It was a capacity crowd in Edith Wharton’s elegant drawing room at the Mount for the reading by the three winners of the BFWW Essay Contest on Femininity, sponsored by Michelle Gillett and Nina Ryan, and judged by Alison Larkin.

Audience assembled at the Mount for the Gala Festival Finale

Nina Ryan and Michelle Gillett, who have shepherded many budding Berkshire writers to successful publication with their writing workshops, editing and agenting skills, opened the proceedings with many thanks to the 50 women who submitted their essays to the contest.

Nina Ryan

Michelle Gillett












Alison Larkin warmed up the audience with a marvelous comedic performance based on her autobiographical novel The English American, which has just been published as an audio book, and is on its way to becoming a major motion picture.  Alison had the audience laughing and sharing along with the joys and challenges of her experience as a creative young woman in an adoptive family that didn’t quite know what to make of her talents.

Alison Larkin

Then it was the turn of the prizewinners.

First up was Suzi Fowle, whose moving essay told of how her daughter’s impending rendezvous with menarche brought up all kinds of memories of her own first period, as well as resolutions to do more to nurture her daughter through this important life transition.

Suzanne Fowle

Sheela Clary read a piece about her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Papua New Guinea, and how she spent a terrifying night convinced she was about to be raped…only to learn later that her host “Papa” had been standing guard by her door the whole night to protect her.

Sheela Clary

Both Suzi and Sheela choked up as they read, and there were many tears in the audience as well, as their honesty and willingness to reveal their own struggles was deeply appreciated by their listeners.

Hilda Banks Shapiro

Hilda Banks Shapiro, the first prize winner, read an essay that looked back over a lifetime of strength and courage; focusing on how, as a young mother of 12, she used her intuitive grit and courage as a woman to find her own voice, and to make it on her own as a single mom after her husband walked out on the family, leaving them with a dairy farm that only managed to lose money.  Again, not a dry eye in the house as Hilda finished her story!

The presentation ended with a few remarks by yours truly, Festival founding director Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez. I was surprised and moved when members of the organizing committee, Alice Myers and Judy Nardacci, presented me with flowers and a spoken tribute, and I went on to express how much I have appreciated all the support and enthusiasm that the Festival has generated in all the hosts, organizers and participants, as well as the audiences that have turned out in such droves. It is truly inspiring and energizing to see how much talent is hiding away in these Berkshire hills, and I am already looking forward to more occasions to bring us together to share our gifts and voices, and in so doing, change the world.

Here are some great photos of the Gala Reception that followed the reading, taken by Suzi Banks Baum, Artist Mom extraordinaire, of Laundry Line Divine fame.

Sonia Pilcer, Hester Velmans and Jana Laiz


Essay Contest and Gala Finale hosts Nina Ryan and Michelle Gillett


Hester Velmans and Festival director Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez


Essay contest judge and host Alison Larkin, holding a copy of the new audiobook edition of her bestselling novel The English American

Guests Mary and Lila Berle


We hope the Festival will brighten the front door of the Mount in March for many years to come