The time is close when women will become human beings
A confusing story from my nerdy past
In matching pantsuits, my sister Kelsey and I marched into the final round of the 2005 Southeast Regionals Homeschool Team Policy Debate Tournament.
We strode onto the stage of a community college theater and stood under the hot lights, squinting out at the audience of fellow homeschooled teens and their grim mothers. We were solemn, flickering with nervous energy.
Dramatically, our opponents emerged from the green velvet curtains, stage opposite. We sized each other up.
Kelsey and I were facing the cutthroat duo of S., the probably gay white kid, and V., the bookish Black kid. They had, like us, won every prior round in this multi-day tournament of nerds from six states. They were popular and the presumed champions of the round and thus the tournament.
We walked to center stage and shook hands with each other, unsmiling, as if we were about to sign a treaty in wartime.
After these courtesies had been exchanged, the panel of five judges took their seats at a table facing the stage: three men and two women, lawyers who had been prevailed upon to listen to dorky teens debate substantial revisions to U.S. medical malpractice law.
I recall little about the substance of the debate itself, but I remember that Kelsey and I were having a good time. Once the round started, we relaxed; we knew our roles well. We traded notes back and forth and came up with counter-attacks quickly as S. and V. railed against our plan. We felt sure about our evidence as it stood up to the boys’ critique.
Kelsey and I had worked hard on our public speaking skills, and we were adept at performing confidence even when we didn’t feel it. It helped that we were tall girls, and we towered over the boys (and especially over S. and V., who were both shorter than average) when we stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the podium during cross-examination. We looked like we knew what we were talking about. Our closing arguments were well-rehearsed and confidently delivered, and we felt good about our performance. As the round ended, we shook sweaty hands with the boys and waited anxiously for the judges’ decision.
An hour or so later, the tournament awards were announced. I received the top speaker award, and we waited to hear who won the final round and thus the tournament. The winning team would advance to compete in Nationals that summer. Our names were announced—“Farson and Farson are the winners of the final round”—to a sprinkling of applause. We hugged each other, proud and relieved that the whole thing was over. We weren’t even sure we wanted to go to Nationals.
Soon after the decision was announced, however, our sense of accomplishment diminished. Once our victory had been declared, the gossip began. It reached us swiftly. Homeschool moms are famously vicious, and a majority of the mothers thought we shouldn’t have won; S. and V. were clearly the superior debaters. They were smarter; more logical; equipped with better evidence.
When it was revealed that the three male judges voted for us and the two women voted against us, that confirmed the mothers’ suspicions: The only reason Kelsey and I won was because we were marginally attractive teen girls, not because we were smart.
It was a cruel and gross thing to say to and about kids. The mothers’ suspicions stuck with me for an unusually long time (as in, today, almost twenty years later).
Were my sister and I actually good debaters? Or were we just attractive to grown men, and that was the only reason we’d won Regionals? I was naive and had been blessed to grow up with parents who had never made me feel lesser because of my sex. Hearing the denigrating, conspiratorial comments forced me to realize that I could be judged exclusively on my appearance, on my sex appeal to men, and not on my own merits. It was a blow, to be sure, but one that comes to all girls in its own time.
The other aspect of this memory that sticks with me, all these years later, is that these unseemly comments were from women directed to young women.
Kelsey and I never experienced a whiff of creepiness from the male judges, either at this tournament or at any tournaments prior. The mothers were projecting this onto male judges: Surely the men are reprehensible and sex-obsessed. Surely the men can’t see past their animal instincts to make a rational decision, the decision to name fellow men as the champions. Surely there’s no way these girls could win an intellectual competition unless some ogling men were judging them.
The moms could have been right; we might have only been the victors because three men who were our dad’s age found us appealing. But it wasn’t until we heard this unsettling gossip that this idea had even occurred to me. Up until that point, I believed we were being judged fairly, regardless of our femaleness, on the basis of our logic, evidence, and public speaking skills. Kelsey and I had sharpened our skills as orators. More than a few female judges had given us victories in the past to get us to that point in the tournament.
But the gossip nagged at me. In a strange way, it still does. I suspect many women can point to a similar experience, leading us to wonder: How much have I been given, or kept from, because of my sex?
You’re not supposed to say that women can keep other women down; that women can be powerful agents of misogyny; that women can sometimes be the most ardent supporters of the nameless, faceless patriarchal order. From a very young age, we’re dripped this constant lie of our fragility, weakness, and worthlessness (unless we’re being regarded or used as a sexual object). It becomes difficult to wake up, to resist that all-encompassing worldview. We hear it every day. The homeschool moms had heard it every day.
I’m not sure what to make of this memory, all of these years later. Despite this story, I continue to believe the world is not as tidy as Men vs. Women. I have known very good men and women; I have known very bad men and women. It turns out that people, men and women and teen homeschooled girls, are complicated and operate from all kinds of mixed motives, some pure and some not so pure.
After witnessing Marie Curie lecture at the Sorbonne, picking up where her recently dead husband left off, a writer of the Journal observed, “For if woman is admitted to give higher instruction to students of both sexes, where henceforth will be the so-called superiority of the male man? In truth, I tell you: the time is close when women will become human beings.”
The Wall, Marlen Haushofer
The Fraud, Zadie Smith
Rest, Play, Grow, Deborah MacNamara