2017 Irene Adler Prize

Kiley Bense is the winner of the inaugural 2017 Irene Adler Prize for women writers for her essay, “A History of One’s Own.” It appears below.

Bense, who receives $1,000 toward her education, is pursuing her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction at Columbia University School of the Arts in New York.

Honorable mentions go to:

Elizabeth Trinh (“The Sine Function for Complex Arguments”), who is completing her dual B.A. and B.S. degrees in international relations at Stanford University.

Bailey Boyd (“My Dream Is Not My Own”), who is pursuing her Ph.D in English with an emphasis in creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri.

A History of One’s Own

By Kiley Bense

This is a story I was told growing up: There was a woman with moon-blue eyes and a cloud of red hair, who left behind the ruined Irish countryside she had known all her life. She was born in a blighted village with one church and one schoolhouse, a place that exists today only as rubble and weeds. At 23, she boarded a ship bound for America alone. In her hand was a pen.

She would become a writer, filling her poems with green and gold images of the homeland she never saw again. In her entry in a book of notable American Catholics, her husband is a footnote. This woman, my great-great grandmother, took her first steps in New York City’s harbor more than a century ago. But there’s a string attached to my sternum that tugs me back to her—I carry the hearts of the stubborn women who came before me, women who charged into spaces they were told not to venture.

My great-grandmother was a nationally syndicated columnist; when she died suddenly in her fifties, she left behind an unfinished novel in a drawer of her desk. My great aunt was an animal rights activist who traveled to Europe to advocate for horses wounded on the battlefield in the Great War. My mother was the first in her family to graduate college and attend law school; she became a hard-nosed public defender and has taught me grit and strength by example.

Ida Tarbell, another woman-pioneer, once dreamed that she might “rescue women from the obscurity of history,” and that is some of what I hope to do as a writer. I have spent the past three years working on a nonfiction book project about World War II that tells the parallel stories of my grandmother and her brother. His death at 23 on the North African front drastically altered the trajectory of her life—and therefore, mine.

A 2016 survey by Slate Magazine found that 75.8 percent of recent history titles were written by men. I hope with my M.F.A. degree to finish my book and add a small weight to the other side of the scale, joining writers I greatly admire like Barbara Tuchman, Jill Lepore, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. A shelf of history books that includes few female voices is one with a gaping hole at its center.

If there’s one thing I hope I inherited from the women whose footsteps I follow, it’s persistence. I am ready to take the next steps in my career armored with the knowledge that resilience, a writer’s necessary grace, can be found in the lives of the women who’ve been here before me. Theodore Roosevelt said that if we “show that the lives of the great men of the past have been to us incitements to do well in the present, then we have paid to them the only homage which is really worthy of them.” He had it half right.