The Double Bind of Female Debaters

Maddy Berger graduated from Polytechnic School in 2020 and is currently a freshman at Duke University. She debated from 6th through 12th grade, in the HSPDP and World Schools formats.

My first exposure to debate was an MSPDP tournament in 6th grade. And throughout middle school, I continued with MSPDP, always doing first speaker, always with the same team. My third speaker was one of my best friends, and our voices were certainly not suppressed by our male second speaker - if anything, the girls dominated team conversations. I felt confident in my own abilities, consistently winning speaker and team awards, and I always felt that my team and other debaters at my school respected me as a debater, regardless of my gender. Maybe I was young and naïve, or maybe the trophies clouded my judgment, but for years I didn’t notice the role of gender in debate.

The moment I entered high school (HSPDP and World Schools debate), gender quickly imposed itself in my perception of debate. I was 14 years old - a freshman girl just trying to navigate her way through this new experience - and I was competing with 18-year-old grown men who I felt were light-years ahead of me in terms of knowledge and debate experience. In short, I was intimidated. And for the first time, I noticed that I was being treated differently due to my identity. I remember a judge telling me that he was surprised by the “big words” I used in my speech, even though I was using the same terminology as my male teammates. I remember a male opponent saying, “I bet the first speaker knows nothing about economics” before I had even spoken a word. I remember the countless times a judge called me aggressive or overly passionate, only to go on to compliment my male teammates for being assertive. It’s easy to analyze these anecdotes – on the surface, I was perceived as dumb, and once I opened my mouth, I was perceived as rude. If I show up with my straightened blonde hair, makeup, pencil skirt and heels, people will associate my femininity with a lack of intelligence. If I abandon this femininity, I fear looking unkempt or unprofessional. In round, if I’m too soft-spoken, the male voices will dominate over me, and I’ll lose the round. If I match their confidence, I come off as angry and aggressive, and I’ll lose speaker points. This double-bind was impossible to escape.

As I grew older in high school, I realized that I shouldn’t focus my energy on controlling how others perceived me and instead focus on being confident enough in my skill-set to not let these perceptions affect my self-worth.

I stepped outside my comfort zone and tackled all the other speaker positions and debated with lots of different teammates, which forced me to grow more comfortable with myself as an individual debater rather than myself as the first speaker for a team. By the end of my debate career, I had been competing for seven years, and the gendered comments never stopped, but in a strange way, I felt empowered knowing I could prove them wrong. I’m certainly not going to give you advice on how to suppress your assertiveness or how to dress a certain way, because you shouldn’t have to change yourself to appease a system that is wronging you. Instead, I would just say be true to yourself, build up that debate confidence and experience, and of course, report the sexist judges!

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