At a debating competition at the Glasgow University Union last weekend, Cambridge debater Rebecca Meredith and her debating partner from Edinburgh University Marlena Valles were subjected to sexist comments and heckling as they were competing in the final. In this piece, Rebecca tells her story:
In the past three days I have received hundreds of emails from women all over the world. Women from the Philippines, from South Africa, from America and the UK have emailed me to say: "I am a young, intelligent woman who debates, and I have been a victim of misogyny."
I have been debating since I was 14 years old. At school it was a hobby, a way to get CV points; at university it allowed me to go all over the world and speak; and on Saturday it thrust me into one of the most unpleasant incidents of my life. It began as soon as a female friend and I opened the final of the Glasgow University Union Ancients debating competition. Like the other six individuals speaking in that final, we had gone through five rounds of debating and won enough debates to reach the final, held in the GUU debating chamber. Unlike the other six individuals in that final, we were booed, heckled with "shame woman" and exposed to sexual comments and queries of "what qualifications does a woman possibly have to be here". The difference between us? We were female.
During the debate, a select number of male students, including former committee members and even an ex-president, made sexual comments about our appearance, shouted "shame woman", booed loudly and questioned "what does a woman know anyway?". This was not mere heckling, and not related to the content of our speeches. None of the male speakers faced the same treatment. After the debate, a member of this group shouted "get that woman out of my chamber" as my partner Marlena passed.
When female students heard these comments, one confronted the male members and was told to stop being a "frigid bitch". After the debate, a female Cambridge student rose to confront the perpetrators. The organisers of the tournament, and GUU committee members, begged her to sit down and not "cause trouble". I myself confronted one of the male members concerned, and the GUU committee, only to be told that it was "to be expected" and "par for the course" that women would be booed in the GUU chamber. When I asked whether they would accept the treatment of racial minority speakers in the same way, I was told "they would be booed too, but we don't have them here." The committee accepted we were booed because we were women, not for any other reason, but refused to take action against their members.
This is not the first time the GUU has been accused of misogyny. Every year a number of members choose to celebrate the men who voted against admitting women to the union in the 1980s with a celebratory dinner in their honour. As an outsider, I was shocked to hear a Union pub quiz in which the question, "how many men voted against letting women into the GUU" was met with a torrent of applause from male students.
Students from Glasgow told us that the male members concerned often shouted "whore" and "slut" at female students; while a former female committee member stated that she had adopted "battered wife syndrome" and had risen to the top of the GUU by accepting and ignoring misogyny. One said "things will never change here, they are too powerful ".
I can tolerate heckling, and I don't mind if the crowd wishes to express its approval or disproval on my arguments. I have argued with enough male professors at my university to know when to stand up for myself. What I refuse to accept is that being by virtue of being a woman, I should be abused and targeted in a way men are not. I refuse to believe that women should accept being overtly sexualised or targeted as "par for the course" in a university which is supposed to represent learning and equality.
In the wake of the incident, I have been contacted by hundreds of women and men. Many of those were from Glasgow University, and reported having abandoned debating as a fresher because they were subject to misogyny. Another Glasgow University student reported hearing committee members singing songs about rape. Others were debaters from all over the world. One student told me she'd been told to wear a shorter skirt in order to win debates, others explained that they had been told that when male speakers debate, they sound "persuasive", but the tone of a woman's voice makes her sound hysterical. I myself have been told to defer to my male partner since "men are more convincing".
There are many lovely people at the GUU, and several of individuals apologised to me in a personal capacity. But this incident is not an isolated one; and we aren't two women who just want to complain for the fun of it. It represents dozens of women at Glasgow who have felt personally violated by virtue of their gender, who have abandoned competitive debating because of discrimination, and women all over the world who take part in competitive debating and feel they are not considered equal to men in the world of rhetoric and academia.
My friend and I decided that we would not let this happen to us and say nothing. I created an online survey with the help of my boyfriend, in which debaters could anonymously report on misogyny within debating. Within six hours, we had over 150 responses. Reports came from all over the world that women had faced sexual harassment, derogatory comments and abuse, but had remained silent. We intend to use that survey to compile a report with ideas for practical change within debating to combat misogyny. To be clear, debating is a friendly and usually inclusive environment; there are many world-class university speakers who are women. But the events at GUU tell us that some unions still face institutional sexism, where women have to accept sexism to stay involved or to debate, and where abuse on the basis of gender is normalised. It tells us that though debating is a wonderful activity, it suffers from a lingering misogyny which needs to be solved.
In the national media, details of the incident had been invented without ever speaking to us. One daily tabloid claimed we were reduced to tears in the chamber. Another claimed that we were upset because the boys called us ugly. None of this is accurate. What began as our attempt to create change had morphed into a stereotype story about two weak women who cried when boys were mean to them.
Commentators from the public attacked us for being "wrapped in cotton wool" and "clearly not good enough debaters to deal with it". Debating shouldn't be about shouting over men who believe your gender makes you inherently inferior as a speaker. The equal art of debate is not for men to have a free platform to speak while women are sexualised and abused. To debate is to be judged on argument, to be listened to on an equal platform as your competitor. We were judged on our gender, we were deemed unequal because we were women who had chosen to speak in the Glasgow Union. We did not run away crying. We confronted the committee at GUU, and an individual involved, and what shocked us the most was that we were met with a brick wall of silence. The world of the 21st Century should not be a world in which women are to accept that they should shout over sexist abuse, not because their arguments are being challenged, but because they are female.
Social media also shocked me: my Facebook profile was shared by male GUU members around the internet, while university websites placed pictures of me, taken from the internet in their "hotties" section.
In the wake of the event, several student societies at Glasgow University disaffiliated from the GUU, while the Cambridge Union promised not to send any of its debaters to the union until sexism has been dealt with. A petition to hold the members to account was set up by a student at Glasgow University, which has received over three thousand signatures. In response, the GUU has promised to look into the incident and work on the pervasive culture of misogyny it suffers from. I sincerely hope that they follow this through. They owe it to the many bright young women who have personally contacted me in the past few days to say that they left debating because of the treatment they faced at the GUU. Those same women have created a Facebook page for sharing experiences about misogyny at the GUU. Above all, I hope that the hobby I enjoy learns that GUU is not an isolated case, but that latent misogyny which tells young men that the male rhetorician is inherently more persuasive, or that girls must only win debates because of who they have sex with, has to be tackled.
Women can debate just as well as men, and we can deal with hecklers just as well as men. What we shouldn't have to deal with is a world in which to get ahead we have to ignore sexism when we see it, that we have to accept being booed for our gender when men are not, and that we have to see ourselves be turned into crying damsels when we speak out. Please argue with me, please leave comments challenging me, but please, please, do not refuse to listen to me simply because I am a woman.