Should a girl do soccer, dance, or chess? It depends on what kind of a woman her mom and dad want her to become.
Hilary Levey Friedman
Aug 6 2013, 10:42 AM ET
Girls today grow up in a world with an unprecedented set of educational and professional opportunities. More of them will graduate from college and earn advanced degrees than ever before, and all professions are open to them. Although the activities of girls and boys have converged over time, there are still distinctive paths for each sex, and many children’s activities are still associated with particular aspects of feminine or masculine identity.
How do parents of girls navigate this often-difficult terrain? To answer this question, I’ll focus on 38 families I met and interviewed who have at least one elementary school-age daughter currently involved in competitive chess, dance, or soccer. These families are a subset of the 95 families I met while researching Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. 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.
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.
Pink Warrior Girls
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!’ “
Most of the chess girls I met are not “pink girls” in the sense that they don’t dress exactly like Carolyn. But in chess there is the chance to be both aggressive, like a warrior, and girly, embracing pink. The pink warrior gender script allows girls to be aggressive and assertive but still act in a normatively feminine way–if they want to do so.
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.”
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.”
Despite its not being a physical game, there are more similarities between soccer and chess than between dance and chess because of the focus on aggression. With their head-to-head competitive match-ups, both chess and soccer are closer to hegemonic masculinity, hence the warrior component to the chess gender script. Those who write about chess often focus on this aggression and what it means for women…. Author Jennifer Shahade, herself a chess master, explains that in chess the common epithet “playing like a girl” actually means playing with a lot of aggression.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this aggression, girls are a distinct minority in scholastic chess. More elementary school-age girls participate in tournaments than at any other age, but they are far less than half the number of participants in coed tournaments. This is a problem that organizers seek to address by offering “girls only” tournaments, giving separate awards to the highest achieving girl and boy, and maintaining separate top-rating lists for girls and boys. Some feel this approach is negative, only reinforcing the feeling that girls can never be as good as boys, and advocate against it, but many of the parents I met feel that the additional attention and success can keep girls involved.