The T.S. Eliot Prize has gone to Sharon Olds for her collection Stag's Leap, and in making the award the chair of the judges Carol Ann Duffy paid tribute to the "freshness, skill and authority" exhibited in this year's shortlist. "We were particularly impressed by the strong presence of women on the list," she said.
Since when was it the case that, as in sport where physical differences mean men and women cannot compete on an equal footing, women were somehow the 'weaker' sex where writing is concerned and if they make a strong showing that is in itself comment-worthy? Maybe I am misinterpreting the Poet Laureate or perhaps her remark has been taken out of context, but it strikes me that in singling out the presence - per se - and contribution of women in this way a disservice is being done them, almost as if she were saying "and haven't those weaklings the girls done well this time? Let's give them a special round of applause to encourage them." Further, to argue - as some might do - that special commendation ought to be made as women continue to 'escape the burden of centuries of repression' would be, I feel, to make an old, tired and unnecessary point and to re-inforce the 'own goal' which the "strong presence of women" remark seems to constitute.
On a golf course, women's tees are set nearer the pin than men's because - with a few exceptions - women cannot hit the ball as far as men can; that difference in physical capability is a fact. But there are no physical or other limitations to women's writing abilities, so what justification is there for remarking on their presence on a prize list as if it were, somehow, remark-able? I'd like to see prize lists based entirely on merit with no regard paid to the sex of the authors and no comment made as to women's showing compared to men's - or vice versa - because to do otherwise seems to me to be patronising. We are all people, but comments such as the one quoted above imply that one group of us is less capable than an another, therefore less is expected of them, therefore it is noteworthy when they exceed expectations and do well. I beg to differ.