In 1980, the newly formed Romance Writers of America identified contests and conferences as key activities to promote the romance genre. The association promptly organized contests with two major divisions: one for published books and the second for manuscripts by unpublished writers. Co-founder Rita Gallagher named the contest for unpublished authors the Golden Heart, while daughter and co-founder Rita Clay Estrada named the contest for published books the Golden Medallion.
Golden Heart entrants originally submitted a synopsis and the first three chapters of a manuscript. There were no page-count requirements in the early years of the contest; page requirements were later adopted to standardize the amount of material for a level playing field. The contests were not subdivided into categories in 1980 or 1981. Only first-, second-, and third-place awards were presented. In 1983, both contests were subdivided into six categories.
The Golden Medallion Award consisted of a pendant fashioned similar to an Olympic medal. The Golden Heart Award consisted of a gold heart on a gold necklace.
The Golden Medallion award became the RITA award in 1990—RWA’s 10th anniversary. RWA held a contest in which members were invited to design a statuette to represent the RITA and excellence in published romantic fiction. The winning design was submitted by Marilyn Clay from the Dallas area. The contests have represented excellence in romantic fiction for nearly 30 years.
Note: An earlier RITA award was given for outstanding volunteer dedication and also was named in honor of Rita Clay Estrada. The name meant Romance Is Treasured Always, and was first presented to Estrada during the Awards Ceremony in 1983 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.