When the 1991 shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced, none of the authors were women despite 60% of books published that year being written by women. When the press brought this glaring omission to everyone’s attention, a group of industry professionals met to discuss how they could change things. The Women’s Prize Committee was formed and the rest, as they say, is history. Initially called the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Women’s Prize was open to any woman writing in English. The winner would receive the now iconic bronze statuette called ‘The Bessie’ and a cheque for £30,000. Founding the prize was a clear statement to the literary establishment that women’s writing deserved recognition.
Cut to 2019, the Booker Prize is awarded to not one but two women. For some, this may be reason enough to question whether we need the Women’s Prize at all but I believe, as the prize enters its 25th year, it is as important now as it has ever been and here’s why.
Financial freedom and a wider audience
It’s well known that if you’re a writer, you’re probably not in it for the money. Even factoring in the huge successes of authors like J K Rowling and Stephen King, annual earnings for writers are well below the national average. The £30,000 that the winner of the Women’s Prize receives is vital because it gives them freedom and choice. It allows them to create ‘the room of one’s own’ that Virginia Woolf so famously described as being necessary if women are to fully explore their literary talent. £30,000 is roughly the average UK annual salary which means for an entire year the winner has the space to prioritise her art.
As well as the financial benefit, the prize has become synonymous with well written, accessible stories that centre women’s issues. There are many readers out there who only read books from award shortlists. Seeing the Women’s Prize sticker on a novel gives those readers the confidence to try something new.
Highlighting disparities and breaking barriers
The existence of the Women’s Prize highlights why it had to be created in the first place. Once you start noticing these disparities, you can’t unsee them and there are barriers yet to be broken through. We still don’t see enough women of colour, queer women, trans women, disabled women and gender fluid people in the spotlight. Each of these marginalised groups bring a unique insight and their contributions can only enrich the literature available for us to consume. The Women’s Prize has already made inroads in this area. In 2019 Akwaeke Emezi, who is nonbinary and transgender, was longlisted for the prize and Tayari Jones, a black woman, went on to win it. The critical acclaim and strong sales for both writers proved there was an audience ready and waiting for work like theirs.
It helps us to remember
The Bessie statuette was and remains an important signifier of change. It is a reminder that less than 30 years ago the UK’s biggest literary prize failed to recognise a single woman on its shortlist despite women writing the majority of books published that year. It is a reminder of how far we have come and of how far we still have to go. It demonstrates that women’s writing is valuable and necessary. Reminders are important, without them history has a stubborn way of repeating itself.
Written by Rachel Matthews