On Chess: A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
August marks the centenary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which secured voting rights for women in the United States. Women’s suffrage was the high-water mark of the Progressive Era, a time spanning roughly the 1890s to the 1920s, during which there was an increased focus on issues such as poverty, immigration and women’s rights.
Rather than one united movement, the era was a collection of individual initiatives occurring at slightly different times and at different levels. A number of constituents benefited from the energy and momentum of the era. Women’s chess was no exception. As we are poised to celebrate the crowning achievement of the women’s suffrage movement, it is also instructive to examine some of the changes that took place for women in the world of chess during that approximate time period, information that was at my fingertips, thanks to my position as a research assistant here at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis.
The banner year for women in chess during the Progressive Era was 1894, when fans were treated to what is often described as “the first women’s championship match in the United States.” The battle took place in New York between Nellie Love Showalter and Harriet Worrall but was brought to a premature end when Showalter fell ill during the match.
The Women’s Chess Association of America was also formed in 1894, and Showalter was one of its charter members. The increasing acceptance and popularity of women’s chess during this time was not restricted to the United States, as Worrall demonstrated when she travelled to England in 1897 to represent America in the First Ladies’ International Chess Tournament. That same year, she also organized the first Ladies Chess Congress, followed by a second in 1899 (although this second effort was abandoned).
It is difficult to imagine these opportunities existing prior to the Progressive Era. Additionally, while the 19th Amendment predates both events, the advances it set into motion are responsible for the establishment of the Women’s World Chess Championship in 1927 and the United States Women’s Chess Championship in 1937.
During those years, the player to beat was Vera Menchik, who won all of the Women’s World Chess Championship tournaments held prior to World War II. She was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame in 2011. Menchik, however, preferred to compete against men. In the progressive spirit of the early 20th century, she was actually invited to participate in a number of men’s tournaments. This was no token gesture, as she defeated not only World Chess Champion Max Euwe, but also eight-time U.S. Chess Champion Samuel Reshevsky. Myriad female chess players built on the strides made by women like Menchik at the turn of the previous century, testing their skills against the best male players of their day, proving themselves not only their equals, but often their betters.
Gender is a controversial topic in chess today, but that should not overshadow the progress that has been made. That journey was made possible, at least largely, by the social changes that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So, as we prepare to salute passage of the 19th Amendment, let’s also tip our hats to the Progressive Era overall, to the advancement of women in the world of chess, and to the continued dismantling of the artificial barriers that have too often prevented people from realizing their true potential.
Adam Presswood is a part-time research assistant at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from Washington University in St. Louis (2018), and a master's degree in history and museum studies from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (2020). He also works as a freelance writer for a number of newspapers and other publications.