On #GirlsInQuizbowl and supporting women

We had a moment across the quizbowl community during the Middle School National Championship Tournament in Chicago. I want to talk about it a little bit, and ask the quizbowl community a question, maybe a question that applies to other places too.

The moment was associated with an offhand comment someone made to player on the Norfolk Academic Guild, a homeschool cooperative who fields teams for a lot of tournaments, and was reported by a parent/coach:

The response to this moment, on Twitter at least, was immediate and very focused and very unified:

I may have even participated in this moment myself (and sorry, I’m going to be that guy who blogs his own tweetstorm, but my perspective might be a little left of center):

…and, because only one mic drop is possible for quizbowl people of a certain vintage to this issue:

There’s a lot of dialogue that is associated with moments like these, of course, and there’s a very reflexive response that is prone to happen in moments like these. One may even say it’s a performative moment – we respond because, well dang it, we’re supposed to respond, and what does it look like if we don’t respond?

We even hashtag this response with #GirlsInQuizbowl (which I’m still not sure I like, because we’re concerned with women in this game broadly – very young, much older, all points in between – and if they’re intelligent enough to participate in the game and get value from the game they’re intelligent enough to be treated with respect and not belittled as “girls”) and holy cow, you can search that hashtag and get all the responses that are in one way or another what responses are supposed to be. I’ve quoted several. There are several more, many from the women themselves who do this work – take it away, Jackie Wu:

(and, of course, plenty more where that came from!)

And we know this is a longstanding issue – because the same aforementioned Rebecca Rosenthal wrote for her campus newspaper, the Swarthmore Phoenix, about being smart while female and many of the experience she’s had to deal with being a first- and second-year student in college who cares deeply about quizbowl.

But the thread in this whole storm comes from my friend in Chillicothe, Ohio, who feels the tension behind this issue very keenly:


There are reasons women aren’t represented in this game. And, no, none of those reasons are good. And that’s where the conversation has to begin.

It’s one thing to say that women aren’t in this game, and that’s dumb. There are a lot of us alpha dudes who will absolutely perform when the time comes and will say every right thing when the time comes and then when nobody is paying attention (possibly even right now) simply return to simply doing all the exactly same things we’ve done before.

And let me be plain here. I didn’t say you alpha dudes. I said us. I count.

I grew up conservative, and I grew up Southern, on the knife’s edge of Methodist and Baptist cultures. Men belonged at the front, in the pulpit and at the head of the meeting, with the demonstrative voices and running things. Women belonged in the back, in the kitchen and in the nursery, speaking demurely and quietly and eventually finding themselves in the family way. I was a good young man, so I was supposed to find my way to the front of the room. The women alongside me weren’t.

I could find that rather dumb in my own obtuse sort of way. There were a TON of females in my classes who were obviously very smart and dang it why don’t they get as much attention as I seemed to in my human-calculator sort of way? But there really wasn’t a whole lot of room to differ, and it became obvious over time that I wasn’t SUPPOSED to differ. The men had roles they took on, over time, very consistently. The women had roles they took on. Anyone who didn’t take on those roles got whispered about, and not in a kind way.

Once those messages are baked in, they’re very hard to get out.

In many ways, it didn’t even matter that I got educated in a very feminist sort of way by a woman who was very central in my intellectual development. When women were given grief in the academic environment and the roles of men and women obviously separated even as students were coming through classrooms, that was a source of amusement and humor, not a symbol of a systemic problem. When women were treated differently because of the way that they dressed in interview processes, that was an issue for the woman to address in how they dressed, not an issue for the man to contemplate his own judgment on.

When a team of girls was harassed by a team of boys at a quizbowl tournament, that was something for the girls to adapt to, not something for the boys to be reprimanded for.

And we’re not just talking teasing or snide comments. We’re talking responses in anger when games don’t go well. We’re talking gamesmanship and intimidation. We’re talking overt propositioning and sexual harassment.

Frankly, I haven’t done enough in my life, when I have seen it. I haven’t screamed bloody murder in public that it’s wrong and it must end. I’ve given lip service to being interested in women’s roles in this game and I’ve let women down.

Let me be even more forceful: I’m talking about all women. I’m even talking about women who are some variety of queer or trans. If you haven’t figured this out about me yet, I’m an evangelical Christian who is 46 years old with emphasis on old and I’m still working out in my brain and in my faith what I think about LGBTQIA* culture and how I speak credibly to it and I’m deeply entrenched in the Protestant crisis of authority and this is all my problem and nobody else’s. I personally have botched nothing else when it comes to the treatment of people in this game more profoundly and more consistently than my use of pronouns. That is on me. The thing to call somebody is what they want to be called. Anything else is failing to be gracious. Period.

This is my personal, unreserved apology – and repentance, commitment to do consistently and continuously better and better until my treatment of all people is 100% equal, and my treatment of all women in this game is completely beyond reproach.

And part of that repentance is that my voice shouldn’t be the voice at the forefront. It should be a voice that empowers women to lead, not to follow.

Because when I contemplate a little bit, it seems men and women have roles at our tournaments, too. Men organize and lead meetings and train and read matches. Women work the info desk and work media and scorekeep. There are exceptions, and so many of the women who DO the info desk and media and scorekeeping are so incredibly valuable – but even in our own spaces, there is a gendered separation.

We don’t need that separation to be maintained. We need to be more intentional at not merely speaking about the importance of women in the leadership of this game, but actively making space for women to lead in this game.

Is our commitment to hashtag-girls-in-quizbowl genuine? Do we say that we want women to have a role, and perform our progressive dance, and beat our chests and say “hooray, I helped” while leaving things the exact same way they were?

Or are we going to make this game better?

I had a vision of an all-woman team, and seeing them get glory (and maybe soaking in glory of my own) for being winners. That whole alpha vision, again.

But maybe my own vision isn’t the important thing. Maybe our vision, as men, isn’t all that important.

Maybe the most important thing we can do as men is amplify the voices of those who are on the margins. Maybe we can get out of the spotlight and do more of the support work. Maybe we can simply get off the stage and make room for the voice of a woman.

For once.