It’s shocking but unsurprising that this sort of thing still happens, but women debaters at the Glasgow Union were openly booed — not for doing a bad job, but for their sex. Rebecca Meredith’s facebook page has the story, reproduced here because I know some of you are members of the Facebook Resistance.
Last night the amazing Marlena Valles and I were openly booed by a small number of misogynistic male Glasgow Union debaters and members during the final of the Glasgow Ancients competition for our presence as female speakers. Sexist comments were made about our appearance, and we were told to "get that woman out my my union" by a male member. Our speeches were interrupted by cries of "shame woman" and boos at mention of female equality within the context of the final. Sexism is not just something we talk about – it is something real people experience everyday. After complaining, we were told by several GUU debaters that it was "par for the course" and "to be expected" that female speakers in the Glasgow debating chamber would be booed (though several members including the wonderful John McKee supported us admirably). I have been told as a female debater that I should be careful not to sound "hysterical" as a female speaker, I have been told to defer to my male partner on analysis and economics because male debaters are "more convincing", but never have I been openly disparaged in a final merely for being a woman. I was increadibly proud to be in the final of the LSE Open with the wonderful Freddy Powell, epecially against the likes of Sam Block and Fred Cowell, but was deeply saddened to be informed by several other debaters (well meaningly) that I should be proud to be only the 4th woman to ever get there in the past 5 years. I am not proud, I am sad. Debaters should probably realise that while we all say we care about sexism, incidents like those of last night, the lack of proportionate numbers of females in competitive finals, and (most worryingly) the number of female freshers who report they have abandoned debating due to sexist behaviour or intimidation are not acceptable, and we should probably start doing things to change them.
This weekend was Glasgow University Union’s annual Ancients competition. For those who don’t know what happened, during mine and my partner’s speeches, in opening government, we were “shame”-d and booed by members of the audience whenever we spoke about how the motion ‘This House Regrets the Centralization of Religion’ affected women (My partner spoke about Leila Ahmed and female clergy and I spoke about dogmatic opposition to contraception and Catholics who identified as pro-choice). We both realised why we were being booed: it was because we were advocating for women’s rights, speaking in the GUU. It was only when one of the men making the misogynistic comments and interruptions had the nerve to stand up in the floor debate and very sarcastically say, “The GUU has been proudly admitting women for thirty three years and we are committed to equality” when a member of the audience bravely stood up and responded in a rousing five-minute floor speech telling the entire chamber that the men who were booing us were whispering *women* after shouting “shame” at all of our points and making patronizing comments about our dresses. Her brilliant speech called them out and received a standing ovation from a large majority of the chamber and is without a doubt, the most inspiring thing I have seen in debating.
I understand the way that the GUU “bear pit” chamber works, I have spoken in outrounds at Ancients since my first year and last year, was a guest speaker for the Facist party at one of the Union’s famous Parliamentaries. I am fine with speaking to the gallery and having audience members clap when they like a point and even say “shame” when they don’t. What I’m not okay with is people interrupting speeches to be misogynistic. It is difficult to speak confidently to an audience that is booing you for the sole reason that you are a woman in a dress talking about women’s rights, especially when you are the only girls in the final (which is depressingly often the case on the Scottish debating circuit). I realize that it was only a few men who don’t usually debate competitively that were involved with the heckling. The problem was that it was the entire Union that seemed to be weirdly proud of its misogynistic roots throughout the competition. The social Friday night was a pub quiz which included the question, “In 1980 the GUU had a vote to allow women into the Union. There is an annual dinner to honour the men who voted against the motion– how many men were there?” and the two GUU teams participating in the quiz whooped and banged their hands on the table in support of the voters against.
After the final, I had six separate members of the GUU, many of whom I have been friends with for years, approach me and give the exact same apologist speech – “I’m sorry that they did that, but they aren’t bad guys and it’s just how it is here and how they are. They are only joking”. We were told that that was the GUU and that it was “part of the course” and our fault for calling ourselves QMU A. My partner and I were a composite team, as Ancients is an Open, and Ancients has a policy of only allowing serious sounding team names. QMU was Glasgow University’s women’s union and as an all-female team (one of four at a twenty-eight team competition) the description fit. Later, as I was getting a drink, one of the men who was booing us said quite audibly “Get that woman out of my chamber” as his GUU friends, who had minutes ago apologised for his behaviour, laughed along.
This is my question: Members of the GUU clearly knew that this was something that happened. They knew that certain members would boo women if they spoke about women’s rights. Why on earth were they allowed to come to observe the final and why were they not asked to leave after or at the very least, issue a genuine apology to the speakers that they had rudely interrupted with their misogyny?
The reason that I am writing this post is because at Ancients, nothing has changed over the last three years. I remember when I was a first year, in 2011, the opening PowerPoint read “Proudly admitting women since 1980” with the word ‘proudly’ crossed out. I feel so sorry for the women that debate in that Union, especially because the reasoning for why none of them stand up against it as told to me by three senior GUU women was that that is just how things are done and “If you can’t beat them, join them” which is intolerable. The sexism of the GUU isn’t quaint and it is not a tradition to be jokingly celebrated. I appreciate the efforts of members within the GUU to make it better and maybe that incident needed to happen because we were told by many senior GUU female members that they couldn’t do anything about it without being laughed down. Until this is genuinely dealt with, as the director of training for the Edinburgh University Debates Union, I would be incredibly wary of sending female first years to Ancients next year and will certainly not be attending in the future unless there is assurance that this won’t happen again.
This controversy has been more frustrating than anything I have ever encountered in debating. I have spoken on motions that I thought were beyond the pale and I’ve had people say quite rude things to me in debates but I have never seen such an abysmal response from a Union for something so clearly sexist. I cannot imagine that if the same situation happened but audience members in a large final were shouting out racist or homophobic interjections the response from the hosting institution would be “That is just how it is done here” or “You provoked them with your team name”.
I would like to thank the CA’s Pam Cohn and John Beechnoir as well as the equity officer, John McKee, for making it exceptionally clear that these comments should not be tolerated. If only the GUU would do the same.
As is clear from the comments, this behavior is not universal — it seems to be a small obnoxious minority that are doing their damnedest to create an uncomfortable environment for women, while the majority approve of greater participation by everyone. But as we’ve learned on the internet as well, assholes everywhere are really good at cloaking themselves in the defensive armor of “Free Speech!” and doing their best to create a chilly atmosphere for genuinely open communication.