Female debaters victims of misogyny at GUU

Louise Wilson

Two female speakers, who had made it to the Final of this year’s GUU Ancients Debate, were  reduced to tears after a number of misogynistic comments were yelled out by hecklers in the audience.

Marlena Valles, recently named Scotland’s best speaker, and Rebecca Meredith, who is ranked amongst the world’s best speakers, were both booed during their speeches at the annual GUU Ancients Debating Championship. Members of the audience also repeatedly yelled “shame women” and objectified the two women based on their appearance. A former  President and other prominent members within the Union are amongst those known to have been making the comments.

When Pam Cohn and Kitty Parker-Brooks, two of the judges of the competition, openly condemned the sexist comments being made, the two were also attacked. Hecklers were heard to ask what qualifications the women had to allow them to sit on the judging panel. A member of the GUU was subsequently called over in an attempt to stop the sexist heckling, but the member simply replied “it is just how they are” and to “leave it alone”.

This incident is one of many accusations of sexism centred around the GUU, despite admitting women since the 1980s. However, the vote to allow women to join only took place after threats of the closure of the Union were made. Still, 139 members of the GUU at the time voted against the decision. The sexist 139 ‘gentlemen’s club’, named for those voters, was later formed.

The weekend’s debate, titled ‘This House Regrets the Centralisation of Religion’, has caused a great deal of uproar. Valles and Meredith both posted their accounts of the evening on Facebook. The heckling began when the two speakers discussed feminism, resulting in the common dispute “shame” then followed by “woman”. Comments about the appearance of Valles and Meredith were also made, including rating their attractiveness and discussing breast size.

Valles, a law student at Edinburgh University, described the incident as “frustrating” and the non-intervention of Union officials as “abysmal”. She also recalls: “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’.”

After the competition, all debaters attend a black-tie dinner and ceilidh which judge Pam Cohn was assured the male hecklers would not be allowed entry to. This was not the case, as whilst buying drinks from the bar shouts of “Get that woman out of my Union!” were heard, followed by  the laughter of other male members.

Meredith, a politics student from Cambridge University, was told that the response of the audience was “to be expected” due to her gender. She went on the criticise the fact the the debate circuit is male dominated and sexism is something which desperately needs to targeted within it.

Meredith said: “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.”

She continued to criticise the existing debate circuit: “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.”

In response to these events, the Cambridge Union Society, the Cambridge University debating club, voted unanimously to not allow their students to debate in Glasgow again. This is only a revocation of reciprocal membership however, and the Society will still allow debaters from Glasgow University to visit Cambridge.

Pam Cohn and John Beechinor, another judge, released a joint statement condemning the misogyny that took place, as well as proposing new moves to change the male-dominated debating circuit. They said: “This type of behaviour is beyond unacceptable. Although we cannot control GUU policy and what they do with these individuals, we would like to make it exceptionally clear that these individuals (who sometimes take part in competitive debating) are not welcome at any future competition either of us are part of the organising committee or Chief Adjudication panel for. This is one of the worst displays of sexism that either of us have seen on the debating circuit, and cannot express how upset it has made us.”

The two judges also announced they will no longer be sending debaters to the GUU unless an acceptable response by Union officials is made. David Lockhart, President of the GUU, also announced there will be disciplinary action for those members involved in the sexist abuse.


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