In a recent article in the Huffington Post UK, author Polly Courtney bemoans the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction as sexist. She writes that having prizes only for women writers sets women apart and makes it seem as though female writers need special treatment.
Of course she isn't wrong there. In an ideal world, men and women would be judged by the same standards and would have equal access to prize, as well as to having their work published, exhibited, performed, etc., and to receiving grants, and so forth.
Unfortunately, Courtney seems to have forgotten that we don't live in an ideal world.
As I previously wrote here, research shows that women simply aren't published as frequently as men, and tend to be overlooked when it comes to grants, awards, and other acknowledgements of their artistic work.
Despite living in the 21st Century, it often seems as though people assume that women aren't as creative as men, or that they don't deserve to have the time and space to be creative, or that their work simply can't be as good as that by men, or that it won't be as engaging or interesting to a wide audience.
Women's work, in short, tends to be ghettoised. For all these reasons, then, we still require women-only spaces, where work by women can be celebrated and judged by its merits, rather than having to defend itself for existing in the first place, and to beg for recognition.
Courtney argues that part of the problem is how books are designed and marketed. Again, she's right. It's bewildering how often books by women have pink jackets and designs featuring flowers, shoes, and other supposedly "feminine" items on them, even if those designs don't reflect the actual content. Publishers need to reconsider these things, and readers also have to question what they pick up in bookstores or libraries and why. This is especially disturbing in regard to literature for children and young adults, and when it comes to supposed "chick lit". We need to stop gendering books, which basically forces readers to judge them by their covers.
But that won't change the larger problem. Until such a time when all artists - regardless of gender - can get their work published or performed and when they truly receive equal consideration for grants and awards, we need prizes just for women. It's not sexist; it's sensible. It doesn't exacerbate the separation between genders; it highlights it.
We should do what it takes to support female artists, with the aim being to eventually not need measures such as specific prizes. However, we're just not there yet. So pass the Baileys and award those prizes.