Women in Debate: Creating Beyond Resolved

By Sarah Catherine Cook, The Altamont School (Alabama)

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The thing that was crazy about starting my website and organization Beyond Resolved, a platform for femxle voices in debate, is that I definitely WAS NOT a likely person to do so. I live in the biggest city in Alabama, which is still pretty small compared to other big cities and had only known what national circuit debate was for about a year. That’s pretty insignificant compared to the kids who had heard the words “Tournament of Champions” (the major national championship) for the past four years, or maybe even longer.

Being a national circuit debater is scary and demanding for everyone. Thousands of kids across the country spend hours every day researching and writing to try to get a 4-2 record in prelims to qualify for “outrounds” at a tournament. “Breaking”, or making it to elimination rounds,  is seen as a big accomplishment for younger teams, as they idolize the country’s “favorite” debaters. These debaters win massive tournaments and give seemingly flawless speeches. But, I was not one of those debaters when I started Beyond Resolved; in reality, I could barely make it to elims, had about three debate friends, and was pretty anxious about myself as a debater.

Everything had changed a few months before I started Beyond Resolved. As I wrote in my most recent blog post, it’s often hard to immediately attribute implicit actions to sexism; I’m definitely not one who LIKES to think that bad things are attributed to gender, and never want to falsely call something sexism. But once I saw it happening on a larger scale, it became hard to ignore the facts: Often, issues that affect many people disproportionately affect femxle debaters. I had heard teammates and other male debaters attribute my success to luck, telling me they hated the way my voice sounded when I spoke in round, seen circles of guys close right as I walked up, and watched my own teammate be excluded from research groups and group chats with echoes of her partner “carrying” her in round.

It’s no secret anymore that womxn in debate experience sexism; statistics don’t lie. At every tournament, there are significantly less womxn in outrounds, and significantly more womxn dropping out of the activity. Guys are always the ones who get the recognition, the opportunities, the “clout” and fame. The thing that clicked for me, and for many other femxles, was seeing it happen across the country and across different circuits. From Alabama, to New York, Texas, and California, the same issues were happening at all kinds of tournaments and debate programs. If you have any interest in reading some of the personal experiences of womxn in the debate community, you can check out beyondresolved.org/shame/. The biggest issue I saw was that womxn felt isolated from each other, and didn’t know that others were experiencing the same issues.

Though I never thought my website would actually be a success, my debate partner and I started it on a whim this summer as part of an effort to connect and empower womxn in the community. Though many womxn had spoken about experiences with sexism on different platforms, there had never been a platform that “did it all.” That is what we wanted to create: a central hub for womxn in Public Forum Debate. I remember the day it first started. I sat there watching the views climb in anticipation because I was so nervous about whether people would like it. Luckily, it’s been climbing ever since, with us reaching 20,000 views just the other day. Here is a brief list of our initiatives: we run a mentor program, run an active blog, are currently hosting an online and completely free tournament for female presenting/identifying or non-binary people, have an anonymous submissions page, run a hall of fame to calculate statistics from tournaments and celebrate femxle success in the activity, and sell some merch on the side.

None of this happened without a few bumps in the road. Being somewhat “moderate” about issues, I have received criticism from all spectrums about how I run the website. From people saying that Beyond Resolved discriminates against men, to saying that we assume gender by trying to calculate statistics of how many female presenting people are in outrounds, there is definitely never a boring day. But, to take my own side, I think that the way that we run the website has made it accessible to the most amount of people. There is no “men are trash” narrative that haters associate with feminism, and we don’t rush to conclusions about any forms of gender-based discrimination in debate. I’ve learned a lot about how to handle criticism. I need to be willing to negotiate but also stand strong in what I believe to be the best path for the organization.

My favorite part about the whole experience of running the website is gaining a new connection to the womxn around me. I’ve started to take notice and feel proud of other womxn doing great things, especially for programs and people who endorse womxn supporting other womxn. Of course it feels really good to receive messages from femxle debaters telling me that the website makes them feel supported, gives them a voice, or gives them friends in the activity. Personal favorites of mine were one freshman who thought someone definitely older than me ran BR (we love professional emails!), and someone else telling me they were “honored” that I commented on their Instagram post (very sweet but also very funny). But what feels even better is being able to feel like I’m making an impact on the community I love. I’ve realized that you don’t have to have it all going for you to start something or be the person to make change; you just have to be willing to put energy and time into something you care about.

Being a femxle leader in the community has definitely been a big step for me, as sometimes it feels like the entire world is watching. I feel pressure to do well at tournaments so younger womxn in debate can look up to me as a debater as well as an advocate, almost as if my voice wouldn’t matter as much if I lost more rounds. I also feel pressure from the community because so many big debate organizations have announced their support for us that I never want to “ruin it” or fail, as that would mean losing them. I also feel pressure to make the right decisions. Everything that happens on the website reflects on me, and everything that I do reflects on the website. It’s something that takes care, but also takes being careful. But, I think we all should be more careful, not as womxn, but as human beings. These days I see less and less of explicit sexism, but more and more of implicit forms of it: things that cannot necessarily be easily ascribed to gender unless seen from a larger perspective.

We, as human beings, should all take the time to point out the subtle issues we see in a way that is not combative, but productive and understanding, as that is the way that we can actually promote productive change. I think that’s what Beyond Resolved is all about: pointing out the things that are wrong and right without pushing blame at any specific person or group, and finding ways to fix them.