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Debating While Female
November 2018. I was fidgeting with my folder, my head crammed full of facts about pharmaceutical price controls. My opponents walked into the room. Two boys, one Caucasian and one South Asian, both in suits. We exchanged awkward pre-round introductions, and took our seats before the judge came in the room. I overheard an unfortunately audible exchange between them.
“Can you see her bra through her shirt?”
“Kind of. Does she think she’ll win because she’s flashing the judge?”
The judge was a woman. I won that round.
December 2018. I was standing on a stage, in a dusty high-school auditorium. I clutched my third-place medal as I smiled a little awkwardly into the audience, As I descended the stairs, my male debate partner said something so hurtful to me I’ll never forget it.
“You only got a higher score because the judges were all guys, they were perverts, and you wore a tight skirt”.
The smile slid off my face as I stared at him. He was my friend. One of my best friends, and I didn’t want to acknowledge what I had just heard.
January 2019. In the hallway, a boy in a suit and tie grins at me and runs his eyes over my body. Grabs my arm. I twist away. He’s older than me, and taller; probably a junior. I know what school he goes to. It’s a fancy, all-boys private school. My coach knows that his coach is friends with the league director.
“What’s your name?”, he asks me. For once in my life, I’m unable to speak. I walk away as fast as I can.
February 2019. One of the coaches of the opposing team, a man well into his thirties, winks at me, making me stumble in my first constructive speech. A boy in a red hoodie smiles at me, I smile back, and then somehow I see him in all my rounds for the rest of the day.
April 2019. A white male judge looks at me sympathetically after a round and says,
“Look, sweetheart, I know it’s hard for women, but try to be more aggressive in crossfire”.
I debate on the New York City Urban Debate League circuit, and I’m grateful for that. In spire of the incidents listed above, I know that in other parts of the country, the sexism and misogyny is so much worse.
Debating as a student activity in the United States started at Princeton University. The first student debate society in post-Revolution America started at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it is still active today. But like many things in this world, competitive debate started out excluding women. It still does. I visited the website of Yale University’s debate team, and was honestly shocked. There were thirteen men, eleven of whom were white. And there were four girls on that team. Harvard’s team? Twelve men. Two women, one of whom is a coach. Debate grows more and more male as you climb higher in the rankings. Local tournaments, city, state, national.
Collegiate debate is still predominantly male. And high school debate may have a slightly higher number of women, yet the harassment and discrimination often drive away women before they can reach the most competitive levels.
I love debate too much to ever give up on it, no matter what I have to deal with. But I look around at my fellow female debaters, and I feel sad for them. One of my closest debate friends is being harassed by our other teammate. He stalks her physically and on the internet, he constantly texts her, he eavesdrops on conversations she has with other people, and he’s expressed obsessively possessive opinions about her. My friend is so bothered by this, she’s thinking about leaving the team while our coaches turn a blind eye.
‘Boys will be boys’. The apologetic shrug and the smile that lets you know, it’s not really a big deal, honey, you’re over-exaggerating. When I walk into a classroom to debate about Saudi Arabian arms sales or the United Nations Security Council, I have to stop for a moment. Think. Is my skirt too tight? Is my bra strap showing? Do I look too fat? Do I look too thin? Are there bags under my eyes? Is my makeup too much or too little, are my heels too high? Should I have worn pants?
And I know I’m not over-exaggerating, because I know I’m on display for every moment I’m in that room. My male opponents and my male teammates all have the luxury of being able to speak freely. But I? I am bogged down by everyone’s sundry judgements and expectations. Be aggressive, or the judge will think you’re a weak little girl. Don’t be too aggressive, or the judge will think you’re being bossy and crass. Don’t play with your hair, it makes you look like you’re flirting. Play with your hair, use your flirtation against them.
Why can’t I have the freedom of speaking freely and loudly about geopolitical stability, fiscal responsibility, and everything else?
It’s truly the small things that showcase to me just how much the world of competitive debate needs to change. If I take off my blazer in an overheated classroom, I have to hear snickers and see the obvious glances aimed at my chest. I feel vulnerable and uncovered. I want to hide under as many layers as possible to wipe away the stares of those eyes. Sometimes, even other girls I talk to about this issue don’t understand.
“You’re boy-crazy, though!”, they laugh. I do like boys. Boys who don’t disrespect me, try to talk over me, make jokes about how ‘my place is in the kitchen’. Boys who don’t try to stare down my shirt while I try to talk about nuclear proliferation, who don’t belittle me and make me feel like a lesser debater and a lesser person.
I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that there’s not much I can currently do. One day, I have the confidence that things will change in the world of competitive debate. But for now? I hold my head high, I wear my kitten heels and my pencil skirt, and when someone makes a suggestive comment or a sexist joke, I look them right in the eye until they turn away in shame.