The Necessity of Feminism in Speech and Debate | The Champion Briefs Blog
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February 25, 2014

The Necessity of Feminism in Speech and Debate

By Michael Norton

'And really, how insulting is it that to suggest that the best thing women can do is raise other people to do incredible things? I'm betting some of those women would like to do great things of their own.' Jessica Valenti Part of what makes High School Debate so popular among the country's greatest orators is the competitive nature. Debate's academic meritocracy appeals to students with drive, pushing them to develop not only as debaters, but as well-balanced young scholars. However, as is true in many academic circles (philosophy, STEM, business, etc.), the supposed 'academic meritocracy' is predicated on an uneven playing field. Take, for example, the representation of women at the 2013 Tournament of Champions, considered by many to be the pinnacle of Public Forum Debate:

  • Breaking Female Debaters - 5/40
  • Breaking All-Female Teams - 0/20
  • Female Speakers in Top 20 - 0/20
  • Female Judges in Outrounds ~ 30%
  • Female Judges in Quarters or beyond ~ 15%
  • Clearly, something is wrong in Public Forum Debate. I say 'in Public Forum Debate' because this paper is not trying to assign blame; merely to elucidate how we are all part of a system, regardless of intent, that disadvantages women: the patriarchy. Therefore, to compensate, the community we foster should adequately integrate, celebrate, and represent anybody, yet we systematically undervalue women in our activity. Thus, the Debate community must reevaluate how its culture impacts the participation, success, and enfranchisement of women as debaters, volunteers, and educators. 'Males are adhering to sex-role stereotypes and sex-role expectations when they participate in debate because it is perceived as a 'masculine' activity. Female debate participants experience more gender-related barriers because they are not adhering to sex-role stereotypes and sex-role expectations. In short, 'nice girls' do not compete against or with men, are not assertive, and are not expected to engage in policy discourse, particularly relating to military issues. Rather, 'nice girls' should be cheerleaders, join foreign language clubs, or perhaps participate in student government.' Holly Jane Raider and J. Cinder Griffin. There are countless reasons why women are discouraged from competing in debate. First, there is an expectation that young women are somehow more inclined towards other forensic events that are 'more suitable for girls,' like storytelling or poetry (because supposedly debate is 'a boys activity'). Much like the stigma against women in mathematics and science, debate is often portrayed as an option that is more 'masculine,' tracking women into other, more 'feminine' events. Second, there is a lack of female role models for young women. While some female competitors have shattered glass ceilings in debate, and serve as excellent role models for women, the aforementioned data paints a depressing picture: young women have disproportionately fewer female role models than men. Even the trophies used at many debate tournaments depict male orators. This lack of role models exacerbates the decline in participation; young women who join debate are also far more susceptible to attrition when they don't have role models to emulate because they can't identify with the activity. The result is a vicious cycle where women continue to choose other activities or leave debate; making the community one where women are even less comfortable, exacerbating the underlying inequalities. 'Thus, in some situations performance failure is linked to performance pressure, and not the objective validity of the female debater's inabilities. This performance pressure does not require the explicit low expectations of the dominant group, but results as a consequence of simply being unique.' - Holly Jane Raider and J. Cinder Griffin. Across all divisions, the women who do end up participating in debate are also at a performance disadvantage for a number of reasons. First, young women are perceived as having less authority by many judges, leading them to 'not buy' their argumentation. This issue is particularly problematic when the topic at hand is one with a masculine connotation, like the military. Second, judges often dock speaker points from women for their speaking tone, claiming it's less persuasive. The idea that higher pitched, 'shrill' female voices are inherently less persuasive than lower pitched, 'powerful' male voices, is something we're socialized to believe. Third, partnerships comprised of two young women are oftentimes shrugged off, as many believe female debaters need a male counterbalance. While this counterbalance is oftentimes reactionary to the discrimination of others, some choose to pair female debaters with male debaters because young women supposedly can't handle the rigor of debate without a calming male presence. When women debate together, therefore, many attribute their faults to the lack of a masculine authority to 'ground the issues.' Finally, because there are so few role models, female debaters are tokenized, creating performance pressure, where they feel uncomfortable due to mounting pressure, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, while some young women have defied the structural disadvantages, the activity still has a ways to go, given that the women who do stick around face unique barriers at virtually every tournament, and for many young women, in virtually every round. 'At its core, this kind of overt sexism makes young debaters uncomfortable. It is offensive and intolerable. Contrary to popular opinion, women do not find it funny. By the time many females have ended their debating careers offensive language has become such a part of their daily existence that they may laugh about it. One will never know how many women are intimidated and offended to such a degree that they leave the activity before they develop the self-confidence and level of success necessary to overcome the inherent gender bias against them, a bias contributed to by the 'old boy' tactics of the members of the community.' - Holly Jane Raider and J. Cinder Griffin. The culture of debate defames women, denying them both security and comfort within the community in several ways. First, as a platform for criticism regarding persuasion, debate opens up young women not only to helpful criticism, but also overt sexism. Female debaters disproportionately receive comments on their clothing, mannerisms, and even their appearance during a debate, while the commentary for male debaters seldom touches these issues. Second, the community has adapted certain phraseologies that can make women, and often men as well, uncomfortable. Using sexual assault as a synonym for a dominant debate round is never acceptable, yet its usage continues. While we can shrug it off as 'teenage boys being teenage boys,' this sort of discourse cannot be tolerated regardless of whether the user realized its implications. Therefore, Public Forum Debate must not only address the issues regarding how the activity itself affects young women, but also how the culture surrounding the activity impacts the participants. For the Speech and Debate Community to continue to advance in the right direction, it needs to change. Change needn't be radical, but for change to come, supporters must be vocal and unapologetic; Speech and Debate needs feminism and it needs it now to encourage young women to participate, succeed, and represent themselves within a valuable community. Educators and participants must always be aware of these inequalities. Identifying the problem is just the first step. If we all act as leaders and allies, spreading the message whenever possible, the community we know and love can become far more accepting as a home for both male and female students.

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