It was several champagnes in at Wednesday's Orange Prize ceremony when a senior literary figure turned to me thoughtfully, gestured around the room with her canapé fork, and whispered: "This is what it must be like for men all the time."
In the packed ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall were some of Britain's most successful and glamorous women: the shortlisted authors, including the worthy winner, Barbara Kingsolver; the judges, Daisy Goodwin, Michèle Roberts, Julia Neuberger, Miranda Sawyer and Alexandra Shulman, and the Duchess of Cornwall, who made a modest and comical speech about e-book readers and magic faraway trees.
The Duchess's presence made security extra tight, so guests really had to earn their places and men ended up being relatively thin on the ground. Those who made it – such as the dashing Hay festival impresario Paul Blezard; the dramatist Jonathan Myerson and the insanely handsome actor son of one of the prize organisers – were charming, impressive and very welcome, but unusually peripheral to the throng of women.
The VIP area became irrelevant as authors and idols shared their champagne. There was gossip both meaningful and silly. No bitching and no preening; just cool, clever women hanging out in celebration of each other's achievements. I'd still say to the men who oppose this women-only arena: go ahead and start a men's book prize if that's what you really want. We're not going to stop you. We're over here having too much fun.
It is sad, in a way, that all this is remarkable. But on the 15th anniversary of the Orange Prize, the atmosphere around it seems to contrast more than ever with the images of women that we generally see. This month saw the release of Sex and the City 2, in which the characters we loved in the TV series for their wit, their work ethic and their take-no-prisoners attitude to hopeless men have turned into simpering automatons who live for marriage and designer clothes. Even in the film poster, Botoxed and airbrushed beyond recognition, these fine grown-up women are almost literally faceless.
It is also the season to be patronised by the advertising industry, which has split the population along gender lines. This summer, Brits are either blokes – beer-guzzling and football-obsessed – or WAGs – shallow and bitchy with one-track minds for shoes. Debenhams, for instance, is offering dedicated in-store "crèches" where boys can enjoy World Cup "goodies" while their girlies get their nails done. Oh Emmeline, Emmeline, where did it all go wrong?
The new set of Big Brother housemates reflects this divide. Each man is already working his individual USP, however flimsy; the women are, at the outset at least, largely selling their sexuality.
As male icons become ever more buttoned up, admired women in popular culture shed their clothes and sell sexiness cheap. Male totty such as Justin Bieber and Robert Pattinson don hoodies, sensible sweaters and big black capes; women hotties Beyoncé and Lady Gaga are down to their bras and pants.
Now, nobody is asking Paul Blezard and Jonathan Myerson to appear in their underwear at the next literary shindig – but there must be other ways to even things up. For now, though, we have at least one award that celebrates high-achieving women and teaches girls that intelligence sells. Who'd have thought that after 15 years we'd still be finding new reasons for the Orange Prize?Reuse content