In Solidarity: A Message From An American Feminist Debater to the International Debate Community

For those who participate in collegiate debate, the activity can be a rewarding and incredibly important part of the college experience.  I can say from personal experience that participating in the American Parliamentary Debate Association circuit has made me smarter, more articulate and more confident, and it has given me friends I never would have met otherwise.  But I can also tell you that it is not without its challenges: any debater can tell you that the activity is a huge time commitment and can involve substantial travel; debaters often need to structure class and work schedules around their competition schedule, and it’s a pain.  Those are challenges that we accept, however, because they come with the territory of taking on a demanding extracurricular.

What we DON’T have to accept, and what we shouldn’t accept, is the sort of sexism that many female debaters, both here in the United States and in other countries, continue to experience, even now.

Since Monday morning, my inbox, my Facebook news feed, and my ears have been filled with stories of what happened at the Glasgow University Union in Scotland this past weekend.  During the finals round, two female debaters were booed and heckled because of their gender.  A male debater audibly said something to the effect of “What does a woman know?”, challenging the women’s qualifications to even participate in the debate.  Another individual shouted ” Get that woman out of my chamber!” at one of the women after the round ended. The women were asked by other members of the GUU not to complain, because this was “just how these guys were”.

I, and my colleagues here in the US, have been shocked and frustrated, both by the fact that this happened, and the fact that people were so willing to take on the apologist role in dealing with it.  Offering apologies for sexism, and defending that “this is just how it is” legitimizes and normalizes this kind of behavior.  This may be how these men generally behave, but that in no way makes this kind of behavior acceptable.

I am also disgusted by the way that the UK media covering the incident have handled it: they have painted the image of the girls crying, run with the claim that the women went off topic with feminist rhetoric (they didn’t-~-their arguments were completely relevant to the subject of the debate, and shockingly, sometimes women’s issues are relevant), and some have taken the attitude that women who have come out against this incident are overreacting.  Rebecca Meredith and Marlene Valles are both well-respected female debaters on the IONA circuit in Europe, and to their credit, they kept going with their speeches, making their arguments despite being heckled by the male audience members.

Today, the Spectator came out with an Op Ed entitled “If Cambridges debating girls can’t take the heat, they should stay out of the kitchen”.  I probably don’t need to tell you how sexist their arguments ended up being: they argued that the women lacked the skills needed to debate despite being heckled, stated that the images from the debate didn’t reveal any “reason for fear”, and claimed that poised, mature women would be able to just laugh off comments about their bodies.  They also claimed that “Fewer women want to debate. The rough and tumble of a dialectical free-for-all is not for them.”

All of that is a steaming pile of crap.  The women didn’t necessarily fear being harmed, but they were obviously disturbed and upset over the incident, and rightfully so.   More importantly, women shouldn’t have to laugh off comments about their bodies, or talk over chauvinistic comments when we are debating: women debaters are just as qualified, and just as knowledgeable, as male debaters, and we shouldn’t be subjected to additional barriers that male debaters don’t have to deal with.  This sexualizes and objectifies female debaters, and it is 100% unacceptable.  Rebecca Meredith and Marlene Valles were able to keep talking, but the truth is, that’s not something they should have had to contend with in the first place.

On top of that, there’s no actual evidence that fewer women want to debate.  As the head of the American Parliamentary Debate Association Women’s Initiative, I’m willing to put out there the idea that many women who want to debate are unable to do so, and many determine that they will not be able to debate because they lack sufficient institutional support, they lack female role models within the debate culture, or they are made to feel like as women they cannot succeed.  These are problems that we are fighting to address on the American circuit today, and it can be difficult: how do you provide role models to freshman girls whose teams don’t have any female upperclassmen?  What’s the right way to call out sexism when it appears in debate rounds?  How do you stop judges from awarding higher speaker points to men because they perceive them as more convincing based on gender?

How do you make sexism go away?

I don’t have an answer for that-~-at least, not yet.  But I can tell you it won’t go away if we DON’T call it out, if we don’t say it’s wrong, if we don’t make examples of people who cause incidents like this, if we don’t loudly and confidently object to the idea that women can’t debate, or aren’t as skilled as men.  It’s not women who have no place in the debating chamber, it’s chauvinism, and it’s time we all started fighting for a system where that’s the norm.

I am beyond proud to be a part of the efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate sexism in American parliamentary debate.  It’s frustrating, but it’s a worthy fight.  And I am proud to say that I stand in solidarity with women like Rebecca Meredith and Marlene Valles: you are talented and you are inspiring, and you are not alone.

You can read more of the coverage of what happened at Glasgow here, here, and here, and read Rebecca Meredith’s own commentary on what happened here.

In addition to Rebecca Meredith and Marlene Valles, this post is dedicated to Shira A., Megan E., Taylor B., Ilana R., Beth S., and Jean M., as well as Josh Z. (among others).  APDA-WI would not be the same, and certainly would not be close to as effective, without all of you, and I couldn’t have a better group of people to fight sexism with.


~ by Randi Saunders on March 7, 2013.

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