31 March 2019

Drawing the Gender Line

A fifth weekend this month gives me the opportunity for an immediate followup of last weekend's post Chess and Gender Lines. I ended that post saying,

This topic is one of the most awkward that chess has to offer and I need to gird my loins before wading further into it.

This isn't the first time I've addressed the topic. As far as I can remember, the first time was an About.com article, Elsewhere on the Web : Women in Chess (March 2005), still available on Archive.org. There I discussed 'Birth of the Chess Queen' by Marilyn Yalom, followed by Jennifer Shahade, Susan Polgar, and the 'ongoing chess controversy : Why have women players not been able to achieve the same results as men?'.

The subject isn't a one-way street. Criticism across gender lines cuts in both directions. A few years ago I wrote a post on this blog, Chess Players Aren't 'A Barrel of Laughs' (August 2017), where some 'Dear Abby' advice ended with:-

A chess game resembles a war in that it consists of attack and defense, whose object is making the "King" surrender. On second thought, it could be a good training ground for marriage.

That advice was probably tongue-in-cheek, but it's still insulting to men. The heart of the 'Gender Lines' post was a video titled, 'Is Chess Sexist?'. One commenter said,

Is chess sexist? Yes, the King is portrayed as a weak submissive male, while the Queen's domain and power are unlimited. The poor King may only move one spot any direction, the Queen's movements are unbounded.

Although that idea exaggerates the rules, it also contains a large dose of truth. For more about the gender aspect, I turned to the January post in my 'Sociology of Chess' series. There I introduced the book 'Players and Pawns' by Gary Alan Fine. On page 164, in a section titled 'The Girl and the Game', the author writes,

Perhaps the first question that an outside observer asks when visiting a chess tournament is, where are the girls? Where are the women? In so many areas of American life that were once dominated by men, women are edging toward parity: medicine, law, fiction, even politics. Wherever elites gather, there are women. Extreme gender disparity is rare.

I do not explain why women are underrepresented, but I will discuss why women are said to be underrepresented. The evidence of that underrepresentation is clear. No woman has won the world championship, no major tournament has a female champion, and only about 1 percent of all of the world's grandmasters are women.

After more facts and statistics, the author continues,

To understand the role of women in chess, it is worth noting that many of the top players -- Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov among them -- have a low opinion of female players. Not only are women not good at chess, but by nature they will never be good, some believe. Of course, one could also dig up antique quotations about female doctors or novelists. This view stands in contrast with research that indicates biology plays a small role in ability. While women and men might have different cognitive skills, with male skills benefitting chess ability, the more sociological view is that opportunity structures matter more. Analyses of life histories of players, as well as surveys, support the opportunity-structure theory. Boys enter chess in greater numbers, and those who are successful continue. Boy culture dominates.

After some anecdotal evidence comes a series of key observations.

One of the main passages is the father-child relationship, often the father-son relationship. If fathers are less inclined to teach their daughters, the parental bond is lost. In schools girls face other obstacles. An ethnographic study of a mixed-gender chess club in elementary school found that girls dropped out at a much higher rate than by because of hostility, criticism, and distaste for the aggression of the games. In second-grade talk, boys are "really mean" or, later, they are "so annoying". Despite support from the club organizer, these girls felt that the boys didn't want them there. Male chess players have the dual reputations of being nerds and boors. Perhaps chess, unlike medicine, is too trivial to be worth the bother. As anthropologist Margaret Mead remarked, "Women could be just as good at chess, but why would they want to be?"

That Margaret Mead quote, which is again insulting to male chess players, is followed by a section titled 'Nerds and Boors'. It starts,

To understand sexism I begin at the pinnacle. Bobby Fischer, who could read the board, even if he was less proficient at reading the world, commented in 1962, "They're all weak, all women. They're stupid compared to men. They shouldn't play chess, you know."

The Fischer quote is well known. Other grandmasters, Kasparov among them, have said similar, although not in language as direct as Fischer. The latest in the series of demeaning sentiments by grandmasters came from former World Championship challenger Nigel Short, and we can be sure that there will be future statements from other players. If men want women to enjoy chess and to respect chess players, why are the men so unchivalrous? Maybe they're afraid of the competition.

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