When The Gender Roles Switch

by Zoe Kaufmann

When I joined debate as a freshman, I was told that I needed to find a male partner. The coaches who told me this meant well: as female debaters, they knew what kind of reception I’d get on the circuit with a female partner. I was pushy, I was loud, I was too combative to be palatable to judges if I wasn’t balanced out by a male partner. 

So I found a male partner. When we started out, he insisted that he’d speak second—his older sister was a second speaker and he wanted to follow in her footsteps. I agreed because I didn’t want to lose him as a partner, because even then I could see that I wouldn’t win rounds without him. (He’s since become one of my best friends, and he remembers this period differently than I do.)

In hindsight, this arrangement never made much sense: I’m more assertive and detail-oriented and he’s much more even-tempered and big-picture, so we weren’t naturally suited to our original roles. I pestered him for months after our freshman year to let me try speaking second, and we switched our speaking order for good the following November. 

I’d experienced sexism in debate before—comments about my outfits on ballots when my partner got comments about his speeches, being spoken down to by judges and opponents, being intimidated and spoken over in cross, and more—but it changed after I began speaking second.

PF has a fiercely sexist atmosphere with very defined gender roles, especially for mixed gender teams: Girls are expected to speak first and their male partners to speak second. As a female second speaker, I often face sexism similar to those on female teams, but my male partner and I also end up in the odd position of having to defend ourselves against differentkinds of sexist attacks. After we switched, it manifested in my lower speaker points despite the second speaker bias, judges calling me “overly aggressive” for the first time, and judges and opponents acting out their implicit biases in other ways. While the speaker point differential has evened out over time, I’m still told to be nicer, to sit down, to be quiet.

I can stomach most of this—call it pushback for being female and assertive. It is, sadly enough, the opportunity cost of being a girl in PF.

But it still hurts every time a judge has to cross out the speaker order that they’ve written on the ballot—often in pen—before they’ve even asked us who speaks first. I see it usually once or twice a tournament: a judge decides that I’m the first speaker and has to hastily cross out a section of their ballot once my partner explains that he’ll read our case. It’s their expression that gets me, because they all look faintly embarrassed—as ifthey should have known better.

What’s more, I rarely see other female second speakers with male partners like me. While there are more and more now, I knew very few as a scared sophomore, and that made me doubt whether I could actually do it. That needs to change, not just for the future of the activity but for the girls already in PF.

I’ve never had a female partner, so I can’t speak to the sexism that female teams face. I can, however, express my frustration at the sexism that I have faced on an individual level and the sexism that my partner and I have faced as a team. I can’t decide whether that sexism is better or worse—it’s simply different. 

While we should encourage more female teams, we should also encourage more mixed gender teams with female second speakers. As the season begins, I’d ask coaches to encourage their young female debaters to try speaking second, debaters—both male and female—to consider how they interact with other debaters, and judges to re-evaluate how they might treat female debaters, especially those who step out of the gender roles PF propagates. We can do better. We need to do better.

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