Sisterhood has been on my mind recently, while I’ve been working on a book set in a convent. Dandy Gilver and a Most Misleading Habit, has twenty nuns taking care of orphans and doing a lot of laundry, out on the Lanark moor. It sometimes seemed as if the word “sister” was what turned it into a novel from the short story at its core. I had to let the detective get chummy and start calling them all plain “Bridget” and “Mary” just to stay sane.
But, in all honesty, sisterhood has been the status quo since I was born, the youngest of four girls. I’ve always had a selection of older, wiser females to turn to, an expectation that some woman somewhere will straighten me out whether or not I ask, and of course many extra clothes at my disposal.
When I left my three sisters behind in Scotland and moved to California in 2010, I had the good fortune to fall in with three thousand sisters instead: the Sisters in Crime. SinC was begun in 1987 by a small band of women, led by our founding mother Sara Paretsky, who were sick fed up of female crimewriters in the US publishing at nearly the same rate as men, but being seven times less frequently reviewed in the NYT, and largely absent from awards shortlists.
For the last thirty years (next year!) SinC has kept a beady eye on the industry and the press, as well as supporting, mentoring, celebrating and giving grants (oh yes, we say it with cash) to crimewriters who are as passionate about inclusion as they are about writing. We’ve always been open to men as well as women and, because it takes a good man to let himself be a Sister, we get the crème de la crème.
I was an easy sell as a member, but imagine my surprise when – a couple of years ago, fresh off the boat – I was asked to be the president of the organisation for 2015. I’m the youngest sister of four. I had never been in charge of anything in my puff. Of course I said yes, banking on my expectation that there would, once again, be many older wiser women who’d stop me mucking everything up. I was right. SinC survived and I’m proud to have done my bit. (My bit, incidentally, was to look at the massive improvements in gender equity and turn to groups of US crimewriters who’re in the place women were in in 87: writers of colour, LGBTQ writers and writers with disability.)
I’ve had a couple of perplexed looks from old pals back home about Sisters in Crime. And it puzzled me too, at first. America is the equal of Britain for feminism generally, so why should being a female crimewriter have such a different flavour in the two places? Because, take my word for it, it does. Then I cracked it: UK crimewriters are the granddaughters of Agatha, the daughters of Ruth and Phyllis, and the wee sisters of Val. (Ian Rankin, Peter James and Simon Brett included.) In the British psyche, the archetype of a crimewriter is a woman. In the US, we’re the sons of Raymond. But we can all be all Sisters (in Crime).
Sisters in Crime is open to international members and there is a lively online chapter (The Guppies). See membership details and a full history at www.SistersinCrime.org
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