What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Stallman is typically called eccentric or strange or, more frequently—and by the MacArthur Foundation, no less!—a genius. But the occasional WIRED contributor was, most significantly, accused of being a formidable impediment to the careers of women interested in the free-software movement and computer science more generally.The testimony was all there on Twitter to read. Christine Corbett Moran, a technical group supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, wrote of meeting Stallman in her first year at MIT at a hacker conference—he’s a legend, he’s a hero. She’s 19. She is introduced as an MIT student; she’s wearing an MIT shirt. He asks her out on a date. She says no. He moves on. (Stallman did not respond to requests for comment.)
In interviews with WIRED, four Girls Who Code alumnae pursuing undergraduate degrees in computer science and one recent graduate described positive internship experiences including supportive work environments and mentorship from tech company executives, but also faced persistent messages that they did not belong and were not as suited to coding as men.
Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.Also on Twitter, Star Simpson recalls taking a walk on the MIT campus with an upperclassman, who points out all the foliage in one woman professor’s office and tells her that women in computer science keep plants because, as the rumor went, Stallman hates them. “I am still struck by the idea that all of the professors in the lab would keep special charms and amulets to ward off a specific person,” she writes. “If nothing else, this is an incredible illustration of the lack of functional recourse that professional women there previously had.” A message is sent: No one in power is going to protect you. If you want to survive, you’re on your own. Better get creative.
So much of life is about girding oneself against disappointment and adversity, but must those lessons begin freshman year at MIT?
Most of the testimony against Stallman is from women who opted out of the free-software movement but stayed in tech, even though the sensible decision upon meeting Stallman and his enablers may well have been to leave the field entirely. When news leaked out Monday night of Stallman’s punishments, there was an explosion of joy, rage, disbelief and “what now?” frenzy on Twitter. Many of his critics expressed precisely the same message: Now begins the hard work of making the free-software movement welcoming and inclusive.Hardly a household name, Stallman is the stuff of myth among male techies—a John Henry who single-handedly tried to beat Big Tech at its own game, with a touch of Robin Hood thrown in. He was seen as a freedom fighter on behalf of the little people being surveilled, overcharged, and disempowered.Back in the 1980s, Stallman was a researcher at MIT angered at the thought of the public’s being at the mercy of big companies and their hegemonic proprietary software. He proposed leading a team to code an operating system that could be freely shared and modified. Supported by his 1990 MacArthur grant, Stallman travelled the world giving talks about this dream, and along the way he met a young undergraduate in Finland in 1991—Linus Torvalds—who took up the cause and created Linux, which keeps the tech giants’ computers operating without onerous licensing fees.
Being tall, white, enthusiastic, and good at computers, I’ve ended up the CEO of a software services company, working for various large enterprises to build their digital dreams—which you’d figure would be like being a kid in a candy store for me, sculpting software experiences all day until they ship to the web or into app stores.