“Woman Up!” Sisters in Crime’s 25th Anniversary

By Barbara Fister

In 1986 two key events served as catalysts for the founding of Sisters in Crime, a nonprofit organization that promotes women’s equality in the mystery genre. Phyllis Whitney, a prolific author of popular gothic suspense novels, wrote to the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) protesting that only seven women had won an Edgar Award for best novel in the 41 years of the award’s existence. Copies of the letter were widely shared in a pre-Internet version of going viral.

At the first conference on women and the mystery, organized by Hunter College professor and crime fiction scholar B.J. Rahn, Sara Paretsky, author of the ground-breaking V.I. Warshawski series, which introduced a female PI into the genre, gave a rousing talk on the rising tide of violence against women in popular fiction. The serial killer was just becoming a standard antagonist in commercial fiction, and Paretsky probed the underlying misogyny in the gruesome serial slaughter of women as popular entertainment. Her passionate critique led to a call for female mystery writers to organize. And organize they did that October at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Baltimore.

As Paretsky continued the postconvention work of getting the group off the ground from her tiny home office, other authors provided financial and moral support. Margaret Maron, who had sent Paretsky a roll of stamps, recalls a breakfast meeting at Sandra Scoppettone’s Manhattan loft during the 1987 Edgar week. My strongest memory of that meeting in Sandra’s loft were those incredible wooden floors, the energy in that room, and Sue Dunlap explaining the idea of trusting each other. It was the first time I’d met her, and I was so startled when she graphically demonstrated what she meant by suddenly falling backwards. And yes, someone caught her.

Adopting a mission statement to help women who write, review, buy, or sell crime fiction…[and ultimately] to become a service organization to address issues of concern to everyone involved in the mystery field, the budding Sisters in Crime also launched a newsletter and began to monitor the gender breakdown of mystery authors being reviewed, a project that continues today.

Having grown to over 3000 members, with 48 chapters worldwide, Sisters in Crime celebrated its 25th anniversary this September with another breakfast gathering at Bouchercon in St. Louis. Though its mission has evolved to promote the professional development and the advancement of women crime writers to achieve equality in the industry, the organization still welcomes anyone interested in the genre, including readers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and even aspiring writers. A librarian is always named to the board to serve as a liaison to the library community and to organize a Sisters in Crime booth at the American Library Association and Public Library Association conventions.

Is equality still an issue?

A membership survey conducted last January found that the strongest motivation for members to join was to be part of a community devoted to the mystery genre, but they also wanted to support the organization’s mission of promoting equality. Though most members believe progress has been made, a large majority felt full equality had not yet been achieved. One member urged the organization to woman up! Another wrote, Do not give up your role in championing women in writing in the mystery genre. Clearly it is still needed.

Data drawn from sources cited here (center) suggest the members are correct. Progress has been made‚ but equality remains elusive.

The following Sisters in Crime
(www.sistersincrime.org) publications and projects will be of particular interest to librarians:

How Readers Find Books: 2011 Sisters in Crime Publishing Summit Report‚ the fifth in a series of annual reports on the book industry. Drawing largely on interviews and librarian focus groups conducted at the summer ALA 2011 conference in New Orleans, this study found that librarians have done more than anyone to understand how to connect readers with books they’ll love.

The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age‚ a 2010 study funded by Sisters in Crime and conducted by Bowker Pubtrack using sales data and a survey of book buyers.

We Love Libraries grants‚ enter your library to be eligible for a $1000 grant via a monthly drawing.

Author Information
Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, is the author of three mysteries and currently serves on the Sisters in Crime board