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What I learned about gender and language from talking about the Virgin of Emacs, and how I made use of that in practice
Richard Stallman, 2023-10-18

My Saint iGNUcius comedy routine consists of a series of jokes about the fictional Church of Emacs that humorously compare ideas of the free software movement with real aspects of various world religions. When I introduced the Virgin of Emacs as a character into the routine, she was female because she was an allusion to the Virgin Mary, and an "Emacs virgin" in the sense that she had never used Emacs.

I added substance to that particular joke by referring to the (unfortunate) fewness of women among the users of Emacs. Of course, I improvised details in the routine's jokes each time as ideas came to me.

Years ago I saw a report claiming that, on one occasion, I had referred to the sole woman in the audience as "the Virgin of Emacs." The report portrayed this as persecution and misogyny, which were certainly not in my mind. The concept of the Virgin of Emacs is not hostile, critical or negative at all. (Saint iGNUcius is not mean-spirited.) Whatever I had said in clowning, I did not intend it as anything but fun.

Misunderstandings happen, and it's wise not to make too much of them. At the same time, I did not want to make women (or anyone) in my audience feel uncomfortable with that joke. So that no one would perceive the Virgin of Emacs as expressing an attitude towards women, I decided to leave the Virgin's gender unspecified.

In the spirit of gender equality, which I have supported for 50 years, I decided also to stop using masculine pronouns to refer to the nonspecific people mentioned in my talks. Instead I adopted the practice of alternating between masculine and feminine. The first nonspecific person I mentioned in the talk would be "she". The next such person would be "he". Each time I introduced another unknown person, I would use the other gender.

I had reached the conclusion that this was better than the "male pronouns for mixed groups" standard that I had been taught. (Nowadays I use gender-neutral singular pronouns for a person whose gender I don't know, or who doesn't have one. I adopted the same convention for speaking in French and Spanish. I think it was around that time that I started to speak of "les Droits de l'Humain" instead of "les Droits de l'Homme" when referring to "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité", which I quote to present the basic values of the Free Software Movement in French. I also published a proposal for gender-neutrality in Spanish (

That's where things stand with the Virgin of Emacs — but now that we hold an annual Emacs conference, I wonder if it might be fun to invite people to publicly represent the Virgin of Emacs there and lose Emacs virginity. Specifically, we could recruit someone (regardless of gender), who has never known or used Emacs, to have a first experience of editing with Emacs under the guidance of a coach — making a video to show at the conference.

In the traditional hacker spirit of Ha Ha Only Serious, we could also use this to learn seriously about how to best introduce people to editing with Emacs.

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