As women who unequivocally love debate, the founders of Girls Who Debate decided to create a resource to uplift and encourage women's voices in the activity. This article is written by our founders, Kate Drum and Sarah Burke.
We’ve always loved debate. Both of us have participated in the activity since sixth grade and have been addicted ever since. Why do we devote our weekends to tournaments and free periods to writing cases? Maybe everyone believes their favorite extracurricular is fundamentally different, but we’d argue there is something truly special about debate. There’s a reason why nearly sixty percent of Congressional representatives and a third of Supreme Court Justices participated in Speech and Debate. You learn how to stand up for yourself and others, how to bring forth and dispute evidence, how to understand differing perspectives.
More than anything, debate has given us our voices.
But there is something fundamentally wrong with the fact that almost all famous faces you find when you look up successful former debaters are almost all white and almost all male. From the days of Plato’s Academy, debate has been dominated by and for white men. We do not claim to think that debate is somehow the panacea to inequity. But it is still an incredibly valuable extracurricular that many people have been pushed out of.
We experienced this from the perspective of women. We slowly saw our female friends drop out of debate until we were the only two girls left in our parliamentary debate program from our grade. An aspect of this was, of course, the broader societal sexism. But we also found there was something about debate in particular that left women feeling small. There are less severe examples, such as opponents or judges doubting our evidence or reasoning unnecessarily. But both of us have experienced unwanted flirting from adult judges. We have consistently had friends tell us about judges who said they would only vote for their team if they gave them their number. Women’s stories ranged from being called “cute” to experiencing assault at the hands of other successful debaters.
It exhausted us. Debate changed from a place where we felt free to express ourselves to one in which we were regularly invalidated and dismissed. Our round preparation stopped focusing on how to create the best arguments but instead how to best deal with the dreaded all-male interrupting team. Maybe we could deal with ourselves feeling hurt, but the more we talked to others and began looking at what was going on around us through a lens of gender, the more we realized something needed to be done.
So, we decided to create it.
Girls Who Debate is an organization focused on uplifting non-male voices in parliamentary debate formats.
Our mission is two-fold. We first aim to encourage women and gender minorities to feel comfortable in and to join debate and retain all of its benefits. We do this through our website, which provides advice and introductory resources. The second focus of our work is rooted in advocacy. Through qualitative and quantitative analysis, we are compiling the experiences of non-male debaters. Eventually, we hope to present this analysis to those who run the major speech and debate organizations for parliamentary formats. We have specific policy goals in mind, which have and continue to be influenced by our talks with others in debate. We recognize that women are not the only group that experiences discrimination in debate. We hope that intersectional advocacy and promoting the principles of equity in debate will help any other groups who feel unheard in the debate world. (With that in mind, feel free to reach out to us if you need any formal contacts or advice for your own project! We’d love to help.)
If you want to help with our work, please fill out our survey and send it to your friends in debate (of any gender)! Additionally, if you feel comfortable, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like your own story published in our Voices of Debate Section or even just want to talk to us about what you’ve experienced. Only by uniting as women in debate are we able to promote real and tangible change.