Lettie Prell Online
April 16, 2017 11:25am
Women Writers Winning Hugo Awards: A History

When I was in high school, I read all of the science fiction in the school library. I didn’t make a conscious choice to do so, but as I stood at the head of the fiction section, my eye was drawn to Isaac Asimov. I read Foundation, and thus acquired a taste for mind-expanding fare. In college, I enrolled in a science fiction literature class, and wrote my term paper on Ursula Le Guin's  The Left Hand of Darkness. Later still, I discovered Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos Archives series.

I began collecting genre works by women in order to educate myself about their contributions. What follows is an expanded version of a talk I've given in college classes: my analysis of Hugo Award winners over time in the four major fiction categories: best novel, novella, novelette, and short story (and their early equivalents). The information source is TheHugoAwards.org.

In the Hugo’s early days, there were fewer fiction categories, and there were years when no awards ceremonies were held. Alfred Bester was the first writer to win a Hugo in 1953, and there was only one writing category that year: best novel. Between 1953 and 1959 (and not counting retro Hugos), a dozen awards were given; all of the winners were men.

The first nominations of women writers occurred in 1959. There were three of them, all in the novelette category: Pauline Ashwell, Zenna Henderson, and Katherine MacLean (in co-authorship with Charles V. De Vet). None of them won.

During the 1960s, 28 Hugos in our study’s categories were awarded including one for best all time series in 1966. Of these, one, Anne McCaffrey, was a woman. She was awarded Best Novella in 1968 for “Weyr Search” (originally published in Analog). Percentage of these Hugos going to women in the 1960s: 3.6%.

During the 1970s, 39 Hugos in our study’s categories were awarded; eleven were women, including Jeanne Robinson, who co-wrote “Stardance” with Spider Robinson (Best Novella, 1978). Also counted of course is James Tiptree, Jr., the pen name of Alice Sheldon, who won a Hugo in 1974 before it became publicly known she was a woman; she won a second Hugo in 1977. Ursula Le Guin was the first woman to win in the Best Novel category, for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970. Le Guin’s work won four Hugos in all that decade. Other winners were Kate Wilhelm, Joan Vinge, Vonda McIntyre and C.J. Cherryh. Percentage of these Hugos going to women in the 1970s: 28.2%.

During the 1980s, 40 Hugos in our study’s categories were awarded; nine were women. Joanna Russ, Connie Willis (two awards) and Octavia Butler (two awards) were the new winners this decade, joining Vinge, Cherryh (two awards) and Le Guin who also won Hugos. Percentage of these Hugos going to women in the 1980s: 22.5%. This is not a statistically significant difference from the 1970s percentage.

During the 1990s, 41 Hugos in our study’s categories were awarded; thirteen were women. Lois McMaster Bujold and Connie Willis accounted for nine of these. Suzy McKee Charnas, Nancy Kress, Janet Kagan, and Maureen McHugh made up the remainder. Percentage of these Hugos going to women in the 1990s: 31.7%.

Between 2000 and 2009, 40 Hugos in our study’s categories were awarded; eleven were women. Connie Willis (three awards), Lois McMaster Bujold and Nancy Kress won again. New winners this decade were J.K. Rowling, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Susanna Clarke, Kelly Link, and Elizabeth Bear (two awards). Percentage of these Hugos going to women in the “aughts”: 27.5%. This is not a statistically significant difference from the 1990s percentage.

So far in the present decade, through the 2016 ceremony held in Kansas City, 27 Hugos in our study’s categories were awarded; twelve were women. Joining Connie Willis were Mary Robinette Kowal, Jo Walton, Kij Johnson, Charlie Jane Anders, Pat Cadigan, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Hao Jingfang, and Naomi Kritzer. Most notably—and despite the “puppy” voting mess in recent years—women swept all four categories covered by this analysis in 2016. Percentage of Hugos for fiction going to women so far this decade: 44.4%.

The diversity reflected by the women winners in 2016 was evident years before. For example, American science fiction writers Ted Chiang, John Chu, and Ken Liu have won Hugos, and Liu later turned in Hugo-winning translations of works by Cixin Liu and Hao Jingfang.

In sum, this analysis documents the large increase in Hugos going to women writers, from zero to a sweep of all four major fiction categories in 2016. I could have selected another award, or gathered other data, and documented the same upward trajectory, because what we’re really documenting here is the achievement of the broader women’s movement, which has been just one of the groups who’ve been working for a more inclusive culture. As for me, I’ve come to expect diverse voices, and I hunger for them as another dimension of the mind-expanding fare I’ve craved since high school.


Lettie Prell is a science fiction writer. She likes to explore the edge where humans and their technology are increasingly merging.

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