Our story

Kate Mosse OBE, Founder Director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, bestselling novelist and playwright, looks back on how the Prize began.

In January 1992, a diverse group of journalists, reviewers, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers – male and female – gathered together in a flat in London. The Booker Prize shortlist of 1991 had included no women at all – something which had escaped notice until the press commented on it – and the group decided to meet to talk about it: did it matter there were no novels by women? If so, why? And what could or should be done? There were long debates about the value or purposes of literary awards, of how they supported (or inhibited) reading, how publishing and reviewing might play a positive role in ensuring a wider range of authors and books were celebrated. After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!

Everyone at that ad hoc first meeting was puzzled that, despite the ratio of books by men published to books by women being 60/40 in women’s favour, the leading literary Prizes nonetheless often seemed to overlook accomplished, challenging, important fiction by female authors. By 1992, only 10 percent of novelists shortlisted for the Booker Prize had been women. Did it matter? The group decided it did, since Prizes are an influential way of bringing outstanding writers to the attention of readers.

After several months of research, discussion and taking advice from the book trade in its widest sense, the founding Women’s Committee started to draw up guidelines and turn its attention to the matter of sponsorship. Of the original committee, four women are still involved: me, Co-Founder and literary agent Jane Gregory, publisher Susan Sandon and Prize Director Harriet Hastings.

We were on our way . . .

We approached Orange in Autumn 1995, having secured endowment of the Prize money itself from a private donor. A bronze figurine, known as ‘The Bessie’, is presented to each year’s winner in recognition of the generosity of the anonymous benefactor. Orange, who were just dipping their toes in the water of arts sponsorship, were attracted both by the educational and lifelong learning initiatives, and by the opportunity to celebrate international fiction by women. Over a matter of weeks that Christmas, arrangements were made and The Orange Prize for Fiction was launched at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in January 1996. After five months of hectic hard work, publicity, marketing strategies, public readings, judging meetings — not to mention a fair amount of controversy — the first Orange Prize for Fiction was awarded to Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter.

Orange was a brilliant sponsor, working with us to develop the Prize and numerous education and literacy initiatives over seventeen years, so it was with great sadness that we decided to part company in May 2012. Together, we won pretty much every major UK sponsorship award and Orange was widely applauded for their enormous and significant commitment to reading and literature.

In June 2013, we were delighted to announce a new three-year partnership with Baileys. The Women’s Prize for Fiction Board felt Baileys was an ideal choice, both because of their passion for celebrating outstanding fiction by women and for their desire to help us take exceptional novels by women to even wider audiences. During our four year partnership, together we extended the reach of the Prize and programmed a range of events that took us from West End theatres, to high street stores, to the Latitude Festival in Suffolk and the Emerald Street Festival in London.

In January 2017, we began the search for a new sponsor to take us forward from 2018 and beyond. We were delighted to welcome Deloitte, NatWest and Baileys to our new family structure – and worked on exciting initiatives with each of our partners to take the Prize forward. In June 2018, we announced a new individual sponsors initiative – Prize Circle Patrons – to help us continue to celebrate, honour and promote outstanding fiction by women from all over the world.

In 2018, the Women’s Prize Trust was established, achieving charity status and building on the outreach that has always been a core part of the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s work. We are now a year-round, 24/7 platform promoting the very best contemporary writing by women in a myriad of ways, reaching a more diverse global audience.

Today, the Prize has two sponsors, Baileys and NatWest, and we have a community of individual supporters and grants from trusts and foundations.

In 2020, we marked our 25th anniversary with a year of Reading Women, and at the end of the campaign the public voted in their thousands to choose Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the ‘Winner of Winners’ for her 2007-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

And we continue to support the writers of tomorrow, the future Women’s Prize winners. Our writer development programme Discoveries, powered by NatWest and Curtis Brown, and the First Chapter initiative run with Grazia, aim to encourage any woman who wishes to write, and support her along the way with mentoring, advice and practical guidance. 

The Women’s Prize Podcast, our reading group outreach, and our events and resources, all contribute towards ensuring all readers can access the very best writing by women.

In the pages of a novel, we can know what it means to stand in another person’s shoes. Now, the Women’s Prize for Fiction matters more than ever.’

Founder Patrons
The honorary group of Founder Patrons was formed in 2016 as part of the 21st anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, comprised of former Women’s Prize for Fiction board members who were instrumental in developing the Prize. The Founder Patrons includes Clare Alexander (1998 – 2015), Jane Gregory (Co-Founder & Company Secretary 1992 – 2015), Kate Mosse OBE (Co-Founder & Chair of the Board 1992 – 2015), Susan Sandon (1994 – 2015) and Carole Welch (2002 – 2015).

Kate Mosse (Founder Director)
Co-founder, Prize Spokesperson and former Chair of the Women’s Prize for Fiction Board, Kate is the author of seven novels, four of non-fiction, four plays and a collection of short stories. Her number 1 bestselling Languedoc Trilogy – Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel – has sold millions of copies throughout the world, as has her Gothic fiction including The Winter Ghosts and The Taxidermist’s Daughter, for which she is writing the film adaptations. Her plays include Syrinx and The Queen of Jerusalem. She is currently working on a new series of novels, The Burning Chambers Trilogy – set during the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century, the first of which will be published by Macmillan in 2018.

Kate has been the Deputy Chair of the National Theatre in London, is on the Executive Committee of Women of the World and is Patron of the Sussex-based early music ensemble, The Consort of Twelve. In 2012 Kate was awarded the ‘Spirit of Everywoman’ for her work promoting writing by women, was named in 2015 by The Bookseller as one of the fifty most influential people in publishing. In 2013, she was awarded an OBE for services to literature and to women.

Clare Alexander
Clare Alexander joined the Board of the Women’s Prize in 1997. She is a literary agent at Aitken Alexander Associates. She became an agent in 1998 after more than 20 years as a publisher, latterly as Publisher of Viking and Editor-in-chief of Macmillan. She was vice president of the Association of Authors’ Agents from 2004 – 2006 and president 2006 – 2008. She was named Orion Publishing Group Literary Agent of the Year at the 2007 British Book Industry Awards and was awarded the 2008 Kim Scott Walwyn Prize, which honours outstanding achievements by women in publishing. She is on the Advisory Committee for the Cheltenham Festival.

Jane Gregory
Co-founder, with Kate Mosse, of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Jane was Company Secretary of the Board from 1996 – 2015. Jane set up and continues to run her own literary agency, Gregory and Company Authors’ Agents, where she manages the careers of many high profile and bestselling authors, whilst constantly on the look-out for new talent to discover and nurture. Jane is also the co-founder and on the programming committee of The Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate.

Susan Sandon
Prize co-founder Susan Sandon started her publishing career at Headline Books and worked at both Virago Press and Penguin before joining Random House as Group Marketing Director. During this period she initiated contact with Orange, the first sponsors for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She is currently Managing Director of Cornerstone, a division of Penguin Random House.

Carole Welch
Carole Welch began her career in publishing at Souvenir Press, then worked at Macmillan before joining Hodder & Stoughton as Publicity Manager. In 1989, she became Senior Editor of Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton’s literary imprint, and is now Publishing Director of Sceptre. She joined the board in 2002.