by Neha Dubey
Much like most other posts written by femxle debaters I’ve thought long and hard on whether or not I even wanted to write this in the first place. But, Megan Munce’s article (https://medium.com/@meganmooseh/alright-lets-talk-7ec78a20ff2f) really was the final push in putting my thoughts down on paper which I’ve wanted to do for over a year. Her article was written from the perspective of a womxn debater on an all femxle team, and here’s my perspective of being the only girl who traveled consistently and competed on the national circuit with an all male team.
Over the course of my debate career, I’ve been asked on multiple occasions if my high school was an all boys school (hint: it’s not). In round, I’ve been asked what it’s like to compete alongside some of the top debaters in the nation (hint: not that great). At debate camp, it’s been assumed that I have the same access to resources and prep as my teammates (hint: I don’t). As a team with multiple coaches, it’s assumed that my coaches put the same amount of effort into my success as my teammates (hint: that’s not really true).
Briefly, here are just a few of my experiences:
I started debate in the eighth grade, and before my first tournament I was told to never wear a white shirt because it washes your skin out, to wear makeup (but not so much that people could tell), no flashy nails, skirts not pants (but they need to hit right above the knee, if they’re shorter they’re too suggestive), and heels (but not too high). I’m pretty sure the boys were told to wear a suit and that’s about it. To put this in perspective: I was 13.
I’m not a very successful debater but thoroughly enjoyed the activity in the 5 years I was a competitor. During my first two years of high school, I had male partners who would constantly talk over me, assume I knew nothing, and made comments about my physical appearance (though that has nothing to do with how I debate). The reason I stayed in debate was because of strong womxn: two wonderful coaches over the years and an exceptional partner. As a part of an all femxle partnership, both of us took into account aggressiveness, tone of voice, and attire before every single round because we knew that we were under scrutiny. I distinctly remember one elim round where a coach told us during the RFD “Because both of you are girls, you need to watch your tone because it sometimes gets shrill”.
Although my partner and I competed on the national circuit alongside the rest of our team, we weren’t able to access any of the resources that our (significantly more successful) teammates had. If they traded for prep, they shared it within themselves. If they came up with a good argument, it wasn’t told to us. I remember asking for any prep they had because we were competing for our second bid, and only received a joke argument on methane from cow farts (I’m not kidding).
My coach never made any real effort to stop them. At the TOC my junior year, he made my partner and I the responsibility of the femxle coach — and thus the womxn on the team were essentially a separate entity from the others. I don’t think this was intentionally because we were girls, but they had created an exclusive boy’s club within our team that I, or any womxn on the team, would never truly have access to. At nationals, I wasn’t allowed to be in the boys’s room even though I was the only femxle debater — effectively meaning I was supposed to just sit in my room (which was in a different hotel building than the rest of “my team”).
The following year, even with a male partner, I was unable to crack this “boy’s club”. The issue was that although I considered them all friends and teammates, they never really viewed me as an equal. By no means am I calling myself as good of a debater as they were — I should have worked a lot harder, prepped more, had better in-round strategy, etc. — but all I’m saying is that this “exclusiveness” that shrouds top male debaters tends to exclude womxn on their team that could be more successful with the help of a team. I’m not speaking for all teams in debate, I’m sure that there are some wonderful teams out there who don’t face these problems, but schools like mine need to take action to resolve this issue otherwise not only will womxn never be successful on certain teams, they’re far more likely to quit debate.
Even now, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about debate because I’ve intentionally removed myself from the community, even choosing not to coach. Why would I identify with a team who never saw me as a legitimate debater? When your teammates recognize other womxn in the activity but fail to acknowledge your success in the activity why would I still care about debate?
The majority of sexism happens in debate not because of conscious acts, but rather because implicit norms are followed. If I could offer one piece of advice (though I’m not qualified to do so at all) to coaches it would be to dismantle this idea of “top debaters” within a team. Help all of your students equally. Support femxle debaters as much, or more, than you support male debaters. Encourage womxn in leadership positions. Be approachable if students on your team need to speak to you on this (or any) issue. Most importantly, help out other womxn on teams even if they aren’t on yours. I’m very thankful for two coaches from an all womxn’s high school for taking time at tournaments to support me and make me feel like I had a team. I enjoyed debate, it’s shaped me into who I am today, but change needs to happen and it needs to happen now.
Again, these are just some of my personal experiences. I recognize the immense privilege that I had as a competitor, and welcome others who are far more qualified than I am to discuss matters of ableism, classism, sexism, racism, and so much more. As most others have said, thank you to Aarushi Sahejpal, Ahana Sen, Megan Munce, and Allen Abbott for really bringing this topic to light (and Phillip Bonanno’s discussion on ableism), your impact on debate will last for a very long time.
Added Note: My teammates are some of my best friends who I’ve already spoken to in depth regarding these issues. This was meant to call attention to the issue as a whole, not call out my teammates in any way. I also have spoken to my coach who acknowledged the mistakes that have been made and promised to do better. If anybody has any questions or comments on what I’ve written, please send me a message and I’d be more than happy to discuss the issue.