Women in Debate Update: Part I

This series will address the issues that women in debate face, as well as the progress that they have made. It will be split into two parts: part one will encompass background on the issue as well as individual observations and experiences, while part two will cover implementable policies and advice for debaters, judges, coaches, and tournament and camp directors. Part I features articles, testimonies, and observations from Cynthia Timmons, Bekah Boyer, Samantha Weiss, the Debate Girls 2014, and members of female dominated teams like Hockaday, Whitman, and FSHA.

Table of Contents

Perspectives on Women in Debate: A History – Cynthia Timmons

Being on Female Dominated Teams – Members of the teams of Hockaday, Whitman, and FHSA

What Debate Girls 2014 Means to Us – Debate Girls 2014

Women in Debate: Working Toward a More Complete Picture – Cynthia Timmons and Bekah Boyer

Inclusion, Exclusivity and the Great Thaw: One Female Coach’s Journey – Samantha Weiss

Perspectives on Women in Debate: A History

By: Cynthia Timmons

Female debaters in 2014 are facing an interesting paradox. We are witnessing one of the strongest groups of gifted young women to emerge in years, competing at the highest levels of debate.  At the same time we are having more open conversations about issues women face in the activity. If you are a young, successful American female debater it might be tempting to think a focus on issues women confront in debate a bit dated, perhaps even unnecessary. Certainly the plethora of social media forums that have moved the conversations to the forefront have made it possible for women in the activity to voice their opinions, some openly saying there isn’t a real issue at all. Some have embraced confrontation. Others have urged restraint. Some have used debate rounds to advocate for change. Others have created out-of-round avenues for advocacy. Some embrace female-only sites while others wonder why young men aren’t openly invited to participate in female-centered forums. Some, tragically, have confronted personal and even threatening attacks, verbal and physical, and know too well that debate, like any other activity, has a dark side. Others, undoubtedly, sit on the sidelines in silence, too hurt to voice their pain.

I believe that the current generation of young women in the activity need to be aware of the larger historical trend that women have confronted over the years in debate and, like the larger issue of equity women face in society, realize that there is still room to grow.

Women have long used social debate to achieve important goals over the years. Female abolitionists were key to ending slavery. Women campaigned and debated for the right to vote. Women played a critical role in the Civil Rights movement as well. Women have a long history in this country of working for the rights of all and have used social debate to achieve those goals. Even the women currently in Congress have been openly viewed as the ones keeping the needs of the country first, putting nation over party.  It is curious that women have been central in debating real issues in the country but have been marginalized in competitive debate.

Interestingly, debate used to be segregated by gender. My grandmother, currently 96, debated in Texas in the 1930s in Girl’s Debate.  In fact, Girl’s Debate and Girl’s Extemporaneous Speaking existed all the way into the 1970s in Texas. At the national level, separate events for men and women in extemporaneous speaking weren’t ended until 1984.  Arguments were made that women couldn’t be as successful as men in these activities.

Today’s participation rates suggest that something continues to drive inequity.  My research indicates that Public Forum debate has the greatest percentage of female participants, followed by Lincoln Douglas Debate, Congressional Debate then Policy Debate.  All have dramatically lower female participation rates than can be explained.  What keeps women from debating at levels even marginally approaching equity?

As a high school debater I learned it was difficult to be a girl in the activity. I was marginalized and assaulted. I experienced harassment from male colleagues, judges and coaches.  I ended up leaving debate for several years as a result.  Eventually as a young teacher I was drawn back to the activity and worked closely with my female debaters to foster a sense of self and power of voice that I had not been taught myself.

As a young coach in the 1980s I, along with several esteemed female colleagues at the college level, worked to create forums for female debaters at major tournaments. Articles were written and discussions had.  However, at that time our outreach was severely limited – no Internet, no cellphones, no Facebook – a completely different time. Women who had endured negative experiences were more isolated and it was much more difficult to discuss problems and explore solutions.

From my perspective now I can honestly say that I don’t think women’s experiences have changed that much in the activity; however, there is a major difference in what the future offers women.  I believe that real change resides is the opening of shared dialogue and the use of social media to let women know they do not have to suffer in silence nor are they isolated. I believe that there is now more awareness, more publicity, and higher expectation of appropriate behavior toward all participants in the activity. There is certainly more awareness at summer institutes and more conversations happening between coaches and between students.

Gender issues exist across all societies. We are fortunate to live in a country that offers women more access to equity than almost anywhere else in the world. Debate is certainly one of the very vehicles for learning to develop voice and to develop skills to achieve that equity.  Seeing where we have come from can help us gain a bit of perspective in seeing what we have achieved and determining what still needs to happen in the days and years ahead.

We will know we have reached our goal when equity in political representation has been achieved at the national level. Until then, much work remains. Women have to be viewed as “winning” the ultimate political discourse. When that happens we can finally take a well-deserved break.


Being on Female Dominated Teams

By: Members of the teams of Hockaday, Whitman, and the Flintridge Sacred Heart School


“Ironically enough, being on a female-dominated team made me less aware of how large the disparity was between the number of females and males in the activity. In fact, until senior year, I wasn’t even really aware that gender disparity was an issue. However, once I started dealing with certain issues that made me much more aware of the problems that females had in debate, my female-dominated team helped me more than anyone in overcoming any obstacles I had. It is important to have many strong females on your team not just to have competitive success, but also to have teammates who are like-minded and can empathize with you in a way that, sometimes, your guy friends can’t. Some of my best friends from high school were my teammates – this is not to say that I am not great friends with guys I met through debate too, but that the main reason I felt so comfortable in the activity was because I had 50 intelligent, amazing girls who were always there for me and supported me whenever I needed them.” – Annie Zhu (Hockaday ’12)

“Although, Whitman is a co-ed school, I have been asked numerous times if it is an all girls school. It’s not surprising given that the upperclassman class is currently 88% female. Talking with other girls on the national circuit, I quickly realized that this is a rather rare phenomenon. Many girls feel alienated on their own teams, let alone the circuit. It’s been wonderful that there has recently been increased attention to this issue, but gender disparity and the challenges it brings to female debaters across the country is an issue that the debate community continues to face. I’m thankful that I was able to be mentored by and in turn mentor other female debaters, and I hope that teams recognize the importance of female leadership (upperclassmen and coaches) in ensuring girls do not become disillusioned with the activity.” – Jessica Levy (Walt Whitman ’14)

“One of the most valuable parts of being on a female dominated team was the role models that I had who also worked with me as a younger debater. I had female debaters to look up to and also learn from which I thought was so encouraging.” – Chloe Naguib (Hockaday ’14)

“My experience on an all girls team was probably different than other historical all girls teams. Because I was the first debater on the team, I didn’t get a chance to watch older female debaters or see them as role models (although luckily VBI gave me that), but having to recruit girls to a team was a very interesting experience. Watching girls transform and find their voices on the team has been amazing. We have girls who you would never expect to be debaters (tennis players, charity league girls and even international students). The bonds I have created with the girls on the FSHA team have made me see them as sisters rather than teammates. And like sisters we fight, and as debaters those fights can turn pretty intense, but like sisters we really love and support each other. All but one of our coaches were male so we also had some pretty cool guys to look up to. I could definitely tell the difference between tournaments where I was alone and the only girl from my school and tournaments where I felt empowered by the growing debaters with me.” – Monica Amestoy (FSHA ’13)

“Being on a female dominated team is really special because we bond really well. We can talk about things that aren’t just debate, so our team is really close. Many of us hang around the debate room during our free periods to do work and hang out.” – Anne-Marie Hwang (Hockaday ’15)

What Debate Girls 2014 Means to Us

By: The Debate Girls                2014



For all of the years that we have competed in debate, it has been a male dominated activity. Constantly being surrounded by guys who throw out offensive comments and aren’t sensitive to how others feel is something that we have had to get over as younger debaters. 

Debate Girls 2014 and other girl groups, forums held at camps, and tournaments really helped us to know that we would have a friend at any time. It has been amazing to establish and maintain connections with other female debaters from different teams, circuits, and states. While we live across the country and attend different tournaments, Debate Girls 2014 has been a link between us all in creating new friendships and in feeling completely unified as a class. We have friends at pretty much any tournament and there’s always someone who is proud of us and wants to congratulate us, no matter how well or poorly we did. We have been able to share our experiences and offer advice to one another. It has also proven extremely helpful for things like finding housing for a tournament or an opponent for a practice round, making it a fantastic resource.

Although we recognize that it is not able to solve all of the problems that women in debate face, we believe it has definitely made a positive contribution to efforts to improve the debate community. We hope that future debate girls will form groups and have access to another such support system. 

Check out the Debate Girls 2014 Facebook group for more information. There are groups for girls graduating in 2015 and 2016 as well.

Women in Debate: Working Toward a More Complete Picture

By: Cynthia Timmons and Bekah Boyer

Over the past year, gender issues have rated prominent placement in the headlines. From candidates stumbling over women’s issues in the general election last fall, to highly publicized attacks on women both here and abroad, to the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013), these issues have been front and center in public discourse. Derek Yuill added a forensic layer to the dialogue in “Female Success and Participation in High School Forensics” in the February 2013 Rostrum.

It seems clear that participation rates for women in forensics do not match their numbers in society. If we believe that forensics has the power to give people a voice, we need to make more earnest efforts to give that power to groups underrepresented in the activity: women and minorities.

To female coaches, judges, and competitors, it has long been obvious that there is a gender imbalance in the activity, but to what extent? Inspired by Mr. Yuill’s search for statistics of high school forensic participation, I compiled the following from the 2013 Texas Forensic Association (TFA) State Tournament held in March:

Lincoln-Douglas                     187 entries      31.0% women

Policy                                        44 teams         13.8% women

Public Forum                          126 teams        32.0% women

Congress (combined)           211 entries       31.7% women

Duo Interp                               66 teams         44.6% women

Duet Acting                             84 teams         45.8% women

Humorous Interp                   97 entries         36.0% women

Dramatic Interp                      112 entries       43.7% women

Oratory                                    93 entries         52.7% women  

U.S. Extemp                            111 entries        31.5% women

Int’l Extemp                             105 entries       28.5% women

Of the coaches listed for the 207 schools participating (some listing multiple coaches), 49.3% were women.

The methodology and limitations were the same as noted by Mr. Yuill. Note that with the exception of Oratory, not a single event reflects the composition of our society or our schools. It is also interesting to note that in the two partner events involving acting/interpretation there was a substantially greater percentage of women participating as opposed to the two debate partner events. We need to ask ourselves as a community what makes some events less attractive to women.

I agree with Mr. Yuill that research is needed to determine a true picture of participation nationwide. For the state tournament data to have more validity, we would need to be able to track it over time. The process is cumbersome at best—scrolling through names available through Joy of Tournaments data sets is tedious and somewhat prone to error (is “Taylor” a girl or a boy?). The National Forensic League is leading in this area by beginning the process of collecting data. Information from other state tournaments and invitationals, such as the Texas state tournament presented above, could be gathered into a national database. As information is gathered, we might be able to determine if there is more of an entrance or retention barrier to gender balance. This not only offers compelling information for academic study, but also may provide access to special funding or scholarship opportunities and pave the way toward programs to increase participation across all sub-populations.

While we do need numbers to understand the scope of female participation in forensics, numbers are supplemented by narratives. I have compiled five narratives that offer perspectives from different women with speech and debate experience: an active leader with 40 years in the activity; a successful experienced coach; a talented younger coach; a former participant and coach who is now an administrator; and a college student who debated and now serves as an assistant coach. Our common experience is participation in debate—a forensic activity with the least female participation of all of the events. 

Sexism in Debate

While the world of high school forensics has an enormous amount to offer its participants, it cannot escape the problems that plague the rest of society. Interpers explore social issues through their scripts, extempers through discussion of current events, and orators through their prepared speeches. It is time for the debate community to have a real conversation about these issues, too. One of the most damaging problems facing women in society is the reality of sexism, sexual harassment, and assault. Perhaps due to the enormous gender imbalance in debate, young women in the activity can sadly speak to the occurrence of these issues from a personal perspective.

There are undoubtedly a number of reasons why women lag in participation rates in high school forensics; one of them is sexism. I began my participation in forensics in 1974 as an eighth grader. I experienced sexism the same year. Over the years, I have faced harassment from coaches, judges, competitors, and even colleagues. As a coach, I have read ballots written to my female students that were completely inappropriate; I once had a male colleague tell me he wanted to judge one of my female debaters in order to ogle her ample chest. I’m not talking about gender differences in communication— I’m talking about overt, hostile sexism. The problem continues today. This past year the issue of sexism became a topic of heated discussion as personal narratives entered tournaments on the national circuit. The problem is not confined to the United States, either. Just this past March, two young women debating in Scotland encountered vicious verbal abuse in a final round. They have written extensively of their experience, and the story has received international attention. The women involved believe such behavior is on the rise from educated young men; to the degree that this is true, forensic educators have the opportunity to be on the front lines in countering such misogynist attitudes and behaviors.

Minimization by male colleagues is a related issue faced by female coaches. I have had colleagues assume that my win-loss record as a coach was less because I was a female. I have had male judges on panels interrupt me as I gave a decision. I had one male judge try to intimidate me by pushing up against me and using derogatory language directed at me as a female. Such odious behavior is completely unacceptable and should be called out, but the minimization can occur in more subtle ways, too—is there parity on committees, on judge panels, on institute staffs? There is a concept known as Government Legitimacy in Debate, the idea that members of a community see institutions as being legitimate constructs representing all constituencies fairly. This should be the goal of speech and debate organizations and committees, as well.

Experiences I faced as a young woman in this activity temporarily robbed me of my voice; ultimately, it was the power of debate that gave it back to me. Empower the young women in your schools and on your teams by protecting their access to this vital tool for finding and using their voice through participation in speech and debate.

Originally published in the Fall 2013 Rostrum, a publication of the National Speech & Debate Association (National Forensic League).

Inclusion, Exclusivity and the Great Thaw: One Female Coach’s Journey

By: Samantha Weiss

As a new female debate coach, I came on to the circuit scene in 2009 and most of the local coaches in SoCal were men. At first I felt very much excluded by a sense that I had just come out of nowhere (well I had, hadn’t I?) and I didn’t want to attribute it to my gender. I preferred to chalk up the rather chilly feeling in Tab to a certain aloofness that just came with the job and through all of the lifers knowing each other. So I just calmly reassured myself that with time they’d see that I was bringing true contenders into the ring and thus learn to accept and maybe appreciate me. Silly me. This business is competitive. They may very well have realized that I had some decent debaters, but that was not what led to any kind of warming trend. Damn if it didn’t just take time.

My favorite sign that I wasn’t welcome in Tab was in the fall when they had the game on full blast. Roll your eyes at the gender stereotype if you will, but any attempt at a ballot review or request for an explanation about the break was answered between grunts of anguish or jeers of delight as the digitized pigskin was wrestled across the fields. Resentment at the intrusion was tantamount to when a friend of mine accidentally called me during the season finale of House. I suppose it’s no different in any field – just a feeling that when I needed information, they were just about to open a box of cigars and wouldn’t I prefer to go relax with the bagels and the lay judges? Well no. See, I’d rather judge. If I can judge, you see, I thought I might be able to get down some of the arguments to help my students prepare for rounds against those teams. I learned that it makes for better debate when one can anticipate arguments. Several well thought out answers, layered across the flow, could give my students the edge. And it can help the opponent to become that much better when the flow is dense. And yet, I’m afraid I was of little help (my students reading this would fiercely jump to my defense – bless them – and think of all the ways I promoted them and furthered their position in the activity; but for the prep out, I was the female hearing equivalent of Mr. Magoo). The children would expend words at a ridiculous pace, mispronounced, poorly emphasized, in an almost intentionally disorganized spewing of rhetoric. [Ms. Weiss, if I put my framework at the bottom of my case, it really throws the newer debater – hahaha.] I thought, surely people don’t really catch all this. But people catch enough of it that they can claim they do catch it. And what goes lost on the distilled flow of the tense knuckled young judge, as he or she inks the rejoinders and frameworks and refutations, is a sense of the whole, a sum of the parts. There are only a few debaters that I’ve ever seen who can move all of the X’s and O’s across the page while at the same time delighting me with the over-arching truth in their cases. The rest of these youngsters are just bright and huffy and engaging in an activity that gives them improved access to ivy corridors. In my conversations with colleagues who walked around on the sidelines of this game far longer than I, I realize that we all share (female and male coaches) a common frustration that young adults have been allowed too much unchecked power to direct the activity. The educators are too few. I am astonished that a 45 year old woman with a Masters in English and a BA from Smith can be 5ed or 6ed to the point of being relegated to the bagel room at most circuit tournaments. Have I nothing to offer the precocious student in round in the way of an RFD? (I cringe to think of the flame war prone and their vitriolic responses were they to ever read this). One colleague told me that he strikes me because I’m unpredictable. My dear man, my RFD will be only as consistent as the content that is delivered. I was very sweet when I listened to him dish out this insult. Ah yes, I see; thanks for the bagels.

I can overcome being a woman and being 45 in this activity, but it’s so very unpleasant at times. The competitive nature of it all makes people exclusive and petty. And yet at other times, you meet colleagues who put themselves out there for you, who explain how to bid your hotel rooms to save you money, who lend you their home for your team to stay in for a tournament, who email one of your debaters who is down on his luck to help puff him back up a bit, or who take an hour to explain pre-fiat and post fiat to this coach who came very late to the debate activity. And there are coaches who take hours to discuss with you on the phone how to improve the activity and how to help bring the focus back on education and integrity and away from those who are still far too young or ruthless to understand the implications of coaching their students to steal prep, miscut evidence, etc. I’m so grateful to those who nudged over and let me join the party. It is a great activity. I’m still trying to elbow in and who knows, maybe some day when I go to sit in on a round, a student will see me and others my age, and understand the value of slowing down and making the round meaningful and enjoyable for everyone in that space. That person will be, in my mind, the smartest person in the room and I will delight in the verbal and intellectual volley that ensues. I will feel valued and included in the game.

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