In an article in the Atlantic dated August 6, 2013, “Soccer Isn’t for Girly-Girls? How Parents Pick the Sports Their Daughters Play,” by Hilary Levy Friedman, (http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/08/soccer-isnt-for-girly-girls-how-parents-pick-the-sports-their-daughters-play/278386/), the question is posed, “Should a girl do soccer, dance, or chess?” The answer is given immediately with, “It depends on what kind of woman her mom and dad want her to become.”
The article is based on her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, which is to be published by the University of California Press later this month. She writes, “Over the course of 16 months I interviewed nearly 200 parents, children, and teachers/coaches involved with these competitive after-school activities in six different organizations, three in the suburbs and three in an urban setting. While boys were also part of the larger study, what I found about girls and competition was especially intriguing for what it says about who these young women might grow up to become.”
There is little mention of boys in the Atlantic article or any of the others I have read, such as this one at the Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2386335/How-parents-pick-school-activities-daughters-compete-based-kind-woman-want-be.html. The author will “make the rounds” just as most all writers do, appearing on shows like “Fresh Air” on NPR, and Book TV. The book will no doubt prompt much discussion.
Ms. Friedman writes, “Unlike masculinity, multiple forms of femininity are seen as acceptable by parents and by children, so it’s not surprising that different gender scripts emerged for each of the three activities. The names of these different gender scripts–“graceful,” “aggressive,” and “pink”–all came from language used by parents of girls in interviews. They help us understand how parents choose among different activities for their daughters.”
I grew up in a home with three women, my mother and two sisters. Mother wanted my sisters to learn something about automobiles and me to learn how to survive in a kitchen. Friends and family thought my mother a crazy radical, even though she was a Goldwater Republican. There was a battle when my mother wanted to learn how to drive. My father was, naturally, against the idea, as were all the other men in our world. After learning to drive, mother wanted next to go to a night school in order to learn how to repair automobiles. My parents compromised, with mother obtaining a car after promising to not go to a Technical school. Women’s liberation was just beginning then and the thought of women being “liberated” frightened the men, who much preferred their woman the way Mick Jagger preferred his women-under his thumb.
I have taught chess to girls with individual lessons, in after school programs, and during chess camps. I have often wondered why the parents wanted their girl to learn how to play chess. Reading these articles has given me a clue. For example, one father is afraid his little girl will grow to become a “girly-girl.” From the article, “One father, whose older son plays travel soccer and whose seven-year-old daughter is already a member of a training academy team, captures the core elements of the aggressive girls gender script: de-emphasizing physical femininity, focusing on future career opportunities, and cultivating a winning attitude. He is concerned that his daughter has a tendency to be too feminine and not aggressive enough:
I encourage her to be more aggressive because she’s a cute little girl, but I don’t like her to be a girly girl. . . . You know, I don’t want her to be a cheerleader–nothing against that–but I want her to prepare to have the option, if she wants to be an executive in a company, that she can play on that turf. And if she’s kind of a girly girl, maybe she’ll be a secretary.”
Being a cheerleader did not prevent George “Dubya” Bush from being selected POTUS by the Supremes, unfortunately. He made it to being the chief executive of the US in spite of the fact he was a “girly-man” as the Governator would say.
When the article gets to chess the girls are called, “Pink Warrior Girls.” Who knows, it could be that in about forty or fifty years a woman will be writing a chess blog called the “Pink Armchair Warrior.” Pink warrior girls are, “Like soccer girls, chess girls are encouraged to be aggressive. But this aggression is slightly different because chess is not a physical game. Unlike dance and soccer, chess is a primarily a mental competition, so physical femininity is not an issue at competitive events. With the lack of physicality, the femininity associated with chess is more inclusive. Chess promotes a hybrid gender script for the small group of girls who participate. These girls learn to be aggressive, but they also can focus on a feminine appearance if they so choose. Chess allows girls to be what one mother of two sons described to me as a “pink girl”: “These girls have princess T-shirts on. [They have] rhinestones and bows in their hair–and they beat boys. And the boys come out completely deflated. That’s the kind of thing I think is so funny. That girl Carolyn, I call her the killer chess player. She has bows in her hair, wears dresses, everything is pink, Barbie backpack, and she plays killer chess.”
That a winning girl can look so feminine has an especially strong effect on boys, and their parents. A chess mom described how a father reacted negatively when his son lost to her daughter: “The father came out and was shocked. He said, ‘You let a girl beat you!’ ”
Susan Polgar, who has become unofficial spokeswoman for girl chess, is quoted in the article. “For people affiliated with scholastic chess, it matters that the game is not physical. For example, when I spoke with Susan Polgar–the first female Grandmaster, a leading advocate for girls in chess, and an author on gender and chess–she said the fact that chess is not a physical game is important in its promoting gender equality: “Well, I think girls need to understand that, yes, they have equal potential to boys. I think that chess is a wonderful tool as an intellectual activity, where girls can prove that unlike in physical sports, because by nature maybe boys are stronger or faster, in chess women can prove equal.”
She may be right and eventually women may prove to be equal to men in chess, but it has yet to occur. Only one woman in the history of chess has proven to be equal to men, and it is not Susan Polgar, but her sister, Judit. It is obvious from some things she has said and written Susan resents that fact, casting blame on others when the truth is that she was never as strong as her sister. The youngest sister, Sofia, who has long since given up chess for marriage and family, had one outstanding result that may have been better than any Susan ever had, according to performance rating, if I remember correctly. Chess is not the only board game in which women have proven inferior to men. Women have always been inferior to men when it comes to the game of Go. Although there were many women playing backgammon when I “punched a time clock” at Gammons every night, none of them were ever a threat to the male players. It is true that a woman would occasionally win one of the short weeknight tournaments, but no woman ever came close to winning one of the much more serious weekend tournaments. There has never been a woman in backgammon comparable to Judit Polgar in chess.
The article states, “Many parents actively use chess as a way to teach girls that they should have similar opportunities as boys. A chess mom explained, “We’re raising her . . . to be feminist. And so she says she wants to be a Grandmaster or the president [of the United States]. She doesn’t have any ideas about gender limitations and I think that’s a good thing.”
I am not so sure “that’s a good thing.” There are things women can do that I will never be able to do, and vice versa. There are, therefore natural “gender limitations” for each of us, whether or not some are willing to admit the fact. I believe that is a wonderful thing. What if men and woman were exactly the same? It would make for a boring existence, would it not?