Mar 5, 2021

The Real Reasons Women Write Under Male Pseudonyms

Women have contributed to the art of the written word for thousands of years. Throughout history, many female authors have chosen to write under alternate male pseudonyms. These writers have chosen to publish under these pen names for a variety of reasons, including circumnavigating gendered expectations. For many, it was not to break free from preconceived gender norms, but instead to express themselves in other ways. 

For some writers, adopting a male pen name was done to be taken seriously in a male-dominated industry. Alice Bradley Sheldon, a painter, graphic artist, and art critic, wrote science fiction as James Tiptree Jr. to blend in. "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," she said in an interview with DC Writers Homes

Author Robyn Thurman, New York Times bestselling author of the Cal Leandros series, kept her gender unknown until the release of her third book. The author felt that because the books' main characters were predominantly male, potential readers may be thrown off by the author being female, so she penned the books under “Rob,” a nickname she already used amongst family and friends.

In their 2020 “Reclaim Her Name” campaign, the Women's Prize for Fiction chose 25 books from authors who wrote under a pseudonym, and re-released them under their given female name. "Many people still do not know that some of the greatest works of literature were written by women. We recognize that historical and personal factors surrounding the relationships between a writer and their pseudonym or pen name may vary in every case,” said a statement from the campaign website. “We also recognize there are many intersectional challenges that women may have experienced during these historical periods or in their lifetimes." 

Despite campaigns like “Reclaim Her Name,” some authors were perfectly fine writing under a male name. In fact, they may have had other reasons for it.

Making themselves known

For some authors included in the collection, like Mary Blight, the re-release was celebrated. Keynotes, a collection of feminist short stories centered around female sexuality, was published by Bright under the pen name George Egerton because she was concerned that her gender would inhibit the success of the book at the time. "I realized that in literature, everything had been better done by man than a woman could hope to emulate,” said Blight when speaking out about her decision to write under a pen name.  

Ann Petry, who wrote as Arnold Petri, wrote her first published short story, Marie of the Cabin Club, in 1939, and was included in the"Reclaim her Name" anthology. Her daughter, Liz Petry, was quoted by The Guardian in support of the campaign. "I'm incredibly proud of my mother's work, and it excites me that her writing has been introduced to a new audience through this collection,” Petry said. “I know she would be thrilled to be a part of this as it's an incredible conversation starter for such an important cause—my mother always believed in a world with shared humanity, and I think this project encapsulates that." After the success of Marie of the Cabin Club, Petry published The Street in 1946 under her own name. The book was a hit, and Petry became the first Black woman to sell more than 1 million copies of a book. 

A matter of principle

While the 2020 Reclaim Her Name campaign was progressive for some of the authors, the reasons behind the use of a pseudonym are far more nuanced. According to writer Catherine Taylor in a Times Literary Supplement piece, "[This] one-size-fits-all approach overlooks the complexities of publishing history, in which pseudonyms aren't always about conforming to patriarchal or other obvious standards."

Included in the "Reclaim her Name" anthology, Chinese-English author Edith Maude Eaton was transparent about racial discrimination against Asian Americans under her Chinese name, Sui Sin Far. However, the short story that the campaign chose to re-publish, How White Men Assist in Smuggling…, may not have even been written by the author. According to an article by The Guardian,  only one scholar, Mary Chapman, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia, has speculated that Eaton might have written the piece under the male pseudonym Mahlon T. Wing. Even Chapman expressed concern that the story might have been attributed incorrectly.

Another book in the series, Middlemarch by George Eliot, also came under fire. Written by an author who was Christened as Mary Anne Evans, Eliot changed her name several times throughout her life as she went through various phases, proving that she saw her name as more of a symbol as opposed to an identity. Rosemarie Bodenheimer, a biographer and professor at Boston College, suggested to the BBC that Eliot sought anonymity due to her elopement with George Henry Lewes, a man in an open marriage, in 1854, and thought a pen name would allow the work to be received without any “sexual scandal” attached. 

Despite campaigns like “Reclaim Her Name,” some authors were perfectly fine writing under a male name. In fact, they may have had other reasons for it.

Because Eliot considered her name changes to be a symbol of progression throughout her life, Bodenheimer suggests that republishing Middlemarch under Mary Ann Evans's name does a disservice to the author's wishes. "I think she would have been rather horrified, actually," said Bodenheimer. "'Mary Ann' strikes me as sending her back to a stifled girlhood before she had any inkling that she could become a writer." 

Scholars have also stated that in some periods throughout her life, Eliot "relished being thought of as a male and was disappointed when people thought otherwise." Until Eliot's first mass publication, The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton in 1957, George Eliot was thought to be male. Eliot was outed in 1958 by a widely circulated letter written by Charles Dickens, who pointed out that the piece was too feminine to be written by a male. 

Authors also adopted pseudonyms as a symbol of queer empowerment and expression. A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee was republished in the series with the byline Violet Paget. Around the time it was first published, Lee used the pseudonym to craft a new identity. Already openly lesbian, Paget began using Vernon regularly, ultimately going on to reject the gender binary and even experimenting with androgynous gender expression. Dr. Ana Parejo Vadillo, reader in Victorian literature at Birkbeck, said that "using Violet Paget is really a way of reclaiming her by erasing [her] queerness.” 

In celebration of Women's History Month, it is important to acknowledge these authors' success without tying their accomplishments to such a black-and-white concept as gender. Instead, readers should try to understand the authors individually and celebrate their works alongside how they chose to express themselves. If you were publishing a book, would you choose a pseudonym to make sure your book got the reception you wanted, or maybe to buck gender stereotypes?  Tell us what you’d do by interacting with us on Twitter @bookclubdotcom.