Feynman Meets Some Feminists

I posted a while ago (here and here) about Richard Feynman’s skills with women. Here’s another story from Feynman’s autobiography, about an encounter he had with feminists during the mid 1960’s. It shows how from the first feminism was driven by ignorant indignation rather than reason, as feminists attacked even those who, if they truly cared only about opportunity and fairness for women, should have been their friends.

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Feynman Sexist Pig!

A few years after gave some lectures for the freshmen at Caltech (which were published as the Feynman Lectures on Physics), I received a long letter from a feminist group. I was accused of being anti-woman because of two stories: the first was a discussion of the subtleties of velocity, and involved a woman driver being stopped by a cop. There’s a discussion about how fast she was going, and I had her raise valid objections to the cop’s definitions of velocity. The letter said I was making the woman look stupid.

The other story they objected to was told by the great astronomer Arthur Eddington, who had just figured out that the stars get their power from burning hydrogen in a nuclear reaction producing helium. He recounted how, on the night after his discovery, he was sitting on a bench with his girlfriend. She said, “Look how pretty the stars shine!” To which he replied, “Yes, and right now, I’m the only man in the world who knows how they shine.” He was describing a kind of wonderful loneliness you have when you make a discovery.

The letter claimed that I was saying a woman is incapable of understanding nuclear reactions.

I figured there was no point in trying to answer their accusations in detail, so I wrote a short letter back to them: “Don’t bug me, man!”

Needless to say, that didn’t work too well. Another letter came: “Your response to our letter of September 29th is unsatisfactory. . .”—blah, blah, blah. This letter warned that if I didn’t get the publisher to revise the things they objected to, there would be trouble.

I ignored the letter and forgot about it.

A year or so later, the American Association of Physics Teachers awarded me a prize for writing those books, and asked me to speak at their meeting in San Francisco. My sister, Joan, lived in Palo Alto—an hour’s drive away—so I stayed with her the night before and we went to the meeting together.

As we approached the lecture hall, we found people standing there giving out handbills to everybody going in. We each took one, and glanced at it. At the top it said, “A PROTEST.” Then it showed excerpts from the letters they sent me, and my response (in full). It concluded in large letters: “FEYNMAN SEXIST PIG!”

Joan stopped suddenly and rushed back: “These are interesting,” she said to the protester. “I’d like some more of them!”

When she caught up with me, she said, “Gee whiz, Richard; what did you do?”

I told her what had happened as we walked into the hall.

At the front of the hall, near the stage, were two prominent women from the American Association of Physics Teachers. One was in charge of women’s affairs for the organization, and the other was Fay Ajzenberg, a professor of physics I knew, from Pennsylvania. They saw me coming down towards the stage accompanied by this woman with a fistful of handbills, talking to me. Fay walked up to her and said, “Do you realize that Professor Feynman has a sister that he encouraged to go into physics, and that she has a Ph.D. in Physics?”

“Of course I do,” said Joan. “I’m that sister!”

Fay and her associate explained to me that the protesters were a group—led by a man, ironically—who were always disrupting meetings in Berkeley. “We’ll sit on either side of you to show our solidarity, and just before you speak, I’ll get up and say something to quiet the protesters,” Fay said.

Because there was another talk before mine, I had time to think of something to say. I thanked Fay, but declined her offer.

As soon as I got up to speak, half a dozen protesters marched down to the front of the lecture hall and paraded right below the stage, holding their picket signs high, chanting, “Feynman sexist pig! Feynman sexist pig!”

I began my talk by telling the protesters, “I’m sorry that my short answer to your letter brought you here unnecessarily. There are more serious places to direct one’s attention towards improving the status of women in physics than these relatively trivial mistakes—if that’s what you want to call them—in a textbook. But perhaps, after all, it’s good that you came. For women do indeed suffer from prejudice and discrimination in physics, and your presence here today serves to remind us of these difficulties and the need to remedy them.”

The protesters looked at one another. Their picket signs began to come slowly down, like sails in a dying wind.
I continued: “Even though the American Association of Physics Teachers has given me an award for teaching, I must confess I don’t know how to teach. Therefore, I have nothing to say about teaching. Instead, I would like to talk about something that will be especially interesting to the women in the audience: I would like to talk about the structure of the proton.”

The protesters put their picket signs down and walked off. My hosts told me later that the man and his group of protesters had never been defeated so easily.

(Recently I discovered a transcript of my speech, and what I said at the beginning doesn’t seem anywhere near as dramatic as the way I remember it. What I remember saying is much more wonderful than what I actually said!)

After my talk, some of the protesters came up to press me about the woman-driver story. “Why did it have to be a woman driver?” they said. “You are implying that all women are bad drivers.”

“But the woman makes the cop look bad,” I said. “Why aren’t you concerned about the cop?”

“That’s what you expect from cops!” one of the protesters said. “They’re all pigs!”

“But you should be concerned,” I said. “I forgot to say in the story that the cop was a woman!”

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About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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2 Responses to Feynman Meets Some Feminists

  1. copyeditor says:

    Parser error in line 1: missing subject:

    A few years after gave some lectures for the freshmen at Caltech (which were published as the Feynman Lectures on Physics), I received a long letter from a feminist group.

  2. Pingback: Science and censorship

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