“What does a woman know, anyway?”: sexism in debating

// 6 March 2013

Wooden carving over the door of a debating chamber, with the words Debating Chamber.jpg

This is a guest post by Rebecca Meredith. Rebecca is a 3rd year politics and international relations student at King’s College Cambridge. She was ranked the 3rd best debater in Europe at the European University Debating Championships 2012, and was part of the 4th top team in the world at the World University Debating Championships 2013.

In the past three days I have received hundreds of emails, from the Philippines, from South Africa, from America and the UK, saying: “I am a young, intelligent woman who debates, and I have been a victim of misogyny.”

I have been debating since I was 14. At school it was a hobby, good for the CV; at university it allowed me to travel the world; and on Saturday it thrust me into one of the most unpleasant incidents of my life. A friend and I opened the final of the Glasgow University Union (GUU) Ancients debating competition. Like the other six individuals in that final, we had won enough of five rounds of debates to reach it. Unlike them, we were booed, heckled with “Shame, woman” and exposed to sexual comments about our appearance. This was unrelated to the content of our speeches. None of the others faced this. The difference between us? We are female and they are male.

During the debate, some male students, including former GUU committee members and an ex-president, asked “What qualifications does a woman possibly have to be here?” “What does a woman know, anyway?” Afterward, one shouted “Get that woman out of my chamber!” as my debating partner passed.

A female student who objected was told not to be a “frigid bitch”. Another challenged perpetrators afterward: tournament organisers and GUU committee members begged her not to “cause trouble”. Confronting one heckler and the committee, I was told that this behaviour was “to be expected”, “par for the course”. I asked whether they would accept similar treatment of racial minority speakers. “They would be booed too, but we don’t have them here.” The committee accepted we were booed because we were women, but refused to take action.

The GUU has been accused of misogyny before. Some members hold an annual celebratory dinner in honour of men who voted against admitting women in the 1980s. At a Union pub quiz I heard the question, “How many men voted against letting women into the GUU?” met with a torrent of applause from male students.

There are lovely people at GUU. Some individuals apologised personally. But students there told us that the men concerned often shouted “whore” and “slut” at female students. A former committee member stated that she had “battered wife syndrome”, reaching the top by accepting and ignoring misogyny. One said, “Things will never change here, they are too powerful.”

I don’t mind if crowds heckle or express disapproval of my arguments. But I refuse to accept that by virtue of being a woman, I should be abused in a way men are not. Women should not have to accept being overtly sexualised or targeted as “par for the course” in a university which is supposed to represent learning and equality.

This incident is not isolated. We aren’t complaining for fun. Many from Glasgow University report abandoning debating as a fresher because of misogyny. One heard committee members singing about rape. Debaters across the world share similar stories. One was told to wear a shorter skirt to win debates; others were told that male speakers sound “persuasive”, but women’s voices sound hysterical. I myself have been told to defer to my male partner since “men are more convincing”.

I created an online survey for debaters worldwide to anonymously report misogyny. Within six hours, we had over 150 reports of women facing sexual harassment, derogatory comments and abuse. We will compile a report with ideas for practical change within debating to combat misogyny. To be clear, debating is usually friendly and inclusive; many world-class university speakers are women. But some unions still face institutional sexism, where women must accept sexism to stay involved and gender-based abuse is normalised.

The national media has invented details without speaking to us. One daily tabloid claimed we were reduced to tears in the chamber, another that we were upset because the boys called us ugly. None of this is accurate. Our attempt to create change has morphed into a story about two stereotypically weak women who cried when boys were mean to them. Commenters attacked us as “wrapped in cotton wool” and “clearly not good enough debaters to deal with it”. But debating shouldn’t involve shouting over sexist abuse from men who believe your gender makes you an inherently inferior speaker. It’s not an equal art if men have a free platform to speak and are judged on argument, while women are sexualised, abused and judged on gender.

Responses from social media shocked me: my Facebook profile was shared by male GUU members, while university social websites placed pictures of me, taken from the internet, in their “hotties” section.

Several Glasgow student societies have disaffiliated from the GUU. The Cambridge Union has promised not to send debaters there until sexism is dealt with. A petition to hold the members to account was set up by a Glasgow student, receiving over 3,000 signatures. In response, the GUU has promised to look into the incident and work on its pervasive culture of misogyny. I hope they do. They owe it to many bright young women who contacted me to say they left debating because of treatment they faced there. Above all, I hope that the hobby I enjoy learns that GUU is not isolated, but that latent misogyny which says that the male rhetorician is inherently more persuasive, or that girls must only win debates because of who they have sex with, must be tackled.

Women debate and deal with hecklers just as well as men. But we shouldn’t have to ignore sexism to get ahead. We shouldn’t be booed for our gender or see ourselves turned into crying damsels when we speak out. Please argue with me; leave comments challenging me; but do not refuse to listen simply because I am a woman.

Image shows a wooden carving over the door of a debating chamber, with the words “DEBATING CHAMBER”. Shared courtesy of Gavin Reynolds under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Jolene Tan // Posted 6 March 2013 at 1:34 pm

I am a former university debater myself, who saw misogyny as the non-negotiable price of admission to an activity I enjoyed, and who – to my everlasting shame – sometimes saw it as a badge of honour to be “unshockable”, “one of the guys”, “not like those other hysterical oversensitive girly girls”. Thank you for doing better than that.

Raging Leftie // Posted 6 March 2013 at 4:24 pm

You are completely right, women have had to face enough obstacles to reach the kind of position you have, heckling is one thing but it very different when the remarks are not related to your arguments or what you are saying in the slightest. If a man stood up there and was heckled it would be about his argument – not because of his sex. It is absolutely disgusting that this can happen at one of the world’s top universities although for perhaps that reason it should not surprise me, Oxbridge is full of well-off, white men it may have come as something as a shock for them to find you up there. Whatever the reason there are no excuses and they should be suitably dealt with. Only when the university takes this as seriously as it should will there be a chance that women can debate being judged only on the words that come out of their mouths.

Megan Stodel // Posted 6 March 2013 at 7:57 pm

I completely agree with this post, and as a debater currently on the circuit, am deeply saddened by this and revelations from other debaters following the GUU problems.

However, I feel it is worth adding that debating has a fantastic other side, which is that, because we debate and discuss things like feminism and equality so often, a lot of debaters (maybe even a majority) explicitly identify as feminists. There are very few other situations where all my friends, including the men, just are feminists and would find it weird if somebody wasn’t. Of course that doesn’t mean everybody acts well all the time – but I feel it is worth saying, because that debate context is really important in having fostered that. I think it probably also varies greatly society to society – the one I am part of has a lot of women involved, both at advanced and beginner levels, and that has been true for several years, so I think I am lucky that I have generally had a positive experience. I wouldn’t want outsiders to think that ALL debating societies have deeply misogynistic undercurrents or that there are few debaters who would stand up for feminism, because I think there are many spaces in debating that are helpful and friendly and feminist.

Still, this post and recent events show that it is not enough to be complacent; I hope that this is something of a wake up call to those who need it.

CBH // Posted 6 March 2013 at 9:27 pm

I went to Glasgow University about 15 years ago – so sad to hear it has not changed – thank you for having the courage to challenge misogyny face on.

Liz Turner // Posted 7 March 2013 at 12:59 pm

I’m glad you mentioned the point about the media inventing those details about how you and your partner reacted to the heckling, I can’t remember where I read the story first but certainly for me that didn’t ring true. Fabricating an emotional drama like that just hammers home the stupid myth that ‘sexism is only a big deal because women make a big deal out of it’.

bennie // Posted 7 March 2013 at 3:01 pm

Without sounding patronising, I’d like to commend you on standing up to this. As a current Glasgow University student, I have been hearing for years of the mysoginy and sexism apparent in the GU, from everyone to freshers to people who have been on the board for years and I’m so glad that at long last something is being done about it.

It is such a shame that it makes the whole University look bad, even the GU, where it is by no means the case that every member takes this position and especially relects badly on the other union on campus, as many are unaware that there are two. I myself resent being tarred with the same brush as these horrible people and I am fed up of having to explain to many people who don’t attend the university that this is not the union that I attend, or indeed have anythign to do with.

Kathryn // Posted 7 March 2013 at 3:24 pm

Glasgow have not excelled at debate for some years, and gling to their past glories. Perhaps this also explains how they cling to these outmoded views.

HuzzahHenry // Posted 7 March 2013 at 4:28 pm

I am so sorry that you had this experience at my university. I am ashamed to be associated with people who behave like that. Please be assured that the GUU and the portion of its membership which is misogynistic is not representative of the university as a whole.

Congratulations on your evident skill as a debater, and on succeeding despite the misogyny in the circuit, and I hope that you and your debating partner speaking out in this way will elicit a change.

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