What Girls' Dreams Are Made Of
There's a longstanding, ongoing problem in chess about how to handle the so-called weaker sex. A long time ago, women weren't encouraged to participate in tournament chess and often barred from clubs and venues where chess was being advanced. Few women had the time, inclination or money to pursue chess seriously anyway, and those who did, rarely had enough talent or fortitude to excel at higher levels. This led to the general belief that women were pretty much incapable of succeeding at high level chess.
There is little doubt that this segregation has some beneficial effects for women, just as there is little doubt that it has some detrimental effects - hence the controversy.
In this essay I'm not particularly concerned with the arguments pro and con, the benefits and liabilities, or in attempting to reach some resolution. In fact, I don't want to even discuss the "chess" part of it in detail, though everything I'll write will be written with chess on my mind.
Several years ago, and again quite recently, I wrote about the connections between the Dada and Surrealist artists ( and photographers, philosophers and poets) and chess. Now, I know very little about art or art history, but by necessity I had to read a lot about this particular era (for my purposes, the first half of the 20th century) of art in order to understand something of what I was presenting. My fascination with these particular artists grows the more I read about them, and as a result, I keep finding more and more to read. Recently, I came across a quote in an unusual book titled, Art and Ophthalmology, by Philippe Lanthony. The book primarily deals with artists who develop visual problems, but one chapter deals with women in particular and, in talking about the successful artist, Mary Cassatt, begins with:
My first reaction was to recognize the similarity between her feelings and that of women in chess. But, perhaps women in Art didn't have to "prove" themselves as women in Chess must do through competition, thus making the connection only superficial.
The famous art collector, Peggy Guggenheim, opened her Art of This Century gallery in 1942. Her second show was called, "Exhibition by 31 Women." [Guggenheim had two all-women shows, the above in Jan. 1943 and another, called simply "The Women," in 1945.] The remarkable Marcel Duchamp instigated the first all-woman show which was itself a competition in which Duchamp, André Breton Max Ernst, Jimmy Ernst, Howard Putzel, James Thrall Soby, James Johnson Sweeney, and Peggy Guggenheim [all men except for Guggenheim, the underwriter] acted as judges. According to Penelope Rosemont in Surrealist Women, the critics responded with "typical sexist condensation and ridicule." By all accounts Ms. Guggenheim herself had little use for female artists. Yet the shows did happen.
While not really solving anything, Guggenheim's shows, by their sheer existence, highlighted the subservient role into which women in art were relegated [ just as women titles and tournaments highlight women's subservient role in chess]. Some women, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, declined the invitation to participate, some, like Méret Oppenheim, had second thoughts, citing the potential of ghettoization of women's art as her reason. In much later interview, Oppenheim stated, "there is no difference between man and woman; there is only artist or poet. Sex plays no role whatsoever. That's why I refuse to participate in exhibitions for women only." Perversely enough, Oppenheim, like Lee Miller, is today probably more well known as Man Ray's model than as a surrealist sculptress.
The surrealist movement has been considered (somewhat in the same traditional vein as the chess culture) , if not misogynistic, at least dismissive of women, treating them more as objects, as mistresses and muses, than as intellectual equals. But part of this seemed to be the fault of the women who played those roles. Even the fantastic photographer, Lee Miller, was first the femme-enfant for Man Ray, allowing him to use her for his own purposes - a role she would later reject. Other talented women, such as Kay Sage, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Frida Kahlo, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Dora Maar and Xenia Cage found themselves working in the shadows of strong male personalities. Even Georgia O'Keeffe maintained that posing for over 500 photographs for her husband, as well as her homemaking responsibilities, seriously infringed upon her creative time.
Often, when discussing women in chess, we think only of their OTB experiences. Chess games, like most endeavors, are only the end result or the tip of the iceberg. What we don't see is usually just as, or more, important. Understanding that women's lives in society are generally far different than that of men, even when the what public views is quite similar (for instance, there seems no difference in the two minds facing off on a chessboard, or in whose hand is wielding a brush), is something to bear in mind. But the question of whether treating women selectively, regardless of how some men might interpret this or of how much they might take such special treatment personally (and many do), is ultimately a question of what is best for women in Art or in Chess. Even in Chess women are predominantly (though not exclusively) noticed and displayed because of appearance (see a large portion of chessbase articles dealing with women). One art historian noted that Lee Miller, despite her large and fantastic photographic work is best remembered for her images in Man Ray's photographs. One might flippantly suggest that this was because Man Ray's photos were so much better, but the real reason is society's (or the culture of art - and the culture of chess) interest more in a woman's physiology than in her accomplishments, exactly opposite of society's interest in a man. Perhaps this is a yin/yang conundrum that will never be solved, but it's also one that has to be taken into consideration.
So, that leaves us back where we started with plenty of reasons why women should embrace women-only events, whether in Chess or in Art, but plenty also of reasons why women should snub such events. Either way a women choses to go, it seems that men, in some surreal sociological absurdity, become the ultimate judge of such things.
Below are 28 of the 31 women who participated in Guggenheim's "Exhibition by 31 Women," Jan. 5-31, 1943. I couldn't identify the other 3. The only pieces I've been able to identify are 2 by Dorothea Tanning: her famous painting Birthday and another named Children's Games ; and one by the weakest known entrant, Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee's contribution was a shadow box containing seashells and two photos - one of herself (in the costume show below) with a dog's head in place of her own and one with a body in a Victorian bathing suit superimposed with a tiny cutout of her own head.