Sixteen-year-old Belen Mella spent hours prepping for the local high school debate tournament in Miami Beach, researching the topics and practicing speeches under her breath on her morning commute to school. She knew that she was a young debater and that she needed to speak with more poise and confidence. She was prepared to receive constructive criticism. But after her first round of competition, she received a confusing bit of feedback: She was told that she did not seem “presidential.”
Looking back, Mella finds it frustrating. “Since we haven’t had a female president, it’s tough to hear something as vague and wishy-washy as the perception of being ‘presidential,’ ” she says. “To look ‘presidential’ includes a lot of things a woman can master and that any good debater should master, but ‘presidential’ as a concept has only ever come to us in the form of a man.”
On the national stage, another woman has been battling the gendered perception of what it is to be “presidential,” both in debates and on the campaign trail. “I just don’t think she has a presidential look, and you need a presidential look,” Donald Trump declared this month of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, the second time in two days he’d expressed skepticism about Clinton’s “presidential” appearance and the umpteenth time Clinton has faced gendered mockery. Her political rivals and a cadre of pundits, on the left and the right, have taken her to task for the way she presents herself in debates and speeches — her voice, her clothing, her level of emotion — in a way that resonates with a group far from the world of national politics: female high school debaters. As a former high school debater who now coaches, I know something about how Clinton will be judged when she takes the debate stage against Trump on Monday night.
Women are a clear minority within the boys’ club of public forum debate, in which pairs of students face off to argue about topics such as terrorism, welfare and health care. Last year, no women cracked the top 20 competitors in the national high school rankings. Just five made it to the top 40. This is unsurprising when one considers the ways gender skews high school debate.
The female high school debaters I know have been belittled by male opponents and told to shush. Judges and parents call these young women naggy, shrill and even bitchy. They’re told to smile more and sometimes get more in-depth criticism of their hem length than their argumentation. Isabelle Bavis, a junior at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, who has been called “screechy” on ballots, puts it simply: “The language they use to correct us is not the same language used when correcting the boys.”
Jeff Hannan, a fellow debate coach, noticed this, too, and began collecting ballots that showed sexist double standards in judging. In one case, two male competitors had debated two female ones. The judge’s comments for the men: “Very good, strong stance” and “very good, strong, forceful.” For the women? “Monitor your emotions in response to your opponent” and “make sure you are not too overly aggressive.”
Another ballot he saved featured this feedback for a female debater that was sure to help her hone future arguments: “FLATS? NO HEELS?”
I interviewed 10 current and former high school debaters to gather their stories from the field. Some of their experiences are so sexist, they teeter toward parody. “I’ve lost speaker points for my skirt being too short,” says Gigi Wade, an Evanston Township High junior. Honor McCarthy, a junior at Horace Mann High School in New York, was debating public subsidies for stadiums when an opponent asked her how she could know anything about sports culture.
Some of their stories are downright ugly. After McCarthy made it to the final round of a tournament, male debaters in the audience, who had been knocked out of the competition, suggested she could win if she opened her legs. McCarthy did not overhear the comment, but her mother, watching in the audience, did.
After one of her first elimination rounds at a national tournament, Georgetown freshman Caroline Wohl was approached by a coach who attempted to compliment her performance by saying, “You debate how a girl should.” Northwestern sophomore Gillian Grossen and her female debate partner were competing against an all-male team at a national tournament; during a segment in which all the competitors could simultaneously question one another, one of her opponents attempted to quiet the room by saying, “Girls, girls, settle down.” During a debate about limits on free speech, a male opponent told Ellie Grossman, a senior at the Blake School in Minnesota, that she didn’t understand how misogyny worked.
Mella says that she countered a “ridiculous argument about hormones and cows” with some scientific information, to which her male opponent replied, “You sure know your science, girl.” Male competitors in the Miami Beach area had a running joke that Mella was secretly a man, theorizing that she wrapped a penis around her leg. (How else to explain that a woman had beat them all and won the Florida state championship?) McCarthy once lost a round because a judge said she was not calm enough — even though her male partner is more aggressive than her. (I’ve judged them both before. She’s right.)
Similar gendered critiques and comments have clung to Clinton through every step on the campaign trail. Characters from Ted Nugent to Glenn Beck have called her a bitch, and her facial expressions and voice, in particular, are under constant scrutiny. After a successful primary night in March, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted that Clinton should smile about it, and Brit Hume of Fox News asked why she was “shouting angrily in her victory speech.” She received extensive criticism from those who thought she didn’t smile enough while accepting the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, and again during a national security forum this month. After a 2008 primary debate, an all-male panel on MSNBC concluded that Clinton had looked “like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.”
Student debaters know as well as Clinton does that debating while female is a series of balancing acts. Let male opponents talk over you, and may be seen as submissive; stand up for yourself, and you may be viewed as overbearing and aggressive. Maureen Dowd once described Clinton as a “debate dominatrix.” Though sexist stereotypes haven’t always worked against Clinton. Her opponent in the 2000 New York Senate race, Rick Lazio, was leading in the polls until their debate, when he approached her lectern and, finger jabbing, demanded she sign a pledge against soft money. Voters came to perceive him as a bully, and he ended up losing the race by 12 points .
Anyone on a debate stage has an audience to convince, whether it’s a single judge or the entire American public, and persuading that audience as a woman comes with unique challenges, starting with their voices.
Both men and women associate lower-pitched voices with leadership and prefer leaders with deeper voices. But vocal tone’s effect on attractiveness depends on gender: Men with deeper voices are considered more attractive, but the opposite is true for women. It can feel impossible to come out on top.
Many female debaters have learned to modulate their voices and temper their emotions to win within this structure, something Clinton discussed doing in a recent interview with Humans of New York. Ella Fanger, a senior at Oakwood School in Los Angeles, says she has to moderate her tone to resist falling into gendered traps.
“I have to think about things in a way my male counterparts don’t, like toeing the line between passionate and hysterical,” Fanger says. “It’s harder for women to have the freedom to be emotional, like to tap into the anger that’s getting Trump and [Bernie] Sanders votes. If [Clinton] gets up and waves her arms around and screams, people will feel like they’re being yelled at by their mom.” (Incidentally, this is exactly how then-CNN commentator Jack Cafferty described Clinton’s primary debate performance in 2008, saying that she had showed a “softer side” in one round against Barack Obama but later “morphed into a scolding mother.”)
“Clinton faces similar challenges in terms of trying to both confront stereotypes but at the same time being weirdly beholden to them, because she needs voters to vote for her in the same way I need a judge to vote for me,” Fanger says. “I don’t have full freedom to fight the patriarchy in the way I want to because it’s a competitive activity. I’m in that room to get the ballot.”
Which, come November, is exactly what another woman seeks to do. And whether or not these young debaters want Clinton to be president, they are hoping her candidacy helps change what it means to be a woman in debate — and what it means to be “presidential.”