The Kentucky Women Writers Conference had its beginnings in 1979 as a celebration of women writers at the University of Kentucky. That first year featured Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Ruth Stone, Alice Walker, and Ruth Whitman. Since then, it has become the longest running annual festival of women writers in the nation, showcasing the talents and issues unique to female authors.
UK History faculty Nancy Dye had suggested using surplus funds from Undergraduate Studies to bring women writers to campus. UK English faculty Linda Pannill formulated the idea of an annual event called the University of Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Pannill and a 16-member committee from the departments of English, Honors, Undergraduate Studies, and Special Collections, along with members of the Lexington community, produced the conference. In 1984-85 the conference was directed by UK English faculty Jane Gentry Vance, who later served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate.
In 1985-93 the conference was affiliated with Continuing Education for Women/University Extension and directed by Betty Gabehart. As the conference's longest running director, Gabehart made significant contributions to its enduring legacy and stability, establishing much of the reputation it enjoys today. During those years KWWC received substantial funding from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, whose lifetime contributions to KWWC are today nearing $300,000. In 1994-96, the conference was affiliated with the Women's Studies Program and directed by Jan Oaks, faculty in English and Gender and Women's Studies. In 1997 former Conference assistant Patti DeYoung served as director.
In 1998 the conference lost university funding when it was unable to find a sponsoring department, and its advisory board established itself as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Its new home became the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in downtown Lexington, and it was renamed the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Its director during those years, 1998-2002, was Jan Isenhour, also director of the Carnegie Center, and its work was carried out by a volunteer board.
In 2002 President Lee Todd reinstated support for the conference to demonstrate the university's commitment to women's programming and community events. To reflect this dual organizational structure, the conference leadership cultivates wide community support through many partnerships and the committed efforts of its board and volunteers. While UK provides staff salaries, office space, and the majority of KWWC's operating expenses, financial support from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, LexArts, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Humanities Council, businesses, and individual patrons remains critical to our ability to attract writers of the highest caliber.
Despite formidable budgetary challenges in higher education since 2002, the University of Kentucky has never wavered in its support. Recent directors have been Brenda Weber (2003), Rebecca Gayle Howell (2004-06), and Julie Wrinn (2007-present). Howell established three community events that became signature offerings of the conference--the Wild Women of Poetry Slam, the Sonia Sanchez Series, and the keynote reading on mentorship and collaboration--as well as the Betty Gabehart Prizes in honor of our former director. In 2011 Frank X Walker established the Faith A. Smith Poetry Prize for the poetry slam winner in honor of his mother. The biennial Prize for Women Playwrights was launched by Wrinn in 2011 and promises a world premiere production to the winning script.
A variety of UK units have overseen KWWC during these years: Undergraduate Education in 2002-2008, the Graduate School in 2008-2009, and the College of Arts and Sciences since 2012. The launch of the English Department's M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2014 ushered in a new era of collaboration and cross-pollination between KWWC and the English Department. However, KWWC still reaches around the state through partnerships with other universities, including board member affiliations at Berea College, Bluegrass Community and Technical College, Georgetown College, Spalding University, Transylvania University, and University of Louisville. In 2015 the conference was livestreamed at Western Kentucky University.
Is it only for Kentuckians? Is it only for women? Is it for readers who aren't writers? Foremost, KWWC is a national event: typically 8 of 10 featured presenters and 30-40% of conference registrants hail from out-of-state. We feature the work of women writers only but welcome men to our audiencese. For readers we offer "non-workshop" registration that costs less and gains admission to all readings, panel discussions, craft talks, and publishing advice--which can be relevant not only for writers but also for anyone interested in editing and publishing.