Breaking Boundaries in Debate

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

When she walked up to a group of boys during debate tournaments, they quickly closed her out of their circle. When she debated in front of judges, she received comments on the length of her skirt and the pitch of her voice rather than the merit of her words.

Despite these experiences, Sara Catherine Cook has stuck with debate for the last five years in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama—because she didn’t want to abandon her fellow female debaters who fought through the pushback.

As Cook’s confidence grew, so did her success within debate—but as soon as she hit the national circuit she recognized something was wrong. “It was kind of confusing as to whether they were issues attributed to elitism, or whether they were issues attributed to sexism,” she told Ms. “A lot of it was mixed together.”

(Beyond Resolved / Facebook)

The gender disparity is the most clear in the Public Forum category of debate, where a current event resolution is proposed and teams argue against each other either for or against it. Student-led research of 50 debate tournaments nationwide, including local fixed-round and national circuit elimination competitions, found that in half of all elimination tournaments, there were all boys in finals. What’s worse, there was no single tournament with more than one girl in finals, even though 42 percent of the participants identified as female on average. The staggering numbers, uncovered by student researcher Julia Lynn and Ohio’s Laurel School director of speech and debate Rich Kawolics, appeared in a spring 2018 issue of Rostrum, a publication of the National Speech and Debate Association.

Despite the countless inclusivity discussions and online Facebook posts about sexism in the debate space, Cook and her debate partner, Anna Kate Lembke, found rhetoric and research wasn’t changing the space for female debaters. In the summer of 2018, they launched Beyond Resolved—an online forum that’s since garnered 34,000 viewers. The website provides mentorship, allows users to participate in virtual debates, makes space to highlight the success of female debaters and brought 14 girl-girl partnerships into the fold of an online tournament this past December.

“In a community that is mostly males, trying to stand out as a woman on a girl-girl team has become increasingly difficult, but Beyond Resolved has been the first step towards stopping the current bias,” Harishri Savdharia, who lives in Silverado, California and debates for Fairmont Preparatory Academy with her sister, Hitakshi, told Ms. “I feel much more included in the community.”

Cook and Lembke’s mission also goes beyond community-building. One teen anonymously shared an experience in the Beyond Resolved Hall of Shame in which a female judge told teens to “wear less makeup next time, ladies”—and then, after the teen won, told her and her partner that “you debate better than your face.”

The pair has already cooked up a plan to stop sexist judges: The platform plans to make a training video for judges to publish online and send to schools. “We also plan on expanding coverage on disparities in debate to the experiences of women in color in debate,” Cook added, “as well as those who are non-binary.”

Chase Williams, co-founder of for-profit debate training camp The Institute for Speech and Debate, is also a strong supporter of Beyond Resolved. He’s been promoting it on social media and donated Beyond Resolved tee shirts for the online women’s tournament; he is also trying to increase inclusivity discussions at ISD’s annual camp summer sessions.

“Change has been slow and there is still so much more to do,” he told Ms., “but I support organizations like BR because these organizations are a critical part of that better future.”

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Riya Bindlish is the Opinions editor at The Wildcat Tribune, the official student paper of Dougherty Valley High School, and previously served as staff writer and sports copy editor. She is a member at-large of DV Speech and Debate.