The Women's prize at 25: co-founder Kate Mosse on why we still need it

The prize has become one of the largest annual celebrations of literary talent in the world, but the need to promote women’s voices remains undiminished

In May 1996, beneath the benign painted gaze of whiskered gentlemen at the National Liberal Club in London, I took to the stage to introduce the very first Women’s prize for fiction. The actor and campaigner Juliet Stevenson presented the award to the much-missed Helen Dunmore for her third novel, A Spell of Winter.

Even after 25 years, I still feel a huge sense of excitement listening to the judges debate their shortlist. This year literary legends such as Hilary Mantel (The Mirror & the Light) and Bernadine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) sit alongside Maggie O’Farrell (Hamnet) and Natalie Haynes (A Thousand Ships) with their retellings or reimaginings of history, Jenny Offill’s novel of the climate crisis (Weather), and Angie Cruz taking inspiration from her mother’s life (Dominicana). It is a diverse and exquisite collection of six novels in whose company to spend the summer.

Though much has changed over the years, one thing has not: fiction can, and does, make a difference. The greatest writing inspires us and extends our horizons. Via the pages of a novel we can travel anywhere in the world and through any period in history. We can see our own lived experiences reflected back at us and be invited, as curious guests, into the lives of others. Brilliant, heart-stopping, mind-blowing novels transform lives.

Our aims in setting up the Women’s prize were ambitious but simple. First, to honour and celebrate excellent, original, beautiful and accessible fiction written by a diversity of women from all over the world. Second, to ensure that women’s creative endeavours were visible and properly acknowledged. Third, to use the razzamatazz and, yes, sometimes the controversy of the prize to to amplify women’s creative voices and to fund and promote a range of charitable, educational and research projects focusing on reading, diversifying and extending writing and engagement opportunities for women and girls.

Since 1996 – with winners including Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriagewe have gone from being the new kid on the literary block to one of the largest annual celebration of women’s creativity and literary talent in the world. We’ve worked with writers, booksellers, libraries, universities, publishers, broadcasters, podcasters, sponsors and partners to promote a year-round programme of charitable and ambitiously innovative projects to put thousands of outstanding novels by women into the hands of millions of readers all over the world. Last year, we became a charity, the Women’s Prize Trust, which will allow us to significantly increase our charitable projects in the years to come.

Yet despite all that, the question of “is the Women’s prize still needed?” comes up with boring regularity, as if success in championing excellence doesn’t matter, or women supporting other women could be anything other than a good thing. Yet the plain fact is, as any of us who spend time paddling around in historical archives will testify, that despite apparent gains in representation, or equality of access, or rights, things can easily slip backwards, be taken away and lost. You only need to listen to the news to realise how often women’s voices are left out of the narrative, or deemed unimportant.

So, yes, times have changed and the campaigning and creative priorities of 1996 and those of 2020 are not the same. And publishing is changing, though there is much, much more to do to ensure a much wider diversity of voices are heard. But the need to support and promote brilliant writing for the benefit of all readers, has not changed. And in these complicated and devastating days, it’s our responsibility more than ever, to ensure women’s voices are championed and celebrated.

The 25th winner of the Women’s prize for fiction will be announced on 9 September.

Contributor

Kate Mosse

The GuardianTramp

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