If you look at any sphere, be it science, education, political representation or even literature, women have never had it easy. Writing especially has always been a male-dominated sphere. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when education was only imparted to the rich and affluent, and even then, not encouraged beyond a certain point, especially for women, a future in literature seemed unachievable. To counter this, aspiring female writers adopted male pseudonyms to combat sexism and prejudice. The biggest obstacle was not the writing itself but getting the manuscript past publishing houses that were male-dominated, who felt that the world of literature was no place for women.
Charlotte Brontë was only 20 years old when she sent a selection of her poems to Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate. The response she received was crushing… “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.” Undeterred by this, she along with her sisters, Emily and Anne, adopted the pen names, Currer Bell (Charlotte), Acton Bell (Anne) and Ellis Bell (Emily), and went on to publish their work.
In comparison, Jane Austen was one of the first trailblazers who did not detract from her gender, though she published her work anonymously under the pseudonym, “A Lady”. This pseudonym caught on and became quite popular by the mid-18th century. “This indicated not only the sex of the author but also that the book was by somebody of a certain class and thus suitable for perusal by respectable women,” says Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library.
The pseudonym, “A Lady”, became so popular (in the late 18th century) that even male writers began adopting it so that their books would appeal to female readers who made up most of the reading market at the time.
Some women writers chose male pseudonyms to protect their personal life. Take Mary Ann Evans, for instance, who published under the pseudonym George Eliot. There were two reasons for this… One, she didn’t want her book to be dismissed on the basis of her sex, and two, she did not want people prying into her personal life. At the time, she was romantically linked with the philosopher George Henry Lewes.
The famous J K Rowling was advised by her publishers to skip using her first name, Joanna, to appeal to young boys, before she could publish her first book in the Harry Potter series. Later, when she wanted to break into the crime fiction genre, she adopted the pseudonym Robert Galbraith only so that readers wouldn’t be put off by the book written by a children’s author.
Going Beyond Gender
There are other reasons too as to why female authors adopt male or gender-neutral pen names… To create a new alter ego, to not draw attention to their queer identity or to align with or avoid expectations of racial heritage. For instance, Violet Page, who wrote ghost stories, wrote under the pseudonym, Vernon Lee. “That sense of being free from gender, free from sex, at a period in which those kinds of categories are very heavily fixed in the minds, was quite important for her,” says Dr Ana Parejo Vadillo, who is a reader of Victorian literature at Birkbeck. When it came to race, Ann Petry, an African American writer, wrote under the pseudonym Arnold Petri, an outwardly white male name.
Publishing is Still Male Dominated
However, with the rise of digital marketing, it has become harder or nearly impossible for women to keep their gender a secret. There is also a lot more representation today of women in the literary world in comparison to a century ago.
Even then, there is a vast gap in the publishing ratio between male and female writers. A study conducted in 2011 revealed that The New York Review of Books reviewed only 71 female authors but 293 male authors. Publishing houses like Alfred A. Knopf, Little Brown and Farrar Straus were overwhelmingly dominated by male authors. Barring reasons related to protecting one’s personal life or creating an alter ego, female writers (Rowling, for instance) seem to not care if their publishers push for adopting a gender-neutral name or one that is male-sounding as long as they get to publish their book and reach a vast audience.