Maggie Grether is a senior at Polytechnic School, where she is co-captain of the debate team. She has been debating since 7th grade and mainly participates in World Schools, Parliamentary and HSPDP formats.
When I enter a debate round, I seal my face into a cool, self-assured mask. Walking up to the podium, I relish the menacing clack of my heels on the linoleum floor. In this classroom—windows shut, phones tucked away, air enclosed in a tense silence—I feel completely removed from the world outside. And, for forty-five minutes in this tightly-regulated debate round, with its strict rules, esoteric jargon and inexplicable dress codes, I feel free.
As I speak, I finally have free reign over all my modes of communication, using cutting logic or acerbic sarcasm to deliver my arguments with authority. I can ask questions designed to make my opponent squirm. I can talk over people. I can bluntly, without apology or obfuscation, point out the flaws in the other team’s arguments and ruthlessly take them down.
When I first began debating in middle school, I was surprised by how I transformed in a debate round. The first time I shot down an opponent’s point with a particularly sharp takedown, I wondered, “who is this girl?” In the years that followed, I learned that the question I should have been asking was, “where has she been hiding?”
As a girl, and especially an Asian girl, I have always felt an exacting pressure to be nice, accommodating and compliant. I spent most of my life believing that people would only listen to me if I punctuated my sentences with smiles; if I talked in questions instead of commands. When I first began debating in middle school, it felt incredibly freeing, like I was unleashing a part of myself that I kept locked away for most of my day. Debate was a rare bubble where I felt I could be combative, argumentative and a little cocky.
While in some ways, debate became a haven for me, the space was far, far, from perfect. I quickly learned that boys had much more freedom to express themselves in round. Rhetorical tactics praised in male debaters would earn me feedback such as “too passionate and emotional” or “aggressive.” And while I was lucky to have a positive experience on my school team, the intense hierarchy debate breeds can create toxic, dangerous environments for female debaters. The allegations of sexual assault in the debate world that came to light last summer were heartbreaking but unsurprising to me.
The misogyny female debaters face is the same misogyny that silences women in the workplace, the same misogyny that has kept a woman out of the presidency, the same misogyny that makes it so hard for people to listen and value female voices.
This sexism often feels colossal and impossible to tackle, but I think there are a few things we as individuals can do.
The hyper-competitive debate world often pits female debaters against each other, fracturing relationships between debaters from different schools. I’d like to see that change: for female debaters to work together to agitate for reform in debate culture, for girls to join forces to form a more welcoming community for young debaters. Reform can also start within your individual school team. I’m not sure if I would have stuck with debate if not for older female debates who reached out to me and encouraged me in high school, and, if you can, I encourage you to take on that mentorship role for young female debaters.
While I spent much of my debate career fixated on winning, I can now honestly say that what I remember about the past six years isn’t awards. It’s how debate allowed me to discover an entirely new part of myself; how I took the confidence I found in debate rounds and slowly wove it into my real life. That’s the beauty of debate. I think, at its fullest potential, it can help other young people unlock parts of themselves they never knew were hidden away.