Our History

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. Robert (Bob) Hemenway, chair of the English Department in the late 70s-early 80s, eventual provost of UK, and a Zora Neale Hurston biographer, influenced the conference's early emphasis on black women writers. 

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. 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, 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, re-joining the committed efforts of its board and volunteers. Recent directors have been Brenda Weber (2003), Rebecca Gayle Howell (2004-06), and Julie Wrinn (2007-present). Howell established two community events that became signature offerings of the conference--the Wild Women of Poetry Slam and the Sonia Sanchez Series--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. While UK provides staff salaries, office space, and the majority of KWWC's operating expenses, financial support from sponsors including LexArts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, University of Kentucky Libraries, Sqecial Media, and individual patrons remains critical to our ability to attract writers of the highest caliber.

Despite formidable budgetary challenges in higher education, the University of Kentucky has not wavered in its support since 2002. 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.

Lexington’s nickname as the “Athens of the West” has been invoked many times in many contexts, but never so accurately as in the longevity of our literary institutions. In 2019 our board crafted a new mission statement and values statement to begin re-imagining what the Kentucky Women Writers Conference should look like as we enter our fifth decade.