Sylvia Paull
Sep 27 · 3 min read

Richard Stallman Has Been Vilified by Those Who Don’t Know Him

People in the tech community know me as a high-tech publicist, a former board member of BMUG — the largest Macintosh computer user group in the world — a founder of the Berkeley Cybersalon, which focused on the impact of technology on every aspect of our lives, and the founder of Gracenet, a networking and support group for women in tech that at the turn of this century launched a worldwide campaign to eliminate sexist advertising in high-tech media. The campaign, which issued a press release announcing a “DisGraceful Award in Advertising,” to a different leading tech company each month, ended up shaming several companies, IBM included, to withdraw their ads and apologize for the offense they might have caused women (and men).

Before even entering the tech field, I was a die-hard feminist and came up with the slogan, “A Woman’s Place Is on Top,” for a t-shirt whose sales made possible the first all-women’s ascent of Annapurna, the tenth highest mountain in the world. The t-shirt, whose slogan I gave to the leader of the climb and my good friend, Arlene Blum, is still selling and supports a nonprofit to support women climbers.

When I met Richard Stallman at least 25 years ago, through a mutual friend mentioned who said Richard could use a publicist, I was only too willing to help. For many years, he became my pro bono client because I believe in the mission of the Free Software Foundation and his life’s investment in that mission of free software, which indeed has made the world a better place. I even put up Richard at my home — the one I then shared with computer editor and writer Fred Davis — for a week, and found out more about him. He was kind, attentive, and has a loving core. In simple language, he patiently explained to my son, then around 12, about the virtues of the GNU/Linux operating system, so that after he left, in the middle of the night, my son stripped Windows from all our nine PCs and installed GNU/Linux. (A disaster, my son discovered, because he could no longer play his favorite video games. He ended up reinstalling Windows on all the machines.)

Richard does not relate to people in the way most of us do. Most of us put up a shield between ourselves and others. We act the way they expect us to act, whether we really empathize with them or share their point of view. This is what we have learned is the way to get ahead in life. Richard does not seem to have developed this shield. He takes everything literally and doesn’t necessarily take feelings and the reactions of others into account when making statements that are outside the bounds of his expertise in free software.

I read his comments on the CSAIL list and was horrified to see some of the early media headlines that misconstrued these comments to say that he condoned Epstein’s rape of women. Richard explicitly said that Epstein was a serial rapist, but few reports remarked or even included this comment. I told Richard that his remarks — which tried to question Marvin Minsky’s awareness that his victim was being forced to have sex — showed a cluelessness about the impact they would have on Epstein’s victims as well as women everywhere. It was a stupid assumption on Richard’s part, and he has since expressed, and more importantly, understood the harm that these remarks have caused women and particularly Epstein’s victims.

I do not excuse Richard Stallman’s remarks, nor do I challenge the actions of both the MIT Media Lab and the FSF for terminating his positions with them. As an active feminist and one who has witnessed much bad behavior among tech CEOs over the past 30 years, I think that accusing Richard Stallman of not supporting women, gays, or any other minority group is false. Look at his real history — not the sign about welcoming “hot ladies” on his MIT Media lab office door, which someone else wrote as a joke and which he removed but not before someone took a photo of it — but his record in helping to give everyone in the world access to free software. He has truly made our world a better, more free place.

    Sylvia Paull

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