With a month to go until this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner is announced, previous winner Madeline Miller considers the prize’s continuing relevance.
In the early eighties, my mom was part of the wave of women breaking into Wall Street’s steel-and-glass boy’s club. I remember her coming home exhausted but determined in her tweed business suits: the hot, scratchy uniform for being taken seriously in those days.
Of course, coming home wasn’t the end of her work. Like a lot of women, she also handled the “second shift” of housework and food. She’d put down her briefcase, change clothes, and be in the kitchen starting dinner within five minutes.
Despite her two jobs, she always made time to play with me. Our favourite toy was a farm set with a family of four, a tractor, a barn and a bunch of plastic animals. The figures were crude round pegs with heads. You could tell the woman from the man mostly because she had a bun and he had a hat.
The most well-loved piece of the set was, without a doubt, the big-wheeled yellow tractor. “Ready to go for a ride?” my mother would say, sticking the bun-haired peg into the driver’s seat.
Rrrrrrrrr. I drove the tractor over the rumpled, faded rug to the imaginary farm store for pigs, or out to the field for ploughing. Between the ages of two and six, that }peg woman and I must have logged thousands of rug-miles behind the plastic wheel.
Recently my mom told me that it was no accident she put the woman in the tractor. She said that whenever there was a tough job on the farm, she made a point of offering the woman for it. Tyre needs changing? The woman knows how! Pigs got out? The woman can catch them!
It was a small gesture but an important one. My mom knew that almost every time I turned on the TV or opened a book, I would see images of men taking the lead, and women in both the literal and figurative passenger seat. And she understood that what we see becomes what we expect. The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2007, named this “the danger of the single story”: that which is visible becomes normal. So what becomes of that which is not visible?
When I hear people debating the need for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I can’t help thinking of my mother and the tractor. The world is changing for women, but it is far from changed: novels by men are still reviewed two to three times more often than novels by women. The Women’s Prize for Fiction works tirelessly to balance that, to use their longlists and shortlists to bring women writers into the spotlight. I am deeply grateful to them for it, and to all organizations that stand up for underrepresented voices. I hope my own children can grow up in a world where stories aren’t dominated by one gender or ethnicity, one class or sexual orientation. Driving the tractor is fun. Everyone should get a chance behind the wheel.
Madeline Miller, for Waterstones.com/blog
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