Behind the Numbers: Women and the Pulitzer Prize

2010 has turned out to be a pretty good year for women and Pulitzer Prizes. Of the named winners in the Journalism categories, half are women. In addition, Rae Armantrout received the Pulitzer in Poetry, and Jennifer Higdon was a rare female winner in the Music category.

However, the other five “Letters, Drama and Music” awards went to men. And since the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, most honorees in most of the categories have been men.

One might suspect bias. But before making accusations, we need to consider the context—socially, but also the totality of the field from which the Pulitzer committees have made their selections. Some examples:

Editorial Cartooning. The odds the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning will go to a woman are 1 in 42 (just two awards out of 84). But there were very few female political cartoonists in the first half of the 20th century, and not so many today either: as of September, 2008, according to cartoonist Jen Sorensen, only 15 of the 185 regular members of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists—that’s 1 in 12.33, or 8%—were women. The two women who won these Pulitzers did so in the last two decades; if we start counting in 1990, rather than 1917 when the award began, women’s odds jump to 1 in 11—almost in line with their numbers.

Music.The odds the Pulitzer Prize for Music will go to a woman are 1 in 16. We’ve come a long way since the days when Clara Schumann wrote that “a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it.” But a decade elapsed between the previous Pulitzer Prize in Music awarded to a woman and Higdon’s honor this year. We’re still a long way from parity in this field—going by the Pulitzers, at least.

Biography or Autobiography. The odds the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography will go to a woman are 1 in 7.62. This prize dates back to 1917. But there’s been no increase in the odds in recent decades.

Poetry. The odds the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry will go to a woman are 1 in 3.83. But how many poetry books are being published? The first two poetry Pulitzers and five of the first ten went to women; then the odds took a big plunge; and since 1991 they’ve improved modestly, to 1 in 3. The Poetry Foundation’s list of poetry best sellers for the week of March 21, 2010 was split about evenly between male and female poets. The 2009 Best American Poetry compilation also splits roughly down the middle.

Beat Reporting. Since 1991, the odds a Pulitzer for Beat Reporting (called “Local Reporting” since 2007) will go to a woman are 1 in 2.89 (34.6%)—slightly better than poetry odds for the same period.

The Novel. From 1917 to 1947 a Pulitzer was awarded in the category of the Novel. During those three early decades, 15 men and 12 women won, giving women odds of 1 in 2.25—much closer to parity than in most other categories. However, since 1948 the re-named “Fiction” award has gone to 41 men and just 16 women, reducing women’s odds to just 1 in 3.56.

We need to ask: how many women vs. how many men are publishing fiction? As in all these categories, without a clear understanding of the pool, it’s impossible to make judgments on a number of intriguing odds—including the odds Rae Armantrout and Jennifer Higdon just beat.

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