by Abigail Spencer
Just two weeks ago, the PBS democratic debate concluded with an unexpected question: prompting democratic presidential candidates to choose to either ask for forgiveness from a fellow candidate on the debate stage, or give a gift to them.
Entrepreneur and infamous founder of the “Yang Gang” Andrew Yang offered to gift a copy of his book to the other debaters. Mayor Pete Buttigieg furthered that he, too, would gift a copy of his book, boasting that the greatest gift would be preventing another four years of the Trump administration. Then, in what CNN describes as “a remarkable shift of tone” Senator Elizabeth Warren “appeared to choke up while asking for forgiveness and explaining why she was fighting to be president.” In a bout of self-awareness, Warren confessed “I know that sometimes, um, I get really worked up, and sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to.”
The only other womxn on stage, Senator Amy Klobuchar, also asked for forgiveness, stating “I would ask for forgiveness any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt.”
The rest of the debaters offered gifts. Former Vice President Joe Biden said he would gift his fellow candidates because they were, like him, trying to make the world a better place for voters. Senator Bernie Sanders also offered a copy of one of his books and the gift of escaping the Trump administration. Businessman Tom Steyer offered the gift of teamwork.
Now, I’m an enthusiastic bookworm, but there’s more to this scene than the gift of books, ending Trump, and teamwork. The PBS debaters unknowingly told a perfect story of systemic sexism in the debate space.
Regardless of whether you support their presidential campaigns, it is undeniable that both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar face structural disadvantages against their opponents, particularly in debates. While not voting one of them for president doesn’t make you sexist, refusing to acknowledge these structural differences definitely can. So, without any form of political endorsements, I would like to approach the political race from a lense stripped of partisanship, and focused solely on discrepancies in expectation.
Males have long been perceived as the more aggressive sex. As such, it is expected that they behave more dominantly that femxle counterparts. Phrases that mask themselves as pro-womxn like “never hit a woman” perpetuate the normalcy of male aggression, by painting the picture of ordinarity as one in which males are the gender who hit, without even considering if womxn would do something so “masculine.”
This expectation forces womxn to uphold a higher standard when engaging in any activity traditionally perceived as more dominant, or more masculine. Womxn in the debate space still suffer from years of debate as a masculinized activity. In a recent video released by Senator Warren, she revisits her high school, where she was a competitive debater. In displaying her achievements, she notes one glaring similarity between the figure at the top of her trophies: “The emblem of a perfect debater—a guy in a suit.”
So, when womxn such as Warren enter the debate space in attempts to win these trophies intended to celebrate men, they begin to receive harsh criticisms unheard of by males in the activity. Femxle debaters are criticized for every aspect of attempting to be professional, even down to how they dress. On one end, femxles are told they are not dressing professional enough if they wear a dress; on the other, they are dressed “like a boy” if they wear a suit.
I, too, have found myself staring at a closet the morning of a tournament trying to determine if my dress is “professional enough” while my male teammates adjourn sweaters and unbuttoned collars because they’re more comfortable, without a second thought to expectation. An experience that hits even closer to home—likely for many of you as well—is the experience of being a femxle in cross-examination and cross-fire.
I constantly find myself apologizing to friends I hit in debate rounds for acting too aggressive in cross with flow judges as I defend my case, but also for acting too fleeting and kind in rounds with a parent judging. I’ve often wondered if I am to blame for not being able to find a middle ground, but my hindsight forces myself to realize: I am just like everyone else in the round. We are all doing our best to appeal to the judge and pick up their ballot, and each debater adjusts their strategy accordingly. Why do I have to apologize?
My purpose in writing this article isn’t to restructure the systemic sexism in professional activities like debate, but to acknowledge it. I’m here to tell you that you are allowed to exist in the political sphere, the business world, the debate space. Stop chastising femxle debaters for every small action they make if you aren’t going to do the same for all debaters you encounter.
Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, gender is a barrier.
Perhaps this is why, over five decades later, Elizabeth Warren is still apologizing for being a debater. Because 50 years ago she picked up a trophy that reminded her she was not the intended winner. The PBS debates were proof that how we act in the debate space does spill over to the real world. It is easy to dismiss movements that support womxn in debate as “whiny feminism,” or the ever popular “they’re doing it for attention.” I urge you, to please consider, if only for one article, how our prejudices in the high school debate realm build our society. We are the future…but that future starts with how we act now, not in 20 years—weigh your actions accordingly.