For women on the debate team at Hofstra University, where Clinton and Donald Trump will take the stage Monday night for the first presidential debate, these are complaints they’re all too familiar with.
“I’ve been called every nice word and every word in the book,” said Dr. Tomeka Robinson, who directs Hofstra’s Speech and Debate team and has been in the debate world for 16 years. “Male competitors can be a little bit more aggressive and it’s just seen as being as assertive, whereas with women, we sometimes get the ‘B’ term used with us.”
“During interpretation events where we choose different pieces of literature to argue a point ― like sometimes the women are viewed as more emotional in their approach while the men are viewed as more argumentative in their approach,” added Christina Mary Joseph, an undergraduate student who is in her second year of debate.
Americans aren’t used to seeing women on debate stages. Clinton, after all, is the first female presidential nominee from a major party ― making Monday night’s debate historic. Trump has already tried to sow doubts about her by repeatedly telling voters that she doesn’t look “presidential.”
This sort of slap in the face isn’t just affecting actual presidential candidates. Anna Waters, a junior at Northwestern who has years of debate experience, wrote in the Washington Post recently about a 16-year-old female debater who was told she didn’t look “presidential” enough after a competition. From her piece:
The female high school debaters I know have been belittled by male opponents and told to shush. Judges and parents call these young women naggy, shrill and even bitchy. They’re told to smile more and sometimes get more in-depth criticism of their hem length than their argumentation. Isabelle Bavis, a junior at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, who has been called “screechy” on ballots, puts it simply: “The language they use to correct us is not the same language used when correcting the boys.”
Jeff Hannan, a fellow debate coach, noticed this, too, and began collecting ballots that showed sexist double standards in judging. In one case, two male competitors had debated two female ones. The judge’s comments for the men: “Very good, strong stance” and “very good, strong, forceful.” For the women? “Monitor your emotions in response to your opponent” and “make sure you are not too overly aggressive.”
Robinson said Monday that there is often a dress code for women during debates, with judges preferring skirts, pantyhose and heels.
“We’re often not only looked at as more aggressive if we’re speaking a certain way,” said Rachel Garnett, a graduate student at Hofstra who is assistant coach of the debate team, “but we’re also judged off the way we look, which our male competitors aren’t as much, or at all really.”