Geek Feminism Wiki

Richard Stallman (RMS) gave a keynote at the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit in July 2009 in which he described "EMACS virgins" as "women who have never used EMACS" and said that it was a sacred duty to "relieve them of their virginity". This was one in a run of Sexualized presentations that have plagued Technical conferences throughout the year. It is also an example of negative assumptions on women's sexuality, and the idea that virginity is something to be ashamed of.

RMS emailed the GNOME Foundation and GNOME Women mailing lists on Nov 15, 2009 acknowledging that the incident had occurred, that people were discontented with the reference to women, but insisting that it was a just a misunderstanding. The email stated that since August, the skit has been altered:

Misunderstanding is not a good outcome. To help avoid misunderstandings of this kind in the future, since August I have changed the joke so that the Virgin of Emacs can be of either sex.

Initial criticism and supporting documentation[]

David Lefty Schlesinger posted about this in a blog entry A Good GCDS Beginning (with a significant disappointment):

[Stallman defined] "EMACS virgins" as "women who had not been introduced to EMACS" along with the advice that "relieving them of their virginity" was some sort of sacred duty for members of "The Church of EMACS".

One commenter noted that the routine is a regular part of Stallman's talks but that the singling out of women as 'EMACS virgins' was new. Matthew Garrett has provided a transcript of a previous similar presentation by Richard at RMS and virgins:

"Then if you become a hacker you can celebrate that by having a foobar mitzvah, a ceremony in which the new hacker stands in front of the assembled congregation of hackers and chants through the lines of the system source code. And we also have the cult of the virgin of emacs. The virgin of emacs is any female who has not yet learned how to use emacs. And in the church of emacs we believe that taking her emacs virginity away is a blessed act."

A few days later Lefty emailed Richard expressing his concerns, and blogged the ensuing conversation. His original email included:

"Your remarks gave the distinct impression that you view women as being in particular need of technical assistance (presumably by men, since there's apparently no such thing as a _male_ "EMACS virgin"); additionally, women are quite capable of making their own decisions about who might relieve them of whatever sort of “virginity”. I (and many others) viewed these remarks as denigrating and demeaning to women, as well as completely out of place at what is, in essence, a technical conference."

The response claimed that the comments about women were intended as humour, and that the complainant was misunderstanding the joke. Richard refused to offer an apology.

"I do not believe I owe anyone an apology. I did not insult or attack them, but it is clear some people are attacking me. I think I am being criticized unjustly criticized, and I feel I have been wronged."

However, most of the response was about the Church of St IGNUtius and its potential offensiveness to religious people, which was just one of the issues Lefty was trying to raise. Lefty emailed again, reiterating the other points. Richard's response was that he had already dealt with them -- which he had not.

Responses to this blog post have focused on Richard's right to email privacy -- an example of Derailment -- rather than the original issue:

"Does RMS think all source code should be free, or his private e-mails as well??"
"Have exactly the same question. Any further discussion of political correctness is pointless before this question is answered, as you cannot seriously request polical correctness without respecting it yourself. Sounds fishy."

Video recordings of many of the talks at the summit are available at, but as of 24 July 2009, Richard's keynote is not available.

Stallman's statement[]

In November 2009, Richard posted a non-apology to the GNOME Foundation and GNOME Women mailing lists, "For avoidance of misunderstandings", which read in part:

"Some of the people in the audience in my speech in the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit thought that my joke about the Virgin of Emacs was intended to make some kind of statement about women... it was a misunderstanding: the only intended meaning of the Cult of the Virgin of Emacs is to parody another Cult of the Virgin... To be abundantly clear, my views about women in connection with free software are simply that they deserve freedom in using computers, just as men do..."



Bingo card, for your convenience

Discussion of the incident became heated both in Lefty's blog comments and on other blogs. Many people tried to excuse RMS's behaviour. Some of the excuses include:

Silencing tactics[]

Some silencing tactics have also been tried against his critics that don't so much excuse RMS as suggest that his critics should shut up:


  • Gran Canaria Desktop Summit 2009 by Matt Zimmerman: "This keynote was the least interesting of the talks I attended at GCDS... He did his Saint IGNUcius routine, throwing in a sexist joke for good measure."
  • Simple conference organisation suggestion by Matthew Garrett: "don't invite RMS to keynote at your conference without an explicit apology and expression of understanding beforehand. I'm seriously at the end of my patience with people being unwilling to call others on behaviour they perceive as unacceptable."
  • Richard Stallman and his fans by Livejournal user "certifiedwaif": "Do blog posts like this just bring out the worst commenters, or is this representative? They seem much more concerned about Richard Stallman's right to email privacy than appropriate conduct at a technical conference that both men and women are attending."
  • All hail the windmill tilters by Christian Schaller: "And before someone starts shouting at me for not realizing that sexism do exist in the open source world, please save yourself the energy. I am sure it exist, along with racism, anti-semitism, bigotry, general intolerance, gay and lesbian hating, supremacism, communism or whatever evil you want to come up with. I just don’t buy into using them as the default fallback whenever the reason for something needs to be explained." (In fairness, Christian has added a comment indicating that "a longer conversation with a female coworker about the issue and her relating her experiences is causing me to re-evaluate my stance on how much sexism there actually is in the community in general.")
  • Permission to suck by Abi Sutherland: "So one thing women in Open Source—or anyone who is a minority in a skills-based group—need is Permission to Suck. They need the understanding, from themselves and others, that any and all suckitude is to their account alone, just like it is for the majority."
  • Backlash: feminism considered harmful by Matt Zimmerman: "We have a problem in the way that women in free software are regarded and treated... What I want to discuss here, though, is how people are received when they speak up about this, for example by criticizing sexist behavior they have observed. Often, the problem is denied, the critic themselves is personally attacked, and the victims are blamed. In short, there is a backlash."
  • RMS and virgins by Matthew Garrett: "My point here isn't to claim that [RMS]'s a bad person as a result. I've got personality flaws large enough that you could probably drive a bus through them, but I'd be slightly upset if people thought I was evil because of them. My point is that nobody is above criticism, and if someone behaves in a way that offends a large subset of the community then they should to be criticised. Failing to do so sends the signal that we don't care about those who were offended, and at the same time provides no incentive for people to change their behaviour as a result. And yes, I think those who have high profile positions in the community should be held to higher standards than others..."
  • RMS’ emacs “virgins” by Chani: "so… I didn’t comment on this little incident, even though I knew I should. I mean, it’s RMS, I don’t really expect him to change. and it’s easier to just ignore it and pretend it didn’t happen. thankfully, lefty tackled the issue for us. ok, publishing private mail is rude, but I’m glad he did. the comments section makes me sad… btw, I have never heard of this “cult of the virgin of mary”. I interpreted RMS’ speech the same way lefty did, I was just too shy to speak up about it."
  • "Join us now" indeed. by Jamie Zawinski. "You stay classy, RMS."
  • calling out sexism. Just like they did in Salem, Mass.! by galateus: "It started when Richard M. Stallman gave a tongue-in-cheek speech at the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit about the text-editor-worshiping 'church of Emacs'. The epic command-line text editor wars between emacs and vi would normally be entertaining, but... not this time."
  • Women are not crazy by Jonathan Carter: "Some say that Richard Stallman’s joke was innocent and that it wasn’t meant as being discriminating. In my opinion, even if that’s the case, it was wrong to do so. It’s a known fact that there’s a very low ratio between female and male contributors to free software, and doing something that could alienate even a small percentage of female contributors is a big deal."