Since early high school, my typical weekend has consisted of waking up at 6:00 a.m. and riding a bus to competitively argue with young adults from across the country. While participating in Speech and Debate may not sound like everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday, it has changed my life. Debate teaches research, critical thinking, and self esteem, and I believe it has the potential to educate and empower every young person in our community and state—particularly women and girls.
Because of its unfortunately limited funding and publicity, most people don’t know much about debate. Also called forensics, Debate is much like a sport; to participate, high school and college teams train in a variety of events, which include competitive spars over foreign and domestic policy issues, memorized speeches and scripts, and extemporaneous oration challenges. Then, we travel to tournaments to compete with other schools for individual and team trophies and awards in these events.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge the more hokey aspects of this activity. As a teenager, wearing a suit every other weekend and spending your free time researching current events sounds like a pretty good recipe for getting your lunch money taken. This inherent nerd-factor may be the biggest hurdle debate faces in its attempts to reach more and different students. As a debate minor in my fifth year of competitive debate, I believe strongly that every part of this activity—nerdiness included—can uplift the students who need it most.
Who are those students? Forensics has enormous potential to counteract a startlingly pervasive systemic silencing of young women and girls. While many educators are aware of the well-documented phenomenon of female students raising their hands less often—a disparity which usually arises around seventh grade—fewer understand their likely contributions to the development of this unequal participation. A 2011 study (Robinson and Lubienski 2011) published in The American Educational Research Journal compared achievement outcomes between boys and girls in reading and math and found no difference in achievement among kindergarteners, but a notable discrepancy in both reading and math by second or third grade. In a 2009 book titled Still Failing at Fairness: How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and Boys in School and What We Can Do About It, researchers suggest that educators’ higher expectations of boys are a self-fulfilling prophecy: teachers perceive boys as smarter, and respond (usually unintentionally) by calling on them more in class (Miller et al.). As a result, boys get more practice speaking up, more confidence asserting their opinions, and more social reinforcement for being intelligent.
The impacts of this disparity reverberate into high school, college, and career life. A 2014 article published in Perspectives on Politics found that women on decision-making teams are significantly more likely to be interrupted and less likely to speak, taking up just a quarter to a third of discussion time in policymaking settings unless they compose a strong majority of the group (Mendelberg et al. 2014). And although dismantling the disproportionate masculinity of board rooms and governing bodies at every level is a critical goal, it’s lofty and long-term. We need to raise women who feel comfortable speaking in those male-dominated rooms, too.
So why debate? From these harrowing numbers, I venture to see a glass half-full. The way educators teach girls to speak up has the potential to dismantle entrenched gender disparities in participation across fields and well into adulthood. Girls empowered to speak up in school will become doctors, lawyers, and politicians empowered to advocate for policies that serve them. We have the ability to foster communication proficiency in school—and speech and debate is an excellent vehicle for catalyzing its growth.
This is because forensics happens at the nexus of personal narrative and scholastic argumentation, allowing girls to explore the intersections of their personal identities and experiences with academic interests and ambitions. As a high school competitor, I gave speeches about my experience with disordered eating and anxiety, parts of myself I was only beginning to understand. To write and deliver these speeches was cathartic. To win trophies for them was formatively empowering. By high school, no one’s asking who you are; they’re asking what happened in the War of 1812 or what literary devices Ernest Hemingway used. So while you might be making written or verbal arguments, they’re rarely self-reflective. This leaves students—especially young women—to fend for themselves when it comes to processing struggles that often emerge in adolescence, such as mental health issues and abusive relationships.
Speaking about my experience helped me to turn adversity into advocacy. I was taught not only to write speeches about problems, but also to propose solutions. What policies could support people experiencing my struggles? What did I want to say to peers experiencing the same issues? As girls on my team and from other schools in the region spoke up about similar and adjacent challenges, I was able to build community and empathy with them, helping me to feel less alone. Speech became a saving grace, allowing me to imagine light at the end of a previously pitch-black tunnel.
The academic side of debate proved equally fruitful. As I learned to effectively research and write about nuanced political, legal, and social issues, I grew comfortable playing policymaker. I became familiar with the path from hearing an acronym I didn’t recognize to learning about the benefits and harms of the policy it stood for. My peers and I began to envision ourselves in roles of influence, researching law schools and political careers.
During debates, I often found myself the only girl in a room of confident adolescent boys. Opposing them was constructive to my growth—I learned to stand up for my beliefs, even when they were questioned or outright disparaged by my peers. I began to identify subtle misogyny and call it out, a tool I would use in every part of my life. I learned these skills from strong women on my team, and when I became a leader later in my debate career, I taught the girls on my team to—for lack of better words—take no shit. We relished in that newfound power, carrying it into our academic and personal lives. Even more formative than debating boys was beating them. My self-esteem gradually separated from male approval and recentered around my own achievement. I believe every girl needs and deserves that experience.
Debate also helped me to understand intersectional experiences that I had previously been too privileged to know. As an upper-middle-class white kid, I took a lot for granted. Debate helped me to think about the impacts of various policies on historically marginalized groups, asking me to engage with issues of racial justice and LGBT+ inclusion head-on. It also required me to think about communities and issues to which I had little or no exposure. How would a new trade policy affect farmers in Mexico? Factory workers in Michigan? Global emissions? I learned to form my opinions based on their holistic impacts—and to acknowledge that those impacts often extend far beyond my understanding. I felt humbled but not defeated; I’m grateful for the perspective this learning continues to provide me in my college education and activism. Because the movement for gender equity inside and outside the classroom must be intersectional and widespread, these understandings are critical for any student and are uniquely accessible through debate.
As a teenage girl, debate was just what I needed. It has shaped me into a confident, assertive, capable, and thoughtful person. It has allowed me to reclaim my experiences and shape their narratives. It has encouraged me to question my assumptions about others and consider their lives in my own politics and opinions.
Debate is a versatile and irreplicable vehicle for growing ourselves, our careers, and our communities. Unfortunately, debate teams in Nevada and across the country face disproportionately low participation from women. This is a disappointing missed opportunity. In the face of recent equity movements and a broader effort by educators and coaches across the country to increase opportunities for women in all corners of forensics, there has never been a better time for girls to get involved.
Hannah Branch is a sophomore at the University of Nevada, UNR, where she is majoring in political science and English and minoring in debate. Hannah discovered a love for community building as a young teen activist in Reno; she is the founder of the educational organization Reno Alliance for Free Tutoring and co-founder of the anti-racism group Washoe County Students for Change. Hannah enjoys engaging with local politics and has worked in communications and grassroots organizing for several local campaigns. She now works at the UNR Writing and Speaking Center, where she supports students of all majors in improving their writing skills.
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