It’s commonly believed that female authors throughout history often chose to write under a male pen name, or at least a gender-ambiguous pseudonym, because the publishing industry was a male-dominated world that simply rejected the work of women. And while an underlying gender bias was certainly the case in many instances, the truth is more complicated.
In some cases, publishers have asked women authors to write under a male name or, more commonly, with initials, to appeal to a specific market — normally boys or men — that might shy away from a female author. Such was the case with J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. Sometimes, it was more a question of anonymity, whereby the female writer simply wanted to separate her public life from the private. George Eliot wrote under a pen name in part to shield herself from what was then considered a scandalous aspect of her love life.
At times, it’s been a simple preference of the writer. Harper Lee, whose full name was Nelle Harper Lee, apparently didn’t want people to mistake Nelle for Nellie and so dropped it completely. Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, was born Margaret Shriver but changed her first name in her teens: “I was a tomboy,” she told The Guardian. “I grew up with brothers. So I chose a boy’s name.”
The famous female authors below had their own individual reasons for writing under a male pen name, whether it was due to sexism in the industry, a desire for anonymity, or personal preference — and in some cases a combination of all of these factors.
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.
– Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, writing as Currer Bell
This quote from Jane Eyre displays the titular character’s quest for love, freedom, and being valued, sentiments likely shared by the author. Charlotte was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters, all of whom wrote under male pen names. She explained that their decision was due to “a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.
– “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, who previously wrote as A.M. Barnard
When Louisa May Alcott published the first volume of Little Women in 1868, she did so under her real name. Earlier in her career, however, she sometimes used the pen name A.M. Barnard, a gender-neutral name that allowed her to write more sensational, and at times lurid, short stories that were not deemed appropriate for women readers or writers at the time.
“First of all, I would like to make one thing clear: I never explain anything.”
– “Mary Poppins” by Pamela Lyndon Travers, writing as P.L. Travers
Pamela Lyndon Travers, who was born Helen Lyndon Goff, created one of the most famous female characters in children’s literature: the indomitable Mary Poppins. In 1970, Travers told a Los Angeles Times reporter that she used initials in her pen name because “so often very sentimental books are written by women, supposedly for children, and I didn’t want to be lumped together with those.”
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and [Edgar Linton’s] is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.
– “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë, writing as Ellis Bell
The Brontë sisters used male pen names because they suspected that female writers were “looked on with prejudice.” They didn’t consider their own writing to be unfeminine, as Charlotte Brontë explained in her “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Another great female author, Virginia Woolf, later wrote how much she admired both Jane Austen and Emily Brontë for standing firm in a patriarchal society: “It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue — write this, think that.”
The law of the land has made you my master. You can tie up my body, bind my hands, control my actions. You have the right of the stronger, and society confirms you in it. But over my will, Monsieur, you have no power. God alone can bend and subdue it.
– “Indiana” by Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, writing as George Sand
During her lifetime (1804–1876), George Sand was one of the most popular writers in Europe. She changed her name when submitting her writing to La Revue De Paris, whose editor refused to publish women’s work. The name stuck, and she used it to publish her first novel, Indiana. Some of her friends and family also called her George. Sand became a feminist icon, known for defying the norms of 19th-century society, both in her writing — as evidenced in the passage above — and in the way she lived.
They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had forever closed behind them.
– “The Mill on the Floss” by Mary Ann Evans, writing as George Eliot
The close of the second book of The Mill on the Floss marks the end of Maggie and Tom Tulliver’s childhood. Here, the siblings pass from youthful innocence into the “thorny wilderness” that they will face going forward. Writer George Eliot brought a complexity to themes such as growing up and falling in love. She used a male pen name partly to ensure her works were taken seriously in a time when female authors were typically associated with romantic novels, as well as to hide her problematic social position — she was living as an unmarried woman with a married man.
Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
– “Out of Africa” by Karen Blixen, writing as Isak Dinesen
Karen Blixen’s memoir, first published in 1937, recounts her 17 years living in Kenya, then called British East Africa. At the beginning of the book’s first chapter, the Danish author makes it clear that her farm was a place of harmony and freedom, a place of purity where she truly felt at home, where she “ought to be.” Blixen wrote under a number of pen names during her career, sometimes depending on the country of publication. In Denmark she was known by her real name, while in Anglophone countries she used Isak Dinesen (Dinesen was her maiden name), and Tania Blixen in German-speaking countries. No one quite knows why she did this, but it created some strange anomalies between the various translations of her work, with passages as well as situations differing widely in the Danish and American editions of her texts.
What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.
– “The Women Men Don’t See,” a science fiction novelette by Alice Bradley Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jr.
In science fiction circles, the name James Tiptree Jr. is well known. The prolific writer, however, was in reality a woman by the name of Alice Bradley Sheldon, and she kept her true identity hidden for 10 years. Robert Silverberg, the acclaimed sci-fi author and editor, likened the style of “The Women Men Don’t See” to Ernest Hemingway and noted that the novelette was “a profoundly feminist story told in an entirely masculine manner.” Only later did he find out that Tiptree was a woman.