Hi. My name is Mel, and I’m female… and feminist.

September 29, 2009 – 12:59 am

Look, if the title of this post makes *you* blink and cringe a bit, what do you imagine it’s doing to *me*?

Originally written in an email about a month ago; it’s taken that long for me to get up the guts to post this. In response to the last sentence of this post’s 4nd paragraph: Today is that day.

Matt and I were looking at the Python code swarm a bit over a year ago.

code_swarm – Python from Michael Ogawa on Vimeo.

He pointed out to me how long the video basically showed “Guido,” or “Guido And Maybe A Couple Other People.” And then the little trickles built up, and then… whoom. A quiet explosion… that ramps into a not-so-quiet one. If it took that long for Python, Matt explained, we shouldn’t be disappointed when the ecosystems of our own projects take time to nurture. It takes time to grow good, deep roots before a plant can go “weeeeeeeee!” and sprout up and have flowers.

It’s something that I think about every time the impulse to say “and people have been trying to do this for how long?” comes up, which it does automatically at a number of things. The one I’m thinking about today is gender. Specifically, gender and technology and engineering. Specifically, gender in open source.

I am young and impatient and would… honestly, I’d like nothing better to take the blue pill and wake up blissfully ignorant of the whole being-a-woman thing once again, because that’s how I’ve been for so long, and it’s just so much easier. But that wouldn’t be right. Being oblivious to something doesn’t make that something not exist. Besides, if I’m to call myself an engineer, I need to know how deep this rabbit hole goes, and how to hack it. If I want to be able to treat gender as a nonissue, it should be because it is a nonissue, not because I ignore the issues that exist. Someday, I’d like to be able to write about this publicly.

I’ve come to realize I’m very hesitant to be anything other than androgynous on the web now; there is a backpack of privilege I unconsciously put on over the years when I chose “Mel” as a nickname (when I was 7 and couldn’t pronounce “Mallory” – I didn’t realize it was a boy’s name) or “mchua” as a login (I was in high school, and all the other geeky kids were doing firstinitial-lastname) or somehow happened to adopt a speaking and writing style that didn’t use gender-specific pronouns to refer to myself. I never really thought much of it before, but as I come to recognize how much freedom it’s given me, I grow more and more reluctant to find out what happens when I take that backpack off online. Offline, I get to walk around as an obviously very young and nonwhite female. You never really know what sort of invisible effect that might be having.

The “holy crap, this matters” turning point for me was my senior year of college, where I went to a conference (really, a small hackathon) in drag as part of a (self-designed) class assignment (MetaOlin’s unit on Diversity), and suddenly saw a different sort of world for the first time. And realized in horror that some of the new freedoms I had as a “boy” in the real world felt a lot like the freedoms that I had online as an unintentionally nongendered entity.

I’m not comfortable being a woman. I’m not used to it. I don’t feel like I’ve grown into that word yet – I’m no longer a girl, but not quite really a woman. And I don’t know what it means. What does it mean? Who can I look to? I’m afraid of what I don’t know, and I’m afraid that I don’t know what would happen and what I would see that I don’t want to see and know.

Now that I realize I happened to fall into having a pseudobackpack, I habitually phrase sentences so as to actively avoid gender-specific pronouns, and my profile pics are similarly androgynous things like me dressed up as Robin (from Batman) for Halloween. I don’t try to pass as male, and I’ll say I’m female if asked, and most of my friends know anyway, but my gender is usually not something that newcomers realize right away. It’s similar to how I came to deal with my hearing when I was a kid; I felt like a hearing person, even if I physically wasn’t, so I simply went about my life and usually passed as one.

That’s why I haven’t written about this stuff as much. I don’t know how much shit it’d give me. And I don’t often think about it, because I have this compulsive transparency habit of publicly writing more or less everything I think. The fact that this post was an email for a month and sat there, making my “agh, it should be public!” twitch go crazy, is indicative. I’d rather spend my time as a hacker than a woman – not that the two are mutually exclusive, but that if they were, I’d pick the first… and just to make sure I’m safe, I pre-empt the issue and I do pick the first.

Not any more.

I’m clumsily and spasmodically (and uncharacteristically) piping up in these conversations mostly because I’m trying to get over my extreme discomfort at doing so. It’s pretty awkward and painful to watch, so thanks to whoever is reading for putting up with my craptacular beginnings of thinking this way, and this narcissistic self-referential apology therein – no, an apology “isn’t needed,” but it makes me feel a little more comfortable about hitting the “Publish” button, so I’ll allow myself the security blanket for this time.

It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision. This will be slow, and quiet, and hard. I will spend far too much time at the beginning – and it will be a long beginning – agonizing over crafting long things with much awkwardness and little content because I don’t have the vocabulary or the thought-forms to consider and express this well yet. And I will backslide and fall down and frequently take the easy way out – but that’s why I’m marking this down now, so at least I’ll have said it at some point in time.

There. I’ve said it. Now I’ve started.

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  1. 16 Responses to “Hi. My name is Mel, and I’m female… and feminist.”

  2. Wow. Every hacker who comes after you owes you for this.

    By Kragen Javier Sitaker on Sep 29, 2009

  3. Thank you so much for posting this, Mel. I found it very moving, and more than a little deja-vu-like. I’ve spent most of my online life as “Skud” and acting as one of the boys, and it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really started to look at that and say “huh.”

    For me, a big part of gaining fluency for these conversations was the wiki. If I wasn’t quite comfortable with a subject, or didn’t feel like I could speak articulately about it, I’d research and read and document it on the wiki until I could at least fake it. And yes, that’s a blatant attempt at wiki-recruitment ;)

    Thanks again for posting this, and for everything you post here. Your blog is awesome and I love reading what you’re up to, even if I don’t often comment.

    By Kirrily Robert on Sep 29, 2009

  4. Right on, Mel.

    By lizzard on Sep 29, 2009

  5. Hey Mel :) Well I learned one new thing today. Mel’s not short for Melanie, which was my assumption. Granted, I think I first ran into you on GeekSpeakr, so no chance of taking you for a guy ;)

    By the way, I’m usually assumed male on IRC (no avatars there), probably due to 1) “there are no girls on the internet” 2) my nick ends in an -o. It certainly changes when I correct people who refer to me as “he.”

    Have you gotten “pix plz” yet?

    By Mackenzie on Sep 29, 2009

  6. My favourite definition of feminist is “someone who believes that women are human beings”.

    While it’s still true that to be accepted a woman has to be better than an average man, fortunately this is not difficult.

    Good luck

    Joe from London

    By Joe on Sep 29, 2009

  7. wow, you also have a gift for writing. great eloquence.

    I’m intrigued by your going to a conference in drag — tell us more about how that unfolded?

    By Brenda on Sep 29, 2009

  8. and also — you’re deaf? (or Deaf?).. i was trying to guess, and used a few bits of common signlanguage when we met in Wellington, but didn’t get recognition from you — so stuck to voice.

    My hearing’s pretty crap, and most of my immediate family use signlanguage — but generally i don’t think my colleagues even notice.

    By Brenda on Sep 29, 2009

  9. oh my goodness, it’s like there’s a convergence of the force… now that you’ve posted this, I have to make a blog post that has stayed in draft form for about 4 days now…

    the whole thing is a big thought, isn’t it?

    By erin on Sep 29, 2009

  10. It’s interesting to read this, because my experience in being gendered has been markedly different than yours. I’ve never had the benefit of “androgyny” in my backpack of privilege. I’m not just Bonnie-shaped but distinctly female-shaped, and the physical parts of my identity have always been based on that. Particularly through my church, I’ve grown up in a society that has distinct gender roles and expectations.

    On the other hand, I was never given “femininity” in a backpack of limitations. It doesn’t make me better or worse in general, but it does make me and my perspective different from nerd-culture’s standard.

    By Bonnie on Sep 30, 2009

  11. Wow. Great blog post, thanks for sharing!

    I knew you were a woman long before we met in person — the first time I heard about you was when someone in the community was speaking very highly of you and your contributions to OLPC. Of course, with a name like “Rikki”, I’ve never been one to make a lot of assumptions about someone based on their online name. ;-)

    By Rikki on Oct 2, 2009

  12. Hi from another Mel.

    This is a great post.

    On the whole I’ve been androgenous on the net too until recently. My nick has hints of female though but it mainly came as a surpise to people when they found out I was female. Then about a year ago I ‘came out’ as female, started adding my real name to my blog, LiveJournal and so on. Most people still call me Mel though.

    Its great to see the rise in geek feminism.

    By Cyberspice on Oct 3, 2009

  13. Brenda:
    Were you using British/AU/NZ sign? If so, that may be why. Mel didn’t have trouble with the sign I used with her in DC. Though she’s a lip-reader more than a signer.

    By Mackenzie on Oct 3, 2009

  14. Oddly enough, even when contributing on a technical newsgroup using my own name very prominently, I’ve had men assume I was male. Because, you know, “Monique” has such a masculine ring to it …

    (To be fair, they may have come from a completely non-Western background.)

    Most people online do get that I’m female. Most commonly, I end up getting the “OMG you’re so hot and awesome for being FEMALE and KNOWING TECHNICAL STUFF” treatment … even if they do manage to tone it down. And I don’t know. On one hand, it can be a little much, but on the other hand, I much prefer it to being excluded, and who doesn’t like being liked? It’s just … isn’t it also a little condescending, like I’m a trained monkey or something?

    Hrm. Maybe I need to develop these thoughts a little further and write my own blog post.

    By monique on Oct 16, 2009

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