Women's Prize urged to abandon age criteria for under-35 writers scheme

Women's Prize urged to abandon age criteria for under-35 writers scheme

The Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping magazine have been urged in an open letter to remove the age limit on their recently launched women’s writers initiative. 

The "Futures" scheme was launched on 6th August and will see 10 writers aged 35 or under promoted and interviewed in the magazine, selected through submissions from publishers and literary organisations. A public vote will run in 2022 for readers to select an overall winner who will be revealed in the magazine's December 2022 issue. Kate Mosse (pictured), founder of the Women's Prize for Fiction (WPFF), said when announcing the venture that it was seeking "leading voices in exciting, boundary changing, authentic, inspirational, heartbreaking fiction writing".

However Joanna Walsh, who manages the @noentry_arts Twitter feed aimed at "changing the conversation about access", has posted an open letter calling for organisers to remove the age criteria, with around 175 signatories listed since its circulation. Some of the those signing up include novelist Neil Griffiths, co-founder of Weatherglass Books and the Republic of Consciousness Prize, author Denise Mina and Bath Novel Awards founder Caroline Ambrose.

“This is a real opportunity for thoughtful and positive change,” Walsh tweeted as she shared the document. In the letter she describes how the signatories were “delighted” to hear of the prize but “deeply troubled by the age limit you have set on your award”. 

The letter reads: “The Women’s Prize... is well aware that many women lacked the support and encouragement to begin a writing career in the 1990s. Those who are emerging now, deserving belated support, will not, at present, be eligible for your prize. 

“Age is a feminist issue. Though the climate for emerging women writers has improved considerably since the 1990s, it is still not even. Older women suffer from a greater imbalance in free time, education, and financial parity with men, when compared to their counterparts in younger generations. These are all factors that affect their ability to commit to regular writing practice.” 

The letter also cites research about how women’s writing is often impacted by caring responsibilities and financial issues. “During the crucial years before your prize’s age limit, women writers with children are likely to have less time to commit to writing, especially if they cannot afford to pay for childcare,” the letter reads. “In 2020, the gender pay gap among all UK employees was 15.5% in favour of men. 

“Many women beginning writing careers later in life have experienced not only sexism, but intersectional obstacles due to gender, class and racial prejudice, disability and illness. It is the most culturally marginalised women who face the most obstacles, and are often slowed in establishing a writing career.” 

Those who signed the letter believe that an age barrier “sadly echoes received perceptions of women in society”. The letter reads: “The association of 'exciting, boundary changing, authentic, inspirational, heartbreaking fiction writing' with younger writers plays into notions of marketable younger women, and invisible older women, ideas we’re convinced you would not want to perpetrate.” 

The campaigners are also concerned that the age barrier could encourage others to set a similar limit and urges the organisers to remove the criteria. “It would be gravely sad to see two such champions of women put into place a rule that particularly disadvantages the most disadvantaged emerging women writers and favours those with the cultural confidence, time and money to commit to a writing career while young," the letter reads. "However, if you took the opportunity to remove this limit, you would set a worldwide example in support of excellent women writers from more diverse backgrounds in terms of class, race, gender and ability." 

Responding, a statement from the prize and the magazine said: “The Women's Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping ‘Futures’ is a one-off promotional campaign celebrating the leading younger voices of fiction for the future. We wanted to spotlight writers aged 35 and under as the past couple of years have been particularly challenging for younger women starting out in their careers. The Women's Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping are both committed to celebrating women of all ages and backgrounds, supporting everybody to have a creative life. Every year, in addition to the main Women’s Prize for Fiction, the charity runs a range of additional promotions, activities and writing prizes, which celebrate female writers, supporting emerging and established authors of all ages, ensuring all readers have access to the very best books by women from around the world. Good Housekeeping has always championed women of all ages, and, with 2022 marking Good Housekeeping’s centenary, the magazine brand wants to celebrate its landmark birthday with a number of schemes and events that stay true to our heritage but that look forward to the future.”