Women in Wake Debate

By Becca Eaton and Allan Louden

The year 2002 marked only the 60th anniversary of women participating in Wake Forest’s debate program. It took a World War and a severe shortage of students to open the University to women. In some ways women are the “new kids on the block,” although, in the last six decades, women have become an integral part of the Wake Forest tradition, accounting for many of the program’s most unforgettable memories.

Women in Wake Debate before Co-ed Status

The first one hundred and ten years of Wake debate history is a history of two literary societies, Euzelian and Philomathesian, dedicated to training the verbal eloquence of the men at Wake Forest; so they were better equipped to assume their rightful place as social leaders. While society debates only had male speakers, this did not mean that women and women’s issues were absent from campus discussions.

The records of Wake’s societies indicate that on occasion the male debaters addressed social issues concerning women. In the pre-Civil War period, they were sympathetic, for example, toward females assuming the English throne and higher education for females. When the question of the acceptability of bloomers entered the Euzelian minutes in September 1851, “the young men were up-to-date and voted in favor of Bloomers.”

In the two years immediately before the Civil War, the group asked: “Are the hardships of the female sex commensurate with those of the male? Decided in the Affirmative”; “Is man the Source of more evil than Woman? Decided in the Affirmative”; “Is woman capable of receiving a classical education? Decided in the Affirmative.” In 1861, however, the debaters were not prepared to endorse that the education of females was of as much importance “to the consideration of our enlightened people” as the education of males. It is not clear if these votes reflected attitudes of Wake students, or were simply judgment of the quality of advocate’s arguments.

While the debaters may have embraced liberal traditions in affirming women’s roles in society, there were also, according to Timothy Williams, notable lapses. At the height of national struggles for women’s suffrage the society records lack queries regarding women’s’ suffrage. [Topic sources drawn from Timothy J. Williams, Honor Paper, Dept. of History, Literary Societies at Wake Forest College, 2002 (http://www.wfu.edu/Student-organizations/debate/HistoryPages/PashalDescriptionSocieties.htm)]

The debating honoraries, Euzelians and Philomathesians, operated to train fellow students in the skills of public speaking, were also every bit the primary social fraternities of their day. For sixty years they organized and hosted Society Days, filled with orations, football games with Carolina, Duke, and State, and day long social events culminating in receptions and dances. The top debaters showed off their skills not just for their fellow students, but also invited guests. Students from Meredith College, an all female Baptist school in nearby Raleigh, were frequent and important guests. The 1934 Howler struck up the war cry “More Society Days and more Ladies” The yearbook reported: “many young maidens from Meredith were the guests of the society members. After all is said and done, the presence of girls on our campus adds color and attention to any affair.”

Attitudes of women’s inclusion in debate, beyond a social setting, were not always welcoming. Rice Quisenbury, Wake’s first “tournament coach” ushered the program into the era of multi-school competitions but was not above disparaging judging practices even as he offered insight into Wake’s 1930’s all-male frame of mind. An article in the 1931 Old Gold & Black related: “Women love good-looking men, flowered speeches, and a decided amount of elocution, even in debating. The conclusion drawn by Dr. J. R. Quisenberry, upon his return with the debate team from the debate tournament recently held in Atlanta, GA, “…further proof that women judges are a jinx is that the debate team went on into the tournament with practically all male judges and went to the last rounds of the tournament.”

Women Join the Debate Team

Almost as soon as women registered for classes, their presence was part of debating activities. The first women debater merited a page one headline in the April 9, 1943, Old Gold & Black: Martha Ann Allen Makes History on Debate Trip. The article declared:

Coeds are making history on this campus, and this week the oldest extra-curricular activity of the school was invaded by a woman for the first time.
Accompanying the Wake Forest forensic squad to Charlotte and speaking in the Pi Kappa Delta regional contest there was Martha Ann Allen, who now holds two “firsts” in the debate field. She is the first girl to be invited to join the local chapter of Pi Kappa Delta, national forensic fraternity. And she holds the distinction of being the first member of the weaker sex ever to represent Wake Forest in a varsity debate tournament.
In the meet at Charlotte Martha Ann entered the contest for extemporaneous speaking, impromptu speaking, poetry reading and parliamentary procedure.
With the entrance of a girl into public speaking, the first in 109 years, athletics seems to be the only activity remaining which the coeds have not entered yet. Wonder how long it will last?”

Matha Allen was hardly the “weaker sex” as described by the newspaper. In the Charlotte tournament Allen made the finals of Parliamentary procedure contest. Aycock indicated the off campus travel was to be truncated due to shortages caused by the war, replaced with on-campus competitions. Ms. Turnage’s accounts indicated that in fact the team continued to travel. In an interview with Becca Eaton, Martha Ann (Allen) Turnage stated with certainty “I am one hundred percent positive that I was the first.” She set foot on the campus of Wake Forest College in 1942, and oddly enough she felt right at home. Unlike her other female colleagues, Ms. Allen never felt like the proverbial small fish in a big bowl. “I grew up with seven brothers so boys didn’t scare me”. She was among the first class of coeds, and her roommate, Beth Perry, was actually the first woman admitted to the college. Beth Perry was the daughter of one of the Trustees. Ms. Turnage now recalls that there were approximately thirty women and three hundred men in attendance at Wake Forest College during the war years. She immediately immersed herself into the rigors of academic studies at Wake Forest, and she also made the decision to try out for the debate team.

In 1942 participation on the team was not open to all students. Ms. Turnage recalls “We had to try out for the team, but I made it.” Ms. Turnage attributes her success at the team try-outs largely to the fact that she had debated in high school, as she was experienced in the skills required of debaters at the time. Ms. Turnage recalls that the team would hold inter-team practice debates. “We use to debate each other before we went to tournaments, and we had to be prepared for anything because we would never know what side we had to take at the tournament until we got there.” When asked how she got along with the men on the team, she replied “It would have been difficult for women with less association with the other sex.” She added, “I wanted to be a boy when I was younger. I heard that if you kissed your elbow you could be a boy, so I spent years trying to kiss my elbow.” She laughed as she quickly explained, “this desire to be a boy promptly ended when I found out that boys eventually had to be in the military”

In addition to becoming a member of Pi Kappa Delta (the national forensics honorary), and becoming the first woman to travel with Wake Forest to an intercollegiate debate tournament, she was also awarded the school letter in Forensics for the 1942-1943 season. Professor Aycock wrote with affection in her annual, “You make me think of a breeze blowing across a field of new-mown hay. Don’t ever lose your enthusiasm.” Martha Allen also became the first female editor of the Old Gold and Black. Her post-Wake Forest career was equally distinguished; she obtained her Master’s Degree in sociology from The College of William and Mary, and later became the Dean at three community colleges. She subsequently served as the Vice-President of George Mason University and Ohio University.

The Post-War Phase

Perhaps the second woman to participate in tournament competition was Nancy Easley, daughter of Dr. J. A. Easley of the college’s religion department. The 1946 Howler reported that “Miss Nancy Easley . . .was chosen as Eu president during the spring elections, thus becoming the first woman to hold a literary society presidency in the history of the school.”

Previewing the 1946 season, the OG&B enthused, “Seventeen prospective debaters and other speaker turned out for the first meeting of the forensics group held Wednesday afternoon in the Alumni Building. Several speakers, including Bobby Smith, Bynum Shaw, J. D. Davis and Larry Williams, are back after several years in service, and they will be counted on to uphold Wake Forest’s reputation in debating and public speaking . . . Several girls indicated their interest in special speech events–some in debate–and there is a possibility of a girl’s debate team this year, according to Aycock’s statement.

Ms. Easley made the team, although the fate of others is less clear from the records. In an OG&B article (Oct. 4, 1946), “Prof. Aycock also announced that Nancy Easley, co-ed member of the squad, compiled the highest composite score of any woman entrant at the convention (Pi Kappa Delta Forensics Convention, Georgetown, KY). Miss Easley placed second in extempore and after dinner speaking, third in impromptu, and fourth in oratory in a field of twelve schools. She was the only woman who entered each division and won high acclaim from the judges for her speaking ability.”

The role of women on the squad from 1943 to 1948, the year Franklin Shirley became coach, was, judging from yearbook pictures and newspaper accounts, minimal. The squad won the Pi Kappa National Championships in 1947 with a distinguished, albeit all male squad. Women participated in the annual Society showdowns (for example Bettye Croach in poetry and dramatic reading, 1947) but were apparently absent in intercollegiate competitions.

At the invitation of A. Lewis Aycock, a young Franklin Shirley was invited to become Wake Forest’s debate coach. Shirley actively worked the press to bring attention to team as an October 1, 1948 Old Gold &Black headline illustrates: HISTORY IS MADE AS GIRLS ATTEND DEBATE MEETING. The article reported that “for the first time in Wake history, a number of those reporting on the new topic were women.” An article later in the season updated, “The girls out for the debate team have been paired and have begun preparations for debates among themselves.” The first women on the squad was to be reported in the subsequent years as well, illustrating the nature of newspaper history, but in a real sense the Shirley era was the period in which large numbers of woman assumed significant competitive stature.

Lucie Jenkins Johnson (1949) wrote in a letter April 1, 2001, “I was one of the first two (or was it four) girls on the debate team. Dr. Shirley began coaching then. We did realize what a ‘cutting edge’ move his action was; this was ’48. The girls didn’t go on the road because we were [refined] champions. . . .The girls were part of the “home practice” team before the boys went on the road. However, I do remember our trip girls made it on the road-to Duke to debate their 2nd team. Topic was a national education issue.”

Under the Shirley administration, Wake women did not long remain on the bench. A distinguished group of women, including Elva Lawrence Hunt, Kay Arant, Marjorie Thomas, Cecyle Arnold, Ann Kelly, Carol Oldham, Clara Ellen Francis, and others soon rewrote the ratios of competitor gender and tournament success.

Elva Lawrence Hunt recounts Professor Shirley in 1951.

The characteristics of Franklin Shirley that stand out in my mind are his gentleness and supportiveness. When I was a senior back in 1951, he took a woman’s team along with three men to a tournament in Florida by way of an Oklahoma meet. He drove his new Chevy, but since we were to be gone for about ten days, storage space was dear. The information from Stillwater instructed the women to bring evening dresses for the final banquet. Well, Cecyle Arnold and I wanted to do the proper thing, so we lugged along, in our limited space, two long dresses. As it turned out, not one other woman debater brought her long dress: We had to sit through a banquet as well as walk to the podium for awards in those damn long dresses. We were embarrassed almost to tears. Fessa smiled and reassured us we looked great and that we had followed the directions and should be proud that we did. The pain was assuaged, somewhat.

Carol Oldham, pictured with Elva Lawrence in a 1949-50 squad picture, would later serve as Wake Forest’s only women debate director, 1953-54, as the interim coach when Shirley was on leave finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Florida.

An honorary role of women in Wake debate would necessarily include two names from the mid-50s, Clara Ellen Francis and Kay Arant. In 1952, in an era of four person teams and often men’s and women’s divisions, the pair won women’s division as young competitors. Women’s divisions were often a convenience to accommodate more entries and sweepstakes opportunities, seldom precluding women participating in the “Men’s” competition. As Francis and Arant’s careers unfolded, they excelled in open divisions. The February 18th, 1954 issue of the Old Gold &Black reported that “Miss Francis (Mary Ellen) set a record by being one of the three women debaters who were the first coeds ever to reach the finals in the five year history of the (Florida) tournament. The other two coed finalists represented Florida State Univ.” (Wake won finals on 2-1, only ten top schools were invited to the tournament). Kay Arant and Clara Ellen Francis were piling up first places at numerous tournaments (including Florida, Miami, Purdue and others) paired in various combinations with Minnie Jane Bowman, Marjorie Thomas, Carwile LeRoy, Joe Mauney, and Virgil Moorefield. The also took the helm of the forensics honoraries where Ms. Francis serves as Euzelian President in 1951-2 (her debate partner Joe Mauney was President of the Philomathesians) at the same time, and Ms. Arant, was Euzelian President in 1953-4.

Kay Arant teamed with Carwile LeRoy represented Wake Forest at the West Point National Debate tournament in 1954. When they qualified at the Univ. of South in Sewanee, TN, the OG&B observed that “Miss Arant is the first coed ever to represent the South at the West Point Tournament.”

In 1952 the Wake teams were sweeping the tournaments, including Miami and Florida. The newspaper accounted noted, “. . . the voluble Wake Forest students are spreading the name of the College over the nation and are extending the tradition that this Baptist school produces men and women who can ably express themselves.

The era was also characterized by the repartee between the sexes, banter that might raise an eyebrow today. In a lighthearted piece in the 1952 Howler, a discussion ensued regarding traveling in Franklin Shirley’s car, “Bull Ship, Fess’ car”

“What! You mean the ‘Bull Ship’ is taking off again? Don’t those ‘talking machines’ ever go to class?” The debate team wandered around and ended the year stacking away their trophies. Wha’ happened? Was it the attractive (?) women on the team or the sweet, alluring smile of the men? Nobody knows, but miracles happen. The “Bull Ship” (‘Fessor Shirley’s car) would pull out of Wake County, glide down to Florida or out to Mississippi. Upon arriving at their destination, members of the squad cranked up, turned on their charm, and returned home with the loot. Professor “Dad” Franklin Shirley trailed along behind the crew, explaining at intervals for encouragement, “How horrible!” Riding all night in order not to be more than several hours late for a tournament and Shirley’s efforts to keep “certain members” of the team at least two feet apart enlivened the trips. What Forest received the honor due their deeds, but the debaters profited by their experiences.”

The early Shirley years featured many tournament victories by the women of Wake Forest. A notable figure was Marjorie Thomas who capped her career being the second Wake female debate to qualify for the West Point National Debate Tournament, paired with William Blossom.

The Modern Era

Beginning in the early 50s for the next fifty plus years, women have earned awards too numerous to list. The insert below recounts the names of Wake women who reached the semi-finals or beyond in tournament competition. What becomes clear is that scores of women had competitive success at Wake Forest (See insert). Giants of their respective debate era (e.g., Laura Abernathy, Becky Armatrout, Martha Swain, and dozens more) illustrate their often central role in Wake debate prominence. A few records merit highlighting:

  • Top Speaker at the 1985 National Debate Tournament (Only two women have won the award) – Gloria Cabada-Leman
  • First All Female Teams in Semi-Finals at the National Debate Tournament – Marcia Tiersky & Adrienne Brovero
  • Copeland Award Winner – 1996 – Adrienne Brovero (with John Hughes)
  • First all female team to win the Kentucky first year breakout – Kristen Langwell & Nicole Runyan
  • Only four time qualifier for the NDT- Emma Filstrup
  • Three time qualifiers to the NDT- Gloria Cabada, Marcia Tiersky, Adrienne Brovero, Becca Eaton

Each woman who participates in the tradition of debate at Wake Forest leaves their unique legacy with the program. In retrospect, some feel that their debate career was significantly more challenging because of their gender, while some feel that being a woman made no difference at all in terms of their success. Across the board however, the women of Wake debate seem to recognize that they might have been more fortunate than the women at other schools. Marcia Tiersky admits, “I am aware of women at other schools who were not as lucky and who were treated differently,” she also adds, “I am also aware of women who were the only woman on their team and who felt isolated as a result, but I did not have those experiences at Wake, for which I am grateful.”

Despite all the accomplishments and positive experiences of women at Wake, challenges and frustrations exist even now for those who enter a still-male-dominated activity. One can only hope that the women who enter college debate at Wake today and for years to come will reflect on the University’s encouraging history and realize that their participation helps smooth the way for the women who will follow them.

Rae Lynn Schwartz (Asst. Coach) recounts that in general there are more challenges for women in debate. She notes, “It is difficult to be respected both as women and a debater or coach. That is, you are expected to conform to male norms or be less qualified at the game.” Linda (Hippler) Wastyn recalls one problem was “being taken seriously. My freshman year, it wasn’t uncommon for Cyndy [Harnett] & me to be the only all-female team at a tournament or at least in a very significant minority. Most women were teamed with men.”

Jordana Sternberg tell a story illustrating some complications facing women debaters. “At West Georgia my junior year, I couldn’t figure out why John Hughes was getting ranked higher than me on the affirmative when I was doing the 2A and he was a freshman. (Ok, we all know how talented he was so it’s not too embarrassing). Sue Pester, an assistant coach at the time, gently suggested maybe I needed to dress differently. The next tournament—Baylor–I dressed way down, jeans and a plain top. My stated goal was to “dress like the guys” I don’t know if the outfit made me more relaxed or if I looked less ridiculous, but I was the 8th speaker there and we made it to at least the quarters. From then on, I tried to blend in more and I think I was better off for it. It’s much easier to dismiss a person’s arguments if you’re distracted by the ridiculous outfit.” Vickie Leonard was not sure there were roadblocks but valued other women role models. She wrote, “Not sure there were many [barriers], since there were always women, such as Mary Thomson McLean and Carol Winkler, who persevered, and if they could, we should have.” Linda Wastyn added, “In my four years, I only had one female coach, Carol Winkler who was a kind of mentor my freshman year. It would have been nice to have more women in leadership roles during the rest of my college career. More women coaches would allow more women debaters to be mentored in a more “favorable” environment. Wake has only had one woman director, Carol Oldham, in an interim one year appointment. Woman assistant coaches have included: Lydia Hasecke, Marsha Timmel, Claire Novak, Janet Hawkins, Kathy Kellermann, Janette Kenner, Carol Winkler, Diana Paul, Melanie Henson, Suzanne Pester, Shannon Redmond, Adrienne Brovero, Elisia Cohen, Sandra McCullough, Rae Lynn Schwartz, and Kristen McCauliff.

Sue (Woerner) Graham reflects on her experience fondly, “I think that debate as a whole was glad to have some women involved, and I truly think that most people recognized that debate was improved by including both sexes.” And the tradition continues. There are ten women on or working with the team this season.

The strength of the women throughout this incredible history is astounding. These stories serve as a foundation that attracts young women to Wake debate, as well as a foundation that encourages their participation enough to keep them in debate. But more importantly, their stories reflect on the fact that women in Wake debate don’t merely serve to make Wake Forest look good because they balance the gender ratio on the team as women. Their stories remind us that women in Wake debate make Wake Forest look good because they know how to work hard, win, and contribute to the team’s tradition of success as debaters!

Women Qualifiers for the NDT from Wake

  • 1954 West Point – Carwile LeRoy & Muriel Kay Arant
  • 1956 West Point – William Chris Blossom & Marjorie Thomas
  • 1970 Houston – Laura Abernathy & John Cooper
  • 1976 – Boston College, Mary Thomson McLean & Tod Woodbury (1st Round Bid Team)
  • 1986 – Dartmouth Robert Bowser & Gloria Cabada
  • 1987 – Illinois State, Gloria Cabada & Mark Bailey
  • 1988 – Weber State, Gloria Cabada & Alan Coverstone (Octa- Finals)
  • 1992 – Miami Ohio, Marcia Tiersky & Jordanna Sternberg
  • 1993 – Northern Iowa, Joseph Perry & Marcia Tiersky (D-Octa-Finals) (1st Rd Bid), Scott O’Donnell & Adrienne Brovero (D-Octa- Finals)
  • 1994 – Louisville, Marcia Tiersky & Adrienne Brovero (Semi- Finals)
    John Hughes & Jordana Sternberg (D-Octa- Finals)
  • 1995 – West Georgia, Adrienne Brovero & John Hughes (Semi- Finals) (1st Round)
  • 1997 – Liberty University, Emma Filstrup & Justin Green (Double-Octa-Finals)
  • 1998 – Univ. of Utah, Ken Rufo & Emma Filstrup
  • 1999 – Wayne State Univ., Emma Filstrup & Wesley Lotz (Octa-Finals)
  • 2000 – Univ. of Missouri-Kansas City, Emma Filstrup & Jarrod Atchison (Octa-Finals) (1st Round Bid Team)
  • 2001 – Baylor University, Becca Eaton & Patrick Speice
  • 2002 – Southwest Missouri State, Becca Eaton & Patrick Speice (Double-Octa Finals) (1st Round Bid Team)
  • 2003 – Emory University, Becca Eaton & Patrick Speice (Double-Octa Finals) (1st Round Bid Team); Elizabeth Gedmark & Jamie Carroll