Some of our favourite female authors have chosen to publish under male pen names, ambiguous non-de-plumes, or gender-neutral initials, for a myriad of reasons: to encourage male readership, to provide complete anonymity or to avoid readers gender stereotyping their work. Below are five famous women authors who have intentionally chosen to publish under anonymous names:
The Brontë Sisters
All three of the Brontë sisters wrote under male non-de-plumes at some point or another, and each kept their first initials. Charlotte became Currer Bell, Emily chose Ellis Bell and Anne wrote as Acton Bell.
It was only after Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were published that speculation began as to whether the authors were really male, or were females. As soon as the rumour started of the authors being female, the language used in Wuthering Heights was judged to be ‘too coarse’ by readers of the time.
Jane Eyre on the other hand continued to rise in sales and popularity, and many believe that this was due to its reputation as an ‘improper’ book. Charlotte’s third novel, Villette, was also judged for its coarseness and for the main character Lucy not being ‘feminine’ enough in her desires.
Charlotte herself said “we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
Mary Ann Evans
Known more widely by the male pseudonym she used - George Eliot - Mary Ann Evans was a translator, novelist, poet and journalist. She wrote seven novels, one of which, Middlemarch, is considered one of the greatest pieces of English literature ever written.
During the time she was writing, many women did use their own names on their works, however Evans did not want her work to be judged for defying the stereotype that women only wrote light hearted romances. She also wanted her novels to be judged separately from her work as a journalist and translator.
She wrote a manifesto on women’s literature for a newspaper, titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists". This criticised much of the romance fiction written by women of the time and branded them ‘trivial’ and their plots ‘ridiculous’.
She eventually outed herself as the author of Middlemarch, as other authors tried to claim the work was theirs!
Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin
One of France’s most celebrated novelists, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote under the male pseudonym George Sand. Most of her work focused on themes of love and social class and A Winter in Majorca describes a time that she spent in Majorca during a relationship with composer Frederic Chopin.
French Women in the mid-1800s were allowed to wear men’s clothing if they applied for a permit from the police, however Dupin chose to wear them anyway without a permit, and also took to smoking in public, which was heavily frowned upon for women of her social standing.
Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) once said of George Sand “George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female. I entertain a high regard for all my colleagues, but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.”
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott wrote under the gender-neutral initials A.M. Barnard for some of her pieces. Whilst her best well-known works, Little Women and Little Men, were published in her own name, Alcott chose to publish a line of gothic tales and short stories based on passion and revenge (such as A Long Fatal Love Chase) under neutral initials, as these were considered unusual for a female writer of the time.
She used the funds from these shorter fictions written as A.M. Barnard to then write the later novels in her own name.
The use of these initials remained a secret for decades, even until after her death, and was only revealed when a rare book dealer found a letter from a publisher to Alcott, “We would like more stories from you... and if you prefer you may use the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard or any other man's name if you will."
Alice Bradley Sheldon
From 1967 to 1987, Alice Bradley Sheldon used the pen name James Tiptree Jr for her works of Science Fiction. Before and during this time, she also used her own name for her work as an illustrator and art critic. Her first piece of fiction under the Tiptree moniker was the short story Birth of a Salesman.
When asked about why she chose to use a male pen name, she said "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."
When speculation began to occur as to the writer’s gender, Robert Silverberg even wrote "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing".
Once her identity was revealed, she wrote her first full length novel, Up the Walls of the World, and she was also the author of the best-selling piece The Girl Who Was Plugged In.
Many more women wrote under under male pseudonyms (see below), and some women authors even choose to write under pseudonyms to this day.
Violet Paget /Vernon Lee
Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch /Magnus Flyte
Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece, Edith Emma Cooper /Michael Field
Nora Roberts /J.D. Robb (Neutral)
Karen Blixen /Isak Dinesen