It is a beautiful fantasy novel of a boy who is a born wizard. However, the audience may not expect much from the book it if they knew the author is a woman. Publishers were concerned because of the prevailing stereotypes. They found a solution finally and Joanne Rowling became J. K. Rowling in 1997, a gender-ambiguous name. The rest about her and her masterpiece is history!
Looking at the history of literature, we see many talented women writers who used male pseudonyms. Talent just is not enough. The patriarchy prevailed so strong that these women writers used male pseudonyms to get their work published. Virginia Woolf once said that her guess is that Anon, the great poet who remained anonymous is a woman. If that proves to be true someday, it will be no surprise.
The gender stereotypes of society did have a significant influence on how a literary work was received. Unfortunately, it is not a thing of past. In 2015, Catherine Nichols did a social experiment by sending her manuscripts under two different names, one of them being a male pseudonym. The experiment successfully proved that the positive responses came when she sent the same under male pseudonym.
Here are some of the extraordinary women writers who wrote prominent works of literature under male pseudonyms.
The Bronte sisters top the list of women authors who used male pseudonyms. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – a masterpiece of English literature that received instant phenomenal success didn’t have its author Anne Bronte’s name on its first edition. It carried her pseudonym ‘Action Bell’. Anne Bronte was afraid of the prejudice of a conservative Christian society towards a female writer’s novel which has a woman – a mysterious social outcast as the main lead.
Similar is the story for the classic novels written by Anne’s elder sisters Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte. Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and Anne Bronte published their first work - Poems as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell in 1846. The names that sounded masculine were chosen purposefully.
While Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is still known for its bleak depiction of revenge and cruelty, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a comparatively less provocative work but still contained elements of social criticism, class discrimination, sexuality, and feminism. The sisters admitted to their pseudonyms in 1848.
She wrote the widely known ‘Little Women’ under her own name. But in the initial stages of her career, she wrote gothic tales which were fierce and passionate in nature. Louis May Alcott was A.M. Barnard in those times because the content was ‘unladylike’ for a female writer. She wrote 'A Long Fatal Love Chase' - a dark love story and 'Behind a Mask' - a story of class discrimination and manipulation under her nom de plume. In order to reach a wider audience or to get published at all, Louisa hid behind a male pseudonym. Her secret was discovered by a rare book dealer a long time after her death.
Dupin was referred to as a brave man by her fans. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin is one of the most notable French writers and rightfully so for crushing the social norms of Parisian society. Controversies were no trouble for Dupin as she was often seen wearing men’s clothes, smoking in public, and separated from her husband while divorce was illegal. She also chose the name - George Sand as her nom de plume in an attempt to enter all facets of society where women writers were not welcome. And it did work. George Sand was the most popular writer (even more popular than Victor Hugo) of Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. She went on to influence generations of writers including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf and George Eliot with her rustic tales.
Middlemarch - A Study of Provincial Life, a novel that explores a 19th-century town undergoing modern changes is a work of realism with mentions of historical events, one of the greatest novels in English is still found with the name George Elliot on the internet. Mary Ann Evans is known for her perceptive political ideas. She chose the pseudonym to escape from the discouragement her work would receive due to female stereotypes. She chose the name – George Elliot as an ode to her lover George Henry Lewes who encouraged her to write fiction.
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After publishing a number of works under her name, Katharine Burdekin wrote her famous dystopian novel – Swastika Night under her nom de plume Murray Constantine. Unlike many others, Burdekin wasn’t fighting stereotypes. Her novel was set in a fascist future, and she was afraid of the wrath of the government. The work was described as a pioneering feminist critique. Most of her notable works are categorised as feminist utopian/dystopian fiction. Her true identity was discovered by Daphne Patai during her research on utopian and dystopian fiction.
Female writers who wrote novels under male names stands long. But, there is a comic artist on the lot too. June Mills is one of the first female comic artists. She started off her career as a fashion illustrator. She signed her work as Tarpe Mills – a gender-ambiguous pseudonym. She also wrote under Edgar Allen Jr. and Nella. Her most famous character Miss Fury was known for her kinkiness. Mills never shied away from drawing her with whips, heels, and lingerie. Her identity eventually became public knowledge and didn’t affect the popularity of Miss Fury.
New York Times’ bestselling author Robyn Thurman begun publishing her urban fiction and fantasy thriller under the name Rob Thurman which was her nickname. Her reason for taking up male pseudonym is just like any other female author who used male names. Her protagonists were male, and she was afraid that a female author’s name might drive away potential readers. She revealed her identity after her third book was published.
List of female writers with similar stories that we know of doesn’t end there. Violet Paget who wrote supernatural fiction with feminist and liberal elements hid behind the pseudonym, Vernon Lee. The list goes on to Karen Blixen, Alice Bradley Sheldon, Ann Rule, and Susan Eloise.
The times must be changing since female writers are taking up pseudonyms for quite different and more pleasant reasons now. Nora Roberts took up her pen names under the impression that all American romantic novelists do it. And our dear Harper Lee, whose full name was Nelle Harper Lee kept her name gender ambiguous to eliminate the chances of her first name being mispronounced as Nellie.