Female Hist members discuss sexism in debating: “It’s a boys’ club”

Catherine Healy

News Editor

The College Historical Society was rocked earlier this week by the publication of a document demanding an end to sexism within the society.  The committee has since agreed to elect a temporary equity officer and introduce a minimum gender quote for future debates.

We spoke yesterday to Alex Trant, Dee Courtney, Alexa Donnelly and Naoise Dolan, four of the five signatories of the document.


Why did you make your demands public?

Alex Trant: There were issues over a period of time. It was only when we came together to discuss the extent of the problem that we realised drastic action was needed.

Dee Courtney: It’s important to remember as well that we had a committee meeting on Monday and it was clear that our demands were going to be met at that point. The reason we went public is because we felt it was a society as well as a committee issue. It’s important for freshers to know that things are going to change and it will be different for them if they run for committee. The reason we went public wasn’t to put pressure on people.

AT: The response has been really admirable. People thought it might deter freshers from us but, if anything, it shows we’re trying to address the issue. We want other members who feel the same way to know it’s a general problem.

DC: There was a wide range of people who shared [the note]. Ursula Ní Choill, our former auditor, has been really supportive.

AT: A lot of people have been saying that these issues have needed to be addressed in not only the Hist but the GMB and debating circuit in general. We did a workshop on sexism in debating at competition in Limerick last year but a lot of people there thought it wasn’t a problem. A lot of the problems we’ve had sometimes seem too insignificant to bring up. The debating scene can make you feel stupid for trying to bring up those small examples of sexism.  Several people experienced sexism but never realised it.

Why do you think sexism is so difficult to articulate?

DC: Debating as a whole is so male dominated. All of the best debaters are usually male. A lot of the qualities we attribute to good debaters, like aggression, are ones we attribute to men before we do to women. The best young speakers are always the ones we consider most similar to older speakers and most of those older speakers are male. It’s really important that we’ll get to see different types of speakers because of these quotas. You often find young female debaters who stop debating after a year. There’s never a clear reason until you ask them personally, and the answer is often that they’re intimidated out of it. People have often talked about the nature of sexism, but I feel like what we’re doing now is different. We have demands which are going to be able to change things.

Is there a need for a cultural change as well?

Alexa Donnelly: Yeah. The cultural things can often to pushed aside as not misogynistic and that’s why we’ve we gone into such detail in the document.

DC: When a guy gets loud and starts throwing his verbal weight around in debating, he’s called passionate. When one of us gets passionate, we’re emotional, or we’re on our periods, or we’re crazy feminists.

Are gender quotas the answer?

AT: We’ve tried all the alternatives and they haven’t worked. We’ve been trying to address the problem since the start of the year and it hasn’t solved itself.

AD: Women are in such a minority at the moment that we can’t wait. It’s not that the situation is getting better. When I first joined the society, there were loads of older female members hanging around and giving advice. That’s not there anymore. The idea that things are getting better for women and that quotas aren’t necessary just isn’t true.

DC: We’ve noticed that the number of women speaking at debates has gotten lower and lower this year. At the three previous debates [before Wednesday’s gender quotes debate], only one woman spoke. We’ve talked to women who are very good speakers but have been turned off because it’s a boys’ club. No-one wants to be the token woman in the debate who everyone treats as the token woman.

AT: In competitive debating as well, you often look around at a room of seven speaker and three to four judges, and realise you’re the only woman there.

To what extent can you attribute sexist attitudes to the background of male debaters? Why do male debaters often identify as feminists but sometimes don’t treat women in a feminist way?

DC: This might sound inflammatory or harsh, but it does start in school. Alexa and I both run school competitions. She runs the Leinster Schools’ Debating Competition and I help to run a smaller competition. The best schools, the schools that win every competition, are private, all-boys schools from south Dublin. They have debating coaches who teach them how to debate, how to talk about feminism, but they don’t have any contact with women in education, and their contact with women in their daily lives is limited to social events. So I do think it starts at schools where there’s a culture of having to be the most confident and knowing the most and winning competitions. These debater schools are boys’ clubs. Even the girls who win are usually from south Dublin private schools as well. It’s rare to see anyone from public school breaking through, and that continues on into college.

Naoise Dolan: I think part of the problem as well is that we talk about misogyny in debating in a very simplified way, as with other concepts we analyse. Men have trouble acknowledging that they might have been sexist without feeling that they’ve signed up to the patriarchy. Some men on committee feel that they’ve been tarred with the same brush in the note, but we didn’t make any specific charges in it.

AT: We do want to stress that some people on committee haven’t contributed at all to the problem.

AD: I would just like everyone to check themselves though. A lot of them have jumped to say, “Oh, well, it’s not me.”

ND: Some have claimed it was unnecessary because they’d already agreed to the changes. But in the day between the meeting and that note, and at the meeting as well, some of them did respond to charges with, “That’s not a gendered issue.”

So there are individuals who haven’t yet acknowledged their role in the problem?

DC: That is an issue with some of them rather than a majority.

ND: It’s not necessarily that we have more sexist people on committee this year – though that may be a factor. The real identifiable issue is that committee meetings have been looser; it’s been easier for people to interrupt others.

Were those older female debaters who approached you familiar with the problems you raised?

All: Yes

Did the presence of a female auditor not change things?

AD: It was obviously going to be better when there was a woman auditor and more female officers. But you can always identity wider problems in competitive debating.

Have you ever felt sexually objectified by debaters?

AD: Not really.

DC: Nothing springs to mine but I know from speaker to other women that it’s not so much a sexual objectification when you’re undermined. There’s an insinuation that you’re sexless.

At: You can’t be feminine and powerful.

DC: You’re seen to lose your femininity if you speak up.

AT: It’s particularly bad on the Scottish and English [debating] circuit. I know one judge at a competition told a female speaker during feedback that she shouldn’t be wearing a low cut top. There was also an incident at a competition in Glasgow last year, where two female speakers were heckled and had misogynistic slurs shouted at them. The English circuit is a lot worse. They have several women-only competitions to develop young speakers there. We went to one last year and it was the first time I really enjoyed competitive debating.

AD: I was considering running a Leinster competition for girls only, but I don’t think I’ll have the time.

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.