How NCFCA Taught Me to Fight Sexism: Philosophical Perspective’s Thoughts
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Philosophical Perspectives” is the author’s chosen pseudonym.
Being a woman in the NCFCA was confusing.
It was a high-pressure, high-performance situation – or, at least, it was for some of us. I know a few people who were able to engage with the league as a hobby, taking a “if I win, great!” attitude – but me and my friends were never that laid back. We worked hard, labored long, and got deep into out rounds. We were gunning for Nationals, and then the national championship.
We traveled around the country for tournaments, saving up to pay entry fees and airfare, cutting corners by staying with host families when we were competing away from home. We figured out how to live in suits for days on end, what shoes to wear to tournaments so that we could look professional and still walk at the end of them, and how to make second-hand suits look “modest” and fashionable.
The larger purpose of all of this was to learn how to think critically, to be able to eloquently and winsomely communicate a “biblical worldview” in the culture at large – we were supposed to become world-changers and culture makers. It was a compelling invitation, and one I took seriously. I dreamed of becoming a professor, and writing books that would change the way that people thought about faith and reason, or changing foreign relations, or implementing better, fairer, and more just foreign aid. I wanted to have a career where I could have a voice, where I could influence people for the better and make a lasting impact on the world.
It didn’t take long, though, before I realized that my invitation to become a world-changer came with a caveat. While my male friends were planning and preparing for high-powered careers in politics and law, I was warned not to be unfaithful by “pursuing a career,” any career at all.
See, while my male friends were supposed to go to impressive colleges to make their way in the world and change policy, I was supposed to go to a Christian school only so that I would be better able to educate my children. Oh, I was still supposed to be a world-changer – but the sphere in which I was supposed to work was already prescribed. My intellectual development was important in as much as it made me better able to birth and raise future world-changers.
My public person was to be shaped by this future. The tone with which I spoke in rounds, the ways in which I asked cross-ex questions, the clothes I wore, and the people I hung out with were all policed to make sure that I was working towards this end. This came through in ballot comments – while my male peers were praised for their forthright honesty, I was told to be “less aggressive” and “more lady-like”. I was given fashion advice on ballots – “that black suit-jacket is too masculine – you should wear more color”, “it’s distracting that I can see your bare leg under your slacks when you sit down,” “I don’t appreciate it when women wear pantsuits. Skirts are more appropriately feminine”. Between rounds, watchful mothers would pull be aside to reprimand me on taking off my suit jacket to reveal a sleeveless shirt (and therefore my bare shoulders). Women I didn’t know would come up behind me and pull my shirt down if there was a gap between its bottom and the top of my slacks. I was scolded for sitting on floors in hallways (not lady-like!), and questioned about my conversations with male friends (leading them astray?). While every parent was watching for my suitability as a future wife, I met very few adults who actually took interest in my speaking skills.
At the same time, I was surrounded by powerful women. Women ran the tournaments, coached the clubs, initiated the conversations. People like Teresa Moon and Christy Shipe were strong, thoughtful, assertive leaders. They certainly didn’t seem to be yielding to men at every turn. And they weren’t the only ones. While their husbands were working, our mothers were pioneering a completely new movement. The women around me modeled powerful leadership in the face of incredible opposition, yet taught submission and subservience that they rarely showed us. To their credit, they modeled what a full life that didn’t include a career could look like – but they also sent me very mixed messages about what I (as a woman) were supposed to do with my life.
The NCFCA was where I got most of my cues, as a young adult, about my purpose in life and the avenues that were open to me. When I conformed to the (spoken) standards of “biblical femininity,” I was a role-model, a shining example of what a homeschooled girl should be – thoughtful and smart, yet “modest” and self-effacing. But I was never one to follow the “do as I say, not as I do” model of teaching. So I decided to behave and speak in the ways that came naturally to me, which I also saw lived out in the women around me. I was a leader, so I acted like one. I spoke kindly and thoughtfully, but directly. I made decisions and acted on the Christian principles I’d been taught – principles of love, equality, justice, righteousness, and freedom – even when others disapproved. I made responsible choices. And I pursued the dream I’d always dreamed – of a university where I would be challenged by new ideas, where I could think rigorously and work hard. I wanted to study philosophy, so I could learn this history of the ideas and theologies I’d held dear, and so that I could more thoroughly understand my own faith.
And my star fell as quickly as it had risen. The parents who had held me up as a role model quickly changed their tune. Few voiced their concerns directly to me, more just stopped talking, stopped investing, stopped asking me what I thought. A few made their objections clear in indirect ways. I heard disapproval second hand, from their kids – often couched in how they were concerned about how often I traveled to tournaments without my parents, or questioning my relationships with various male peers, or my wardrobe. Sometimes it would come up in conversation, when I told adults about my plans for the future. They would say, “I wish you all the best!” followed by a litany of the things that they would never let their daughter do (go to college / a secular college / live away from home / pursue a career / etc.) There were a few parents who continued lukewarm encouragement, but only after I stopped talking about pursuing a philosophy degree (philosophy departments were not only the bastion of liberalism, but also hotspots of professorial trickery, where fast-talking faculty would trick you out of your faith and your virginity).
When I eventually did attend my secular alma mater, far from home, I lost touch with most of the homeschool parents I’d known. The people who had said they were invested in my growth and development disappeared as soon as I departed from the path they endorsed for me as a woman – even though I was still invested in their vision of being a world-changer, and I’d embraced the bold female leadership and the determination to fight for what was right that I’d seen lived out. The rejection I felt was confusing, and it was painful.
In retrospect, I think the NCFCA taught me skills that led to my professional success, but set me up for failure, and, probably to its surprise, taught me how to recognize and fight sexism (though I wouldn’t have used those words then).
As many others have said, in debate I learned how to think, how to argue, and how to speak publicly. I internalized the message that I could be someone important and influential in the world, and that my voice and my message was valuable. Yet, when I tried to act on that message, I was shut down and sidelined because of my gender. The unintended gift of the NCFCA was a desire to fight for what was good, and right and true, and a willingness to pursue it regardless of the consequences. So I fought to go to college, and I fought to be heard when others would silence me because of my gender. I fought to stay in college when others disparaged the usefulness of my education, or question the “waste of money” (commentary I never heard directed towards my male peers). I fought to pursue a career, and I am still fighting against sexism in the church.
For the strength, determination, and tools to fight, I thank the NCFCA.