Throughout time many female authors have written under the guise of male pseudonyms or gender-ambiguous aliases. These authors chose to do so for a variety of reasons, from wanting to publish without prejudice to encouraging male audiences to read their books. Some of the most well-known writers today started off as completely different people.
1. The Brontë Sisters
Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë are some of the most well-known authors today. Charlotte is best known for Jane Eyre, Emily is most known for Wuthering Heights, and Anne is arguably most known for Agnes Grey. The sisters grew up in England in the early to mid 1800s and became a nineteenth century literary family. The 1800s were a time of extreme male-domination and the literary world was no different.
The writing styles that the sisters used, and the themes covered in their books were not thought of as being ‘feminine’ at the time, and the writers were concerned they would face backlash and prejudice from their community for their books since they covered topics deemed to be immoral, shocking, controversial, and dark.
So, what did they do? They authored their books under male names, of course. Charlotte Brontë guised herself as Currer Bell, Emily Brontë went by Ellis Bell, and Anne Brontë chose the pen name Acton Bell, changing from the Brontë sisters to the Bell brothers. Although their work was still heavily criticized at the time for being ‘depraved’ content, they were able to become published authors. By saving face and using anonymity as a tool, the Brontë sisters were able to become well-known and successful authors.
2. Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin
Otherwise known as George Sand, one of the most popular authors of the 19th century. Dupin was a controversial figure even before the true identity of George Sand was exposed. She was known to have a multitude of lovers, one of which was the music composer Frédéric Chopin, and was a divorced woman. She often dressed in clothing meant for men and smoked in public, which, at the time in France, required a special permit.
Dupin’s chosen male pseudonym, however, did not come from a place of fear, but a place of anger and forthrightness. She chose a male pen name as a form of rebellion against the rigid expectations of gender roles within French society in the 1800s. Some of her works include Indiana published in 1832, La Mare au Diable published in 1846, and La Petite Fadette published in 1849.
3. Louisa May Alcott
A.K.A. A.M. Barnard, most well-known for authoring Little Women, which was published under her given birth name. Before Little Women was published, Alcott often wrote under a male pen name to avoid chastisement and prejudice from her audience and society, as she was a 19th century author. Her books often contained dark and controversial themes not deemed fit to be covered by a woman, so she decided to explore these themes as a man. In the 1940s, her male guise was discovered by a rare book dealer and a librarian. Some of her better known works under the name A.M. Barnard include A Long Fatal Love Chase written in 1866 and Behind a Mask, also written in 1866.
4. Mary Ann Evans
Also known as George Eliot. Evans adopted her male pen name when her romantic partner, George Henry Lewes, encouraged her to begin writing fiction. She believed that by writing under a male name she would be able to avoid feminine stereotyping and prejudice, and that her work could be more greatly appreciated and more likely to be published if she was known as a male author.
Evans first broke into the world of writing when she was offered a job as an assistant editor for the Westminster Review. She became known for many of her books being politically perceptive in the 19th century, and one of her most famous works, considered by many to be one of the best novels ever written, is Middlemarch, which was published in 1871.
5. Alice Bradley Sheldon
Also referred to as James Tiptree Jr., Sheldon was an art critic, painter, and graphic designer before she returned to the world of science fiction writing. She wrote under the male pen name as a form of protection for herself. Sheldon argued that,
“A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”— Alice Bradley Sheldon
Her books often centered on dark feminist dystopian worlds and contained characters who had experienced some form of alienation. Some of Sheldon’s more famous works include the award-winning novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In, Brightness Falls from the Air, and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.
6. Alice Mary Norton
Throughout her 70 year career, Alice Mary Norton published over 125 novels under the name Andre Norton. Before the release of her first novel, in 1934, Norton legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton. Norton’s publishing team had advised her to select a male-sounding name in order to appeal to a male dominated audience. The publishers argued that using a name that alludes to a male author would make her more marketable to the male readership widely found within the science fiction and fantasy genres at the time. Some of her more popular works include The Time Traders written in 1958, Witch World written in 1963, Beast Master’s Planet written in 1959, The Zero Stone written in 1968, and Catseye written in 1961.
Why Female Authors Used Aliases
There are a multitude of female authors and writers who chose to write under either male-sounding or gender-ambiguous pen names, including, but not limited to, those listed above. Many of these authors were writing in the 19th century, a time of extreme oppression for women, but even to this day some authors choose to use initials, ambiguous, or male-alluding pseudonyms for the overarching reason of protecting their work from being discarded just because there is a female-sounding name on the cover.
Some authors chose to use a different pen name so they had a better chance of being published or to appeal more broadly to their male-dominated readership. Others did it to protect themselves from backlash they would not receive as a male author writing about topics deemed as unfit for a feminine mind. Some female writers did it so that publishers and audiences would take their work seriously. And some, such as George Sand, did it as a protest against gender stereotypes and strict gender roles expected to be met in society.
Today, we are able to appreciate the works these women wrote because of the choices they made to write as male authors. And we are also able to appreciate their sacrifice and the fear surrounding the decisions they made. We can finally celebrate these works as being wonderfully crafted by uncensored female authors and feminine voices.
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