Whitman debate team moves toward gender equality, women debaters face challenges

Rose Woodbury

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In the debate community, it’s not uncommon to hear derogatory terms used to describe female debaters who come across as overly aggressive. The unequal gender ratio within the activity seems to stem partly from its history as an activity practiced largely by white males and also from general sexism in society.

Because of this, the Whitman Debate Team and the national debate community have started to provide more opportunities for women to gain a stronger presence in the activity.  

When senior debater John-Henry Heckendorn first joined the Whitman Debate Team in 2008, there were only a few women on the team.

Now, in part because of efforts to promote female participation by Debate Coach and Professor of Forensics Jim Hanson, Whitman’s Parliamentary team has six women and thirteen men and the Policy team has four women and four men.

While these numbers seem to be moving towards a more even ratio, the community at large is currently still dominated by men. Hanson said that there is probably a three to one ratio of male to female debaters nationally.

“Women are not well-represented in debate. It’s not an equal distribution of sexes in round or in the judging community,” junior debater Miranda Morton said.

Junior debater Carly Johnson noted that sexism in debate seems to come largely from the general influence of society.

Illustration by Bailey

Illustration by Bailey

“I definitely think [sexism in debate] is a real problem, but it’s not necessarily something that stems from the debate activity or community but [from] larger forces,” she said.

Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the Gender Studies Program Melissa Wilcox discussed this issue.

“It’s part of our society that women are expected to be accommodating; women are expected to be nice,” Wilcox said. “Men are expected to be aggressive, they’re expected to be tough, they’re expected to be go-getters . . . Therefore, when a woman is perceived as a tough, aggressive go-getter, she’s bitchy, she’s masculine, she’s a lesbian.”

Morton agreed that sexism within the debate community is a reflection of a greater social problem.

“I feel like it’s also in society too where, you know, there’s this group of intellectual women who don’t fit into the categories that are in our hegemonic patriarchical structure, and they become the ‘bitch’ because we have nowhere else to put them,” Morton said.

On the other hand, Hanson discussed the ways in which debate can provide opportunities for women.

“The other side of this is that debate can also be an incredibly empowering activity, and it can do that in a number of ways. First of all, the women, the students, who want to speak about issues related to sexism, to gender roles, etc., have every opportunity to make their case, and I would say that the debate community is overwhelmingly pro-diversity,” said Hanson.

Heckendorn and Morton are a part of Sisters and Allies Against Inequality in Debate, a group that was created by the nation-wide debate community to establish a more gender-equal environment in debate. The group pairs younger debaters, male and female, with older mentors in addition  to distributing a newsletter that circulates at every debate tournament.

Morton serves in the group as a mentor and emails on a regular basis with two female debaters from across the country.

“[The group] lets debaters know that there are strong, powerful women in the activity,” she said.

At the same time, specific features of debate can make sexism seem more pronounced than in other areas of society. For example, judging in debate  can be subjective because it is often based on the opinion of one person; therefore, image is crucial to a debater’s success.

“It’s much harder to be assertive and willful and strong in a debate round if you’re a woman because it just doesn’t come across right,” Morton said.

Heckendorn also said that he has known of female debaters being criticized for their appearance.

“There have been comments about girls wearing makeup and dressing up for debate and judges telling girls they need to do that,” he said.

Sophomore debater Ben Menzies noted that, though he hasn’t observed such incidents on a regular basis, gender bias does occur mostly at lower levels of debate.

“There was a time when it was seen as acceptable to encourage women to be . . . more ‘sexy’ in order to win a ballot or something like that, but that really doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.   “Part of the weird thing about debate is that at the lower levels there is a pretty heavy gender bias towards men just in terms of the number of competitors. But what I’ve noticed is that in the upper levels . . . which are the top teams at any given tournament, the numbers kind of even out.”

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