“Get that woman out of my chamber”: the importance of the Oxford Union’s all-women’s debating competition

My involvement in competitive debating began in my third year at school, to jibes about being a “mass debater”, which simply never got old (or funny). Moving onto the university circuit, things were similarly insular: much like other pastimes, competitive debating has a fairly large and passionate community but one which tends to keep itself to itself, and is more used to discussing the headlines than making them.

However, that briefly changed in March, when for about a week, the details of what happened at a comparatively small debating competition were plastered all over the press, in both student and national publications. At the final of Glasgow University Union’s annual ‘Ancients’ competition, the only two female speakers left in the competition, Rebecca Meredith and Marlena Valles, were subject to sexist abuse from a small section of the audience.

They were heckled as they made feminist arguments in a way that male speakers making similar arguments were not, subject to derogatory comments about their appearances and met with cries of “shame, woman” throughout. When the competition’s co-chief adjudicator called out the hecklers on their behaviour, she was derided as a “frigid bitch.”

When Marlena and Rebecca expressed their anger with what had happened later on, they were repeatedly told by GUU members, and some of the competition’s organisational committee, that the audience members in question “probably didn’t mean anything by it” and that such abuse was “par for the course” in the chamber, whilst one heckler was alleged to have protested to “get that woman out of my chamber”. The sort of boorish, Neanderthal abuse both speakers were subject to, and the odious apologism that followed obviously has no place in any quarter of society, and it was right that those actions were held up to scrutiny in the nation’s papers. What was disheartening was the form that some of that scrutiny took.

PHOTO / Ljijana Bozoviz

The focus of the Mail’s headline was that the speakers had been brought to the brink of tears, casting Marlena and Rebecca into a victim’s role that, knowing them personally, I can say isn’t one these strong individuals are apt to play. The Telegraph’s article, demoted the female co-CA, Pam Cohn to the position of deputy, and her male co-CA, John Beechinor to be sole CA with seemingly little foundation other than the overtly sexist assumption of male superiority. The Spectator published an article under the headline ‘If Cambridge’s debating girls can’t stand the heat, they should stay out of Glasgow’s kitchens’, a headline which manages to cram an impressive amount of things to get angry about into just 15 words (including casting Edinburgh student Marlena as a Tab), and going onto suggest that “rough and tumble of a dialectical free-for-all is not for [women]”.

The coverage was not only infuriating for often expressing forms of the very attitudes it attempted to decry, but for also ignoring the positive way in which the debating community responded to the events of Ancients. An anonymous Facebook discussion forum was set up with the intention of ‘Combatting Sexist and Misogynist Experiences on the IONA Circuit’ (IONA being ‘Islands of the North Atlantic’, the, admittedly preposterously poncey way in which the British Isles is referred to in debate-chat). An Oxford Women’s announced that a discussion session would be held in which to address the issues faced by women in debating, and the way to lower barriers to entry.

Oxford Women’s is a competition which is now in its fourth year. It is unique amongst all other debating competitions in that it is exclusively spoken in, and judged by, self-identifying women. Chessy Whalen, a Balliol first-year, and the competition’s co-convenor says: “Women’s exists in order to provide a competition which can help tackle the gender disparity in debating. Debating should be an environment where gender does not impact upon success but unfortunately it appears that isn’t true and Women’s seeks to tackle that.”

At the very top echelons of competitive debating, female speakers are well-represented: the top ranked individual speaker at the most recent World University Debating Championship was female, whilst Nita Rao (pictured) was one half of the winning Monash team.  Obviously, these achievements should be no more remarkable than those of men, and that they are not is problematic. But, it is sadly commonplace to see major university finals exclusively spoken in by men, with women hugely under-represented: Women’s seeks to turn this on its head.

The Oxford Union. PHOTO/Jay Cross


But where does that lack of representation stem from? Women’s will contain a forum in which these issues will be discussed, as part of the presentation of a report done by Rebecca Meredith on the responses to an online survey put together in the aftermath of the Ancient’s incident. “We live in a society which, from an early age discourages girls from voicing their opinions or seeming too aggressive or bossy and at the same time rewards those qualities in boys, and that’s something that should be addressed at the root”, says David Wigley, a New College fresher and co-convenor of the competition.

However, they add that, “when debating is so male-dominated it can feel a bit like a boys’ club which can feel pretty exclusive. Because of this, it’s important to make the best use of experienced female speakers in coaching and mentoring programmes and to actively consider how to fight the “boys’ club” impression – which often happens accidentally.”

There has been a general consensus that, to quote David, “the heckling itself was obviously down to a few overprivileged men (who weren’t debaters) at the GUU, and I’d find it hard to imagine debaters – who are usually better than average when it comes to equality issues – acting in the same way.” However, the aftermath of the Ancients incident, when so many people’s stories of sexism, and common themes abounded of disrespectful comments about appearance, it was clear that not enough was being done to extirpate debating of the latent sexism which abounds within, as it does within wider society.

That misogyny perhaps rears its head less frequently and dramatically than in other social spheres, is not reason to become complacent. As Tasha points out: “Debating is not a post-patriarchal utopia”. And it probably, disappointingly, never will be. But a competition such as Women’s does a great amount to encourage equal participation in a valuable activity which many women may have been put off from, either by the behaviour of male debaters, or perhaps from being told by some particularly outdated elements of society (such as The Spectator) that it’s not for them.

As Leela Koenig, another of the competition’s chief adjudicators says:  “I think it will be a weekend full of fun, laughter and new and old friendships in which we come together to work on the development of female speakers. In particular, I look forward to engaging with the many views that women will bring to the tournament on how we can ensure that as many women as possible will start debating during their time at school, university and thereafter – even if it’s only a few times. I’d like to live jn a world in which everyone feels that their voice and their thoughts deserve to be heard and to be discussed. And I really look forward to listening to them.”

Introductory debating workshops will be being held Friday 10th May at 2.30pm at the Oxford Union, and are open to all self-identifying women.