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Being smart while female

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

In the last four or so weeks of classes, I have counted three separate instances of a female academic author being referred to as “he” in my courses. Jennifer Sessions, Alison K. Smith and Judith T. Irvine, your work was so riveting and moving to the students of Swarthmore College that several of my male colleagues considered it good enough to have been written by a man. Even on a supposedly egalitarian campus like Swarthmore, the default academic is male. Even in classes taught by female professors who work to introduce us to women in course content, the only voices worth hearing must be male.

Today we are supposed to be lucky to even see female names in print. Whether you were a Brontë sister or even S.E. Hinton or J.K. Rowling, it has been a common practice to publish under a male pseudonym to avoid the judgment or dismissal that came with your female-sounding name.

What to do, then? How do girls make sure their voices get the same space as boys’, in class discussions and in writing? How do women learn to be smart while female?

My answer is to play quizbowl.

It’s basically “Jeopardy!”, but with teams (basically) and it’s been (perhaps pathetically) one of my main sources of fun throughout college and high school. It’s also not a secret that I love the game– as you may know if you have seen the posters I have put up around campus or the number of times I have shared practice times to Facebook.

Quizbowl for has been a hugely positive force in my life. If you play quizbowl, no matter who you are, I believe that you too will increase your self-confidence, start learning for the sake of learning, and meet amazing teammates and competitors who will inspire you to grow. It can cause you to discover an academic passion you had never heard of before you started playing and connect you with classmates from vastly different backgrounds. And believe it or not, it’s fun when it doesn’t turn into a sexist nightmare.

Playing quizbowl, in all of its nerdy glory, is unabashedly academic. Even for a seven-year veteran like myself, there is still something terrifying and humbling about that moment after your signaling device goes off. A shrill, game show shriek, a bright light and the gaze of the game official hits you. The flow of impossibly long words that was the question stops and you begin to reason through what your response will be instantaneously faster than you thought you could think.

Crystallized into 2 seconds of response time is the desire to make clear the entire thought process behind your answer, and prove how much you’ve studied. At the same time, you’re hoping that you have actually managed to provide the right one. Terrifying, but thrilling.

It’s less thrilling when you’re ruled incorrect by a balding grad-student who scoffs at your mistake. You cannot stop the flow of competition to explain why you thought you were right, even if the reasoning holds. Evern the best quizbowl players mixes up dates and places. Even if I wanted to, it’s pretty hard to hide behind a male pseudonym in live competition. And without that option, there’s a new set of expectations on how I should play.

As a woman playing quizbowl, you’re subjected to questions disproportionately about white men. You’re often expected to specialize in a traditionally feminine subject like literature or art even when you’re the captain of your team, even if that team is in contention for the national championships. The final round of last years high school championship was between one such team. Unlike in previous years of all-male competition, the comments in the livestream were less about the intricacies of play but instead about her looks. (For the record, she was the only girl competing out of eight players, and her school did clinch the title).

No matter the amount of adrenaline and joy that comes from quizbowl, I still wonder sometimes if it’s worth it. To be part of a community that becomes increasingly male-dominated as you get more experienced is disheartening. But coming to Swarthmore and founding a team that has turned out to be one of the few with a gender balance has convinced me to keep going. Quizbowl’s game-show speed isn’t for everyone, but I’ve felt the same pressures apply in the classroom.

In quizbowl, I have persevered despite the offhand comments and the gender imbalance. I have no intention of leaving the quizbowl community, and I work to make the space more welcoming to other women. It should go without saying that my feelings of inadequacy are mitigated by my own privileges as a white cis-woman. Academia has been working to silence not just women’s voices, but also non-white voices and queer voices among others for a long time. Discrimination can happen at the scale of classroom discussions and quizbowl matches just as it can institutionally. Just because it may be harder to see at the undergraduate level does not mean we should not start to stand up for each other. Let voices be heard, quizbowl champions be girls, and authors be women.

Rebecca Rosenthal is a sophomore and president of the Swarthmore College Quizbowl Team.

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