biases, so I’ve reclaimed a
heritage that has tons of gender diversity. But what about my open source history? Approximately every field in history has suppressed or hidden contributions by women, so I figure it’s safe to assume that open source philosophy is similar, and proceed on that basis. Whom am I missing?

At the very least, I’m missing [Christine Peterson](http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Christine_Peterson), who invented the phrase “open source.” I just learned that this year. And I’m probably missing [early crossovers with
fandom](http://fanlore.org/wiki/Syllabi), and feminist philosophers who had very different articulations, and the women programming in government, industry, the academy, and hobbyist groups who freely shared their work. At some point, for instance, I’m going to take a deep breath and dive into Donna Haraway’s *Cyborg Manifesto*. But really I don’t know. I have some ideas about where to start looking, but I don’t know their names and I don’t know what alternate visions they suggested. I’ve started talking about this with other geek feminists and [(as is our wont) we started a wiki page to collate what we’ve
found](http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/History_of_open_source); feel free to pitch in.

**Wild-ass speculation**

I wonder: what would my communities look like, if we heard about their contributions as often as we heard about the GPL and “The Cathedral And The Bazaar”?

Men gave me the expectations I started with in 1998, of how open source citizens should act in open source communities, about what the rules are, and about the sets of expectations we have about how we talk and work with each other. And I’m wondering what a genuinely different approach would look like. I am of course not the first person to consider this — for instance, in 2010, I heard about the idea of queering FLOSS via [Niels Sascha Reedijk’s perspective on HaikuOS](https://www.haiku-os.org/blog/nielx/2010-04-11_haiku_has_no_future) — but my post about [inessential weirdnesses in open source](http://www.harihareswara.net/sumana/2014/08/10/1) caused and continues to cause traffic and discussion, and has gotten me and other people asking ourselves what the essential weirdnesses are.

What would it look like if we structured a tech project, from the start, to privilege [hospitality over liberty](https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Hospitality,_Jerks,_and_What_I_Learned)?
What if — like the women practicing moral reasoning in Carol Gilligan’s *In A Different Voice* — we articulated our vision not as four freedoms, four rights, but as four relationships, four responsibilities? What if we decided that advancing the state of the art [was absolutely not the
point](http://www.annleckie.com/2013/10/21/real-heart-real-artificial-heart/), because we [preferred boring and stable](https://blog.pinboard.in/2010/01/technical_underpinnings/)
things? What if we genuinely valued interfaces, documentations, customer support, testing, and translations [over](http://opensourcebridge.org/wiki/2013/Morning_Keynote:_James_Vasile) writing new tools or features, because maintaining interdependence got more prestige than self-indulgent independence? Well, we have a few examples of those (as I discuss in [my recent *Passionate Voices* interview](http://passionatevoices.org/2015/05/15/episode-1-sumana-harihareswara/)),
but we could start thinking about going even further than [Growstuff](http://growstuff.org) went, further than [Dreamwidth](http://www.dreamwidth.org/) could go (given its pre-existing code base which it forked from LiveJournal). I start
considering [Archive of Our Own’s missteps](http://skud.dreamwidth.org/13354.html) and the kernels of “interesting” inside them.

This gets very disorienting for me because I’m so used to the status quo, and the way our values and workflows feed into each other. But I’m casting about and experimenting with tossing our deeper assumptions out the window, going beyond the liberty-hospitality spectrum into something new and strange, prioritizing a specific vision of community **above the product**. What if a community were super chill and celebratory about people’s forks, rather than always [prodding people to stop hoarding](http://opensourcebridge.org/sessions/320)? What if they [preferentially recruited the
unskilled](http://blog.spang.cc/posts/Why_ask_for_an_unskilled__44___not-yet-involved_comaintainer__63__/)? What if they so thoroughly optimized for explicitly structured mentorship that they were fine with disappointing experts who just wanted to fix a typo? What if they did all their work in-person? What if they left the world of OSI-approved licenses and chose a “don’t be evil” license or added a “you have to send us a thank-you note” clause?

Here ends part one of a two-part post; the second part will discuss models we could borrow from the world of fan fiction and fanvids, and will go up tomorrow on the Geek Feminism blog. I’ll post a comment here with a link once it’s up.



Lynne 05.21.15 at 9:25 pm

Sumana, I am too ignorant of this topic to have anything to contribute, but I’ll be reading the comments with interest, and I just love this: “…or added a “you have to send us a thank-you note” clause?”


merian 05.21.15 at 10:16 pm

Well, if you’re going beyond the high priests and ideologists of the movement to those who have created the technologies that structure our FLOSS ecosystem, take a look at the Usenix lifetime achievement awards: you’re at least missing Radia Perlman (whose writing in her technical books is incidentally among the clearest and most enjoyable I’ve ever studied) and Deborah Scherrer of the Software Tools Project. (Now I hope I haven’t overlooked anyone when I checked if there were other women.)


Anon. 05.21.15 at 10:33 pm

The Straussian reading of this post is better than the exoteric one.


Matt 05.21.15 at 11:08 pm

I would add Jude Milhon, who coined the term “cypherpunks,” and Carrie Anne Philbin of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Are there open source projects that have done better at attracting contributors who don’t share the common FLOSS inessential weirdnesses? If so I’d like to see what they are doing.


Plarry 05.22.15 at 4:25 am

I suggest Lynne Jolitz and Laura Creighton, who were there at the beginnings.


Mike Linksvayer 05.22.15 at 4:45 am

Uncovering “what might have been erased from our intellectual heritage due to sexism” is a great project. There’s also “what our intellectual heritage might have been if not for sexism.” Concerning FLOSS, I wonder if it might have valued collective action more and been better at it. The existing narrative is largely about individual heroic developers choosing to save the users, and berating users who don’t accept the salvation offered. Developers choosing the right license and then very rarely and heroically enforcing said (copyleft, about which you wrote last time) license is part of that narrative. If it were really in service to users, wouldn’t the height of FLOSS politics concern organizing users, not saving them? Note by far the most successful FLOSS project in terms of directly gaining end user adoption and in building a diverse, worldwide community is Mozilla, led by a woman for its entire history and pre-history. Maybe Elinor Ostrom would’ve been appreciated early in FLOSS history and been seen as laying the intellectual framework.


Belle Waring 05.22.15 at 1:52 pm

Anon.: [me making “I’m looking at you” face by pointing to my eyes and then yours.]


Plume 05.22.15 at 2:08 pm

In Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators, which I haven’t finished yet, he details the major, major role of women in the development of the computer, especially on the programming side. And he starts things off with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, and her key role, especially in the 1830s.

Major names in the development of programming: Grace Hopper, Betty Snyder, Jean Jennings and the women of ENIAC, to name just a few.

Alan Turing, of course, was surrounded by women at Bletchley who were essential in his quest to break the Enigma code.

Side note: Discovered Vienna Teng some time ago and love her music. She has a beautiful voice, and her songs are intelligent, graceful, soaring.


Plume 05.22.15 at 2:19 pm

Quick (all too generalized) question, Sumana:

Do you think the Internet would have developed differently if women had had more power in decision-making?

To me, it’s a tragedy that what once appeared to have the potential for democratic, egalitarian revolution, especially via open source, has since devolved into yet another gold rush for capitalists. Right-libertarian billionaires pretty much rule the roost, and for all of their talk of innovation, “freedom,” etc. etc. . . . it seems the biggest goal is just digitizing life so it can be more easily monetized.

In a way, it’s actually quite (perversely) brilliant, as an example of supreme brainwashing. Inch by inch, deluding the public into thinking it’s getting all kinds of access to all kinds of “free stuff,” while in reality, a far greater degree of our lives has been price-tagged . . . and there are far fewer spaces now where capitalism doesn’t see us, to mix Rilke with Norman Mailer for a second.

In short, do you think things might have shaken out differently if Silicon Valley and its peers weren’t dominated by white males, with typically propertarian ethos?


Sumana Harihareswara 05.22.15 at 2:38 pm

Lynne: glad you like it! A couple people reminded me, after I published this, of the phenomenon of postcardware, including the game ADOM.

merian: Thanks, and I’m glad to recover bits of my heritage as a technologist, but I’m more interested (in this particular moment) in the philosophers.

Plume (#8): ditto.

Matt: thank you! Will have to look into them. And you should absolutely look at Growstuff, Dreamwidth, and Archive of Our Own, among others. Dreamwidth, for instance, started with two maintainers. They specifically decided to make the hard decision to slow down on feature development, early on, and instead pay off technical debt and teach newcomers. Now they are a thriving, multimaintainer project, and I think they avoid a lot of the inessential weirdnesses. http://synecdochic.dreamwidth.org/633008.html is perhaps one of my favorite pieces on how Dreamwidth did what it did.

In my opinion, getting people — including people who don’t share the same quirks as most of the rest of FLOSS — into the funnel as first-time open source contributors is a reasonably well-solved problem (that is to say, we know what to do and maintainers have a choice as to whether they’ll invest the time in doing it). Participating in GSoC/Outreachy, showing up at OpenHatch events, making sure the bugs in the bug tracker are well-specified, personally inviting people who have reported bugs to help you solve them, etc.

I have to write a longer piece on this sometime when I’m not at a convention! (I’m at WisCon at the moment.)

Plarry: Thank you!

Mike: Glad you like it. I’m really interested in reading more Ostrom — I think you’re right, that we ought to have been talking more about her for at least the last decade than we have been in FLOSS-world — and that a service or organizing orientation towards users might have emerged much more fully.


Sumana Harihareswara 05.22.15 at 2:47 pm

I’ve now posted part 2 of this piece, “What if free and open source software were more like fandom?” and it’s up at the Geek Feminism blog.


Z 05.22.15 at 3:12 pm

This is a very thought-provoking piece, with so many interesting topics raised.

Regarding the inessential weirdness and some aspects of the programming community, I find myself wondering to what extent this reflects the gender imbalance (you seem to believe it might be a lot) and to what extent it reflects the fantastic magnifying power of online communities: because online communities building tools (newsletter, forum, discussion groups, blogs…) multiply thousandfold the ability to interact with people sharing your interests, they multiply and diversify enormously the actual interests of people (and allow a variety of legitimized social capital in the Bourdieu sense impossible to imagine without them). This process will also simultaneously magnify the weirdness of the community thereby built (with the obligatory nod to https://xkcd.com/1095/).

My own experience with this phenomenon is mostly having been part of a then extremely active online community of people discussing (or more accurately obsessing other) the Harry Potter series (there, I said it). In terms of sociological composition, top users were overwhelmingly women, yet all the usual inessential weirdness features were very present (convoluted acronyms, intricate personal references, subtle hierarchical patterns, extremely steep learning curve…). On the other hand, the level of aggression was indeed very low, incommensurably milder than here on CT for instance, and it seems safe to attribute this mainly to the gender of the participants.


Cian 05.22.15 at 3:31 pm

I think most Open Source communities struggle with both users and non-technical contributors. I wish I knew the solution, as it’s hampering a number of projects. Apple’s stuff is good precisely because developers don’t decide features, interaction and UX. Microsoft’s stuff sucks because they do. Sadly most open source projects follow Microsoft’s lead, rather than Apple’s.


Z 05.22.15 at 3:33 pm

Regarding your second post, what do you think about the stackexchange galaxy of websites? Rather impressive communities dedicated to helping each other (albeit in very specific ways) have been built in this way these last 5 or 6 years and I have the feeling they sometimes manage to draw the best of both the world of fandom and that of technical professionals (sometimes of course, they managed to attract the worst of both world as well).


The Raven 05.22.15 at 4:26 pm

I think your question answers itself: “What would it look like if we structured a tech project, from the start, to privilege hospitality over liberty?” The mostly-male leaders of the movement alienated women with their manners, attitudes, and in some cases formally stated philosophies from the very beginning. Right-libertarian ideals and atomistic anarchism are not popular with women. On top of which, most women regard working for free as a pretty bad idea.

There’s more to say about this, but I have to go work on health care paperwork, bah! Maybe more later.


Luis 05.22.15 at 5:02 pm

“I wonder if it might have valued collective action more and been better at it.” This, 1000x this. The narrative of the heroic programmer would likely have been much less influential.

(I don’t think it would have gone so far as to value Ostrom; even among female programmers my experience is that knowledge of outside non-engineering theoretical influences is low.)


AcademicLurker 05.22.15 at 5:10 pm

Z@14: The relative politeness of most of the interactions on stackexchange are a continual source of amazement to me given that a) it’s the internet and b) civility isn’t a quality that the hacker community is famous for. I’m curious how the organization of stackexchange manages to encourage helpful, rather than hectoring, responses to questions (especially questions from beginners).


Salem 05.22.15 at 5:17 pm

Maybe this post rubbed me the wrong way, but my response to the repeated “What ifs” is “I don’t know, why don’t you try it?” Some of those ideas sound like good ones, some sound like bad ones, and all will have trade-offs, but the only way to test and make sense of these ideas is in their concrete and specific application. Or, to put it another way: I really liked your previous post because of the reflections about trade-offs, and how different FLOSS groups are going to have different norms, because they have different goals and purposes. There is no “we” here.

My own view is that FLOSS is a bit like how Ibn Khaldun describes the Desert; a leader can only create standards that are mutually acceptable to disputants, because otherwise people will just fork. So those standards are going to be specific to the participants. But at the same time, those standards aren’t arbitrary, because if those standards can’t, say, protect the group from free-riders, then the project will fail anyway. And there’s nothing to say that there is necessarily any compatible standard that can bring or hold a given group together. People may just be too far apart. So whatever our ideas may sound like, unless you can bring people with you, in practice not just in platitudes, they don’t really matter. And there’s nothing to say the “nice” ideas will win out in this competition. Maybe nasty-sounding, exclusionary-sounding ideas do a better job in binding the ingroup together, even if it comes at the expense of the outgroup. Asabiyyah is a double edged sword, after all.

For my own part, I doubt whether a FLOSS community that prizes a specific vision of a community, rather than a product, can hang together in the long term. It seems to resemble nothing so much as those atheist pseudo-religions which like the idea of a cohesive community meeting in a big hall and saying pleasant things, but don’t like the God business. They don’t seem to last, and no wonder, because what is such a group for? Successful communities seem to come together incidentally, as part of a larger shared purpose (whether that be religion, or politics, or an open-source DNS client), and can’t just be willed into being ab initio. But that said, the joy of FLOSS is that you don’t need my permission or approval, and I wish you luck.


Emile 05.22.15 at 10:55 pm

@Salem I think your response is interesting. The following jumped out at me:

…a leader can only create standards that are mutually acceptable to disputants, because otherwise people will just fork. So those standards are going to be specific to the participants.

My initial reaction is that idealism in one dimension (depending on your proclivities, either the anarcho-communitarian ethos of GNU/copyleft or the anarcho-libertarian bent of the ESR/OSS side) does not necessarily bear much relation to idealism in other dimensions (gender and class issues, specifically.) And given that people mostly bring to the table their cultural defaults for everything that isn’t what they are directly focused on, the F/OSS world has issues on those other “secondary” axes.

But I don’t think that can be the whole story. We wouldn’t be so much *worse* than non F/OSS tech communities on these issues if it was just that. I agree that a good approach is to try out the most promising alternative community organizing principles and see where things go.


Paul Davis 05.24.15 at 5:18 pm

TheRaven @15:

The mostly-male leaders of the movement alienated women with their manners, attitudes, and in some cases formally stated philosophies from the very beginning.

Not just women. As someone highly involved in the foss world for the last 25+ years, and also equipped with a Y chromosome, they alienated me too with their manners and attitudes. There’s a lot more that could be said, but ultimately the discussion needs to be at least in part about the “gender spectrum” (in which there are 13 or 17 or 26 genders, not 2).


The Raven 05.24.15 at 6:31 pm

Paul Davis: oh, yeah. I still haven’t listened to Torvald’s Google talk on git. I read harangues all the time as part of my political blogging. I don’t have the patience for them anywhere else. That’s work. It actually made me think less of Linux and more of BSD, that’s how badly Torvald’s manner affected me.

There’s a wide area where the open source community shades into the academic research community, any my guess is that most of the women are on the other side. I expect that unconscious sexism is a problem—sounds like a good thesis research topic—I expect that contributions of women are minimized, the way they are in every field. I also expect that entirely conscious harassment, possibly up to the criminal level, is near-certain, is fairly common. In employment, you can at least find firms that will support women. Is anyone keeping the trolls out in open source work?

Why would any woman participate if she had good alternatives? And she does. She can work for a firm with feminist policies. She can found her own company. She can take an academic or research position and do open source work there. Not only are these better for avoiding harassment, they actually pay. So I think there’s the answer to “Where are the women?” They’re there, they’re just not in the formal movement. Rather like Barbara McClintock, come to think of it.

As you say, fandom has some excellent ideas and systems. Unfortunately, it also has a long history of feuds and harassment. One of the worst ever is going on right now.

“What if we decided that advancing the state of the art was absolutely not the point, because we preferred boring and stable things?”

How many non-academic or non-corporate-lab open source projects have advanced the state of the art? I don’t think it’s very many. GNU/Linux is itself a reimplementation of Unix. The original Unix team went on to produce, instead, Plan 9 (fandom!) In user interface it is simply hopeless: all the research has been from academe or the corporate labs.

Serious research takes time and you’ve got to earn a living while you’re doing it. So partly it comes down, I think, to an economic question: how do we support people who do this? And, conversely, how do we support people who do that later work of documentation, training, testing, and so on? I used to be a very good software tester, but you can’t get me to do that for free; it’s a job, not a calling.

It isn’t only an economic question, though. We need attitude changes, and those come hard.


Carl 05.25.15 at 8:31 am

This post and the comments below make it obvious that liberty is a male political value, while safety and inclusiveness are female ones. That viewpoint is officially rejected, of course. It’s wrong and sexist except when it flatters women, then it’s true and empowering.


Anonymous 05.25.15 at 1:00 pm

First woman never wanted out of the cave, man dragged her out of it. And that’s the story of sexism.

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