International Humanities Prize

About the Prize

The Washington University International Humanities Prize is awarded biennially to a person who has contributed significantly to the humanities through a body of work that has dramatically impacted how we understand the human condition. In 2022, the humanities center will honor cartoonist-memoirist Alison Bechdel. Past recipients are as follows: Sir David Adjaye (2018), Bill T. Jones (2016), Marjorie Perloff (2014), Ken Burns (2012), Francine Prose (2010), Michael Pollan (2008), Orhan Pamuk (2006).

The prize amount was increased to $50,000 in 2023. The recipient gives a public lecture on the Washington University campus, as well as interacting with students and community members throughout their visit.

A selection committee constituted by Washington University humanities faculty convenes to review nominated candidates and their body of work. The director of the Center for the Humanities invites the selected recipient approximately one year prior to the award ceremony. Faculty and student engagement with the recipient’s work is encouraged (including reading groups and special course work). During the visit, the recipient interacts with a wide range of members of the campus community, including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and senior administration. 

International Humanities Prize 2022: Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel. Photo by Elena Seibert.

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, known for her groundbreaking, richly layered depictions of queer life and family relationships, will receive the 2022 International Humanities Prize from Washington University in St. Louis.

Awarded by the university’s Center for the Humanities in Arts & Sciences, the biennial prize honors the lifetime work of a noted scholar, writer or artist who has made a significant and sustained contribution to the world of arts and letters. Bechdel will receive the prize, which is accompanied by a $25,000 award, during a public ceremony November 9 in the Clark-Fox Forum in WashU’s Hillman Hall. (The event is free and open to the public.)

Born and raised in central Pennsylvania, Bechdel earned an associate’s degree from Bard College at Simon’s Rock in 1979 and a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Oberlin College in 1981.

In 1983, Bechdel launched the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which she memorably described as “half op-ed column and half endless, serialized Victorian novel,” in the feminist newspaper WomaNews. Eventually syndicated to dozens of independent gay and lesbian publications, it ran continuously for 25 years.

Her 2006 memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic chronicles Bechdel’s youth in the small town of Beech Creek, where her closeted father, Bruce, taught English and operated a funeral home. He also conducted numerous affairs with men, a fact Bechdel only learned after coming out herself. Filled with mythological and literary references — from Icarus to James Joyce and Rita Mae Brown — the book explores their fraught relationship with warmth and empathy, in a visual style marked by blue and gray washes.

Bechel published a second memoir, Are You My Mother?, in 2012. A companion to Fun Home, the book explores the author’s relationship with her mother, Helen — an amateur actor whose own creative ambitious were stymied, in part, by her unhappy marriage — while also contemplating the work of Virginia Woolf, Dr. Seuss and, especially, pioneering psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, among others. Bechdel’s most recent book is The Secret to Superhuman Strength (2021), which recounts her lifelong pursuit, if not quite apprehension, of physical exercise.

Bechdel’s numerous honors include a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship as well as Eisner, Inkpot, Lambda, Harvey and American Library Association awards. In 2015, the Broadway adaptation of Fun Home, featuring book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, won the Tony Award for Best Musical. In 2017, Bechdel was named cartoonist laureate of Vermont.