By Meg Heckman, JAWS member
I spent a couple of days last fall in the basement of a library in rural Maine, picking through letters written by two sisters a century ago. I was there at the behest of the Pulitzer Prize organization, researching one of dozens of stories published this year to celebrate the prizes’ centennial.
My task was to find out about Laura Richards and Maude Howe Elliott, the first two women to ever win the Pulitzer. Together, they produced a sweeping biography of their mother, the abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe. (If that names takes you back to grade school history, it’s probably because she also wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.) Their accomplishment was, as I noted in the story, especially remarkable given the limited opportunities for women during that time.
The project left me mildly obsessed with learning more about other women who had won Pulitzers. Thanks to a couple of Columbia University researchers, I didn’t have to look far for a comprehensive overview of the demographics of journalists honored with Pulitzers. Their work is full of fascinating tidbits: Over the last century, 16 percent of prize winners have been women. Since 1985, women have been most likely to win in investigative reporting and least likely to win in editorial cartooning. The first woman to win a journalism Pulitzer wasn’t Anne O’Hare McCormick but Minna Lewinson, a Columbia student who shared a prize in the short-lived newspaper history category.
Although the overall percentage of female prize winners is low, women have won an increasing number of Pulitzers in recent years. Nonwhite winners remain rare.
Data about female winners in nonjournalism categories is a bit more scattered, but the Pulitzer organization’s website provides a deep and fascinating archive. Some names I recognized from my bookshelf — Annie Proulx, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison. Others are on my list to read in the coming months.
In honor of these women’s creativity, tenacity and — in many cases — barrier-breaking work, I’ll lead a brief toast Saturday morning at the Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP). Please come ready to share your own Pulitzer stories. Perhaps you’ve been honored with one yourself or were part of a staff award. Maybe you edited a winning entry or, like so many of us, have been inspired by the work of talented female journalists and writers who have made our own careers possible today.