There has been some discussion going around about the character of physics heavyweight Richard Feynman, and whether we should really be treating him as an idol when he has such a well-documented history of terrible behavior towards women. Matthew Francis has an excellent post on Galileo's Pendulum dealing with the implications of this kind of hero-worship, as does Janet Stemwedel of Doing Good Science.
In Stemwedel's article, she makes a point that really resonates with me:
"You may be intending to convey the message that this was an interesting guy who made some important contributions to science, but the message that people may take away is that great scientific achievement totally outweighs sexism, racism, and other petty problems.
But people aren’t actually resultant vectors. If you’re a target of the racism, sexism, and other petty problems, you may not feel like they should be overlooked or forgiven on the strength of the scientific achievement."
I am one of these people.
Early in my undergraduate studies, I was hired by a member of my university's faculty to do a video editing job for a set fee. when I got the material I was supposed to be working with, it was in such poor condition that I realized I could not do what I was hired to do in the time frame allotted, and so I told him I needed more time (and thus more money). He flew into a rage and refused to pay me for the work I had already done, demanding to know my home address so that he could "come over right now and get his equipment back" - this demand was made at 11:30pm. I told him that I would instead meet him the next day at a coffee shop, and when I did, he leaned in and screamed in my face - yelling about how I was "unprofessional" and (I remember this most vividly) calling me a "stupid little girl". At the top of his lungs, in a popular cafe near campus. I remember that mixed in amongst the shock, fear, and embarrassment that I felt upon being treated this way, was relief that I had not told him where I lived the night before. I ended up taking a leave of absence from school due to the stress of dealing with him (and the money issues resulting from not getting paid for my work.) He now runs a research lab.
A few years later, I worked at a major tech company where a customer threatened me physically and threatened my job (he was a lawyer, he was friends with my boss, he was important and I was expendable, etc.) I was a top ranked employee with a relatively long work history, and there were witnesses. I was told by management that I'd have to continue working with him. Fun times. I ended up leaving that job, too.
I have had men in academia disparage me to others, and dismiss both my interests and accomplishments as trivial. I regularly deal with comments like "PRO TIP: Mute the video, sit back, and admire the cute girl" regarding my outreach work. I have had jobs (multiple) where I was harassed and propositioned by my own boss. I have been on dates (again, multiple) with men in both tech and academia that resemble this account. (Trigger warning) I have had men on Twitter and Facebook threaten to rape me, kidnap me, and tell me they hoped I would die, all because I'm a woman who talks about math (and is really not into nerd wish-fulfillment).
And there is a whole lot more that I don't feel safe sharing. Think about that for a minute.
So why am I even sharing this much? Because this is where I'm coming from. Today, in 2014.
Because every time I hear someone in my department or in one of my classes go on about how Feynman was so awesome I mean he was kind of a jerk to women but whatever, I file him (and it is almost always a him) away as someone who would have sided against me in every single one of the situations I've mentioned. Every time I see a joking tweet or post about how Feynman's second wife divorced him because she didn't like that he was always doing calculus in his head, while totally ignoring the fact that the divorce papers indicate that he would fly into a rage, attack her, and break furniture whenever she interrupted said mental calculus, my world gets a little bit smaller.
Now, that may not be totally fair to every Feynman fan out there, but let me tell you, life as a woman in phenomenally male-dominated fields is pretty damned unfair. I put people into boxes about stuff like this - not because I think all of the people who hero-worship Feynman (and countless other mathematicians/scientists with similar track records) approve of how he treated women, but because there are actually some that do. As in, there are people today who think that lying to women and treating them like prizes to be won is totally fine. And some of them are researchers, professors, PhD candidates. And I know from personal experience that if I found myself once again in a situation where a prominent man was abusing his power, there would be people who would bend over backwards to protect his reputation, to the detriment of mine. That is the ugly side of hero worship. People like me get the message that great scientific achievement will totally outweigh reprehensible and hurtful behavior towards, well, people like me.
Feynman did amazing work, it's true. Talking openly about the uglier aspects of his life doesn't diminish that. But glossing over his reprehensible behavior towards women, or trying to explain it away, alienates those of us who have had to struggle with that same behavior from our own friends and colleagues.
And there's more of us than you'd think.