I was incredibly lucky for my first two years on Public Forum debate.
My freshman year there were more girls than boys in my novice group and my novice director was an awesome femxle debater. She was an amazing role model and made every single novice feel like they were a part of the team. Even though our best team was a guy-guy partnership, she made the girls feel just as valued as them. My novice group and the sophomore second years were pretty evenly divided between men and womxn and those were the only people I was interacting with; if our varsity team was bro-culturey… I wouldn’t know.
My second year on PF there was a slow shift from me having more femxle teammates to male teammates, I didn’t notice though. If I’m being completely honest I probably contributed to sexist attitudes more than I helped them. After hitting Millburn CZ in my first ever break round at a varsity tournament (and completely losing the round), I was in awe of the team and followed both of their fanpages. My friends and I would respect the successful guys on our team more than the successful girl, and just generally probably did some problematic stuff. When a novice on our team did her freshman year research paper about sexism in debate I remember giving her my super simplistic analysis, which was something along the lines that sexism in debate rounds doesn’t really happen that often and there’s little way to fix any problems that exist except to train judges better. Yeah, I said that. Oh, if I could talk to Sophomore-Year-Me now.
I have a theory that sexism in debate is hardest to detect when it is subtle and directed at you. In debate, we tend to be hard on ourselves; I know I rarely walk out of a round ecstatic about my performance. Because there is no gold standard for the perfect summary, or the greatest final focus, we are left with infinite things to nitpick about in our speeches. Could you have spent less time on defense? Was your comparative weighing clear? Did you extend the warrant on your frontline? Even in the cleanest of rounds with the best debaters, there are mistakes. So at least for me, if somebody says, “you were too aggressive in crossfire,” sexism is not my first thought, rather, should I have let them finish their response to my question before asking the followup? Nobody really knows what the brightline is for being too aggressive, so when those comments get thrown at me, sexism gets lost in the shuffle of thoughts flying through my brain.
The first time I saw somebody calling somebody else too aggressive and I made a gender connection was in January. One of the novice girls I had talked to a bunch and mentored a little bit was in her break round at Newark and my teammate said, “she’s being super aggressive and condescending” and I quickly replied with, “would you say that if she was a dude?”.
He said he would. I wasn’t so sure about that.
This was the first time I had identified any kind of sexism in the debate sphere related to myself and my life, and it wasn’t even about me. Only when I removed myself from the equation could I see what was right in front of me: an activity with massive problems regarding gender equality and inclusivity. That comment opened the door for me to explore all of these ideas about sexism people around me had been talking about for so long.
I’ve since had some pretty blatant encounters with sexism: I’ve been called emotional on ballots and my lab at camp had a “blockfile for the boys”, but I’ve never wanted to quit. When I look back on it, I was incredibly lucky to have the novice director I had. She instilled everybody with the sense that we could do anything (she became the first sole femxle president of the team her senior year), and was a constant femxle presence in our debate room and outrounds at tournaments. No matter what, she made me (and I assume my fellow novices) feel like we were a part of the team and there were no roadblocks in our way, and I’ve never lost that attitude because of her. Instead, I’ve become outspoken about sexism, gotten a bunch of awesome laptop stickers, and become unapologetically unafraid to call people on their bullshit.
I know how rare it is to be a girl in debate who has experienced sexism and never wanted to quit. Looking back at my time on debate, I’ve realized the importance of femxle role models, mentors and friends in the debate community. Without them, young debaters are lost in a sea of navy suits, tall white dudes and deep voices. Without them, young womxn in debate drop out, quit, get excluded, and feel underrepresented.
Reach out to the novices on your team; become friends with the underclassmen. Guide them through the world of debate you know so well and help them avoid the negative experiences you’ve had. Make them feel like they’re as much a part of your team as anybody else and have as much opportunity for education, success, and fun as anybody else. Young debaters, reach out to the older members of your team, message people on facebook, find femxle friends and allies on your circuit. Find ways to cope with the problems you encounter and teach other people how to deal with them. Find the courage to speak up against different forms of sexism and stick with debate, it’s worth it.