Throughout history, many female writers have felt the need to write under a male pseudonym. In fact, this is not a practice that’s confined to the past: even today, female authors have still experience pressure by publishers, editors and the public to mask their identity in order to be taken more seriously in the literary world thanks to age-old stereotypes about what women are capable of writing. The practice of adopting a male nom de plume continues to be especially prevalent nowadays in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and crime, which have been traditionally considered “masculine” topics to write about.
As Virginia Woolf once suggested in “A Room of One’s Own,” these female authors who cloaked their identity with a male name were victims of “inner strife” and sought to “veil themselves by using the name of a man.” From historical authors such as Louisa May Alcott and the Brontë sisters, to present-day writers including JK Rowling and Nora Roberts, the practice of a woman taking up a masculine name has certainly lasted. In fact, some of these authors are even more famous by their male names than their real ones, testament to how effective a pen name can be.
Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë (mid-19th century)
These three sisters were accomplished 19th century authors who are still celebrated for their contributions to English literature. Although today the sisters are well known by their real names, early in their careers their work was published under male pseudonyms because they didn’t think they could get their work published as women. The sisters’ first book, a collaborative work called “Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell” did not actually do well, selling only three copies. The girls were not discouraged by this lack of success. Next, Charlotte penned “Jane Eyre,” which was also published under her pen name Currer Bell. The book was a success. However, when the publisher grew suspicious that the work was a joint effort with “Ellis Bell” the sisters travelled to London where they surprised the publisher with the knowledge that they were young women. Emily’s Wurthering Heights was also published under pseudonym, Ellis Bell, and was designed as a companion novel to “Acton’s” (Anne’s) book “Agnes Grey,” both earning commercial success. Under the name Acton, Anne also published the successful “The Tenant of Windfell Hall.” The works of these three women were considered controversial for the time (even for a male author) and had mixed reception from critics but generally enjoyed great commercial success, even once it became known that they were women.
Nora Roberts (b. 1950)
Nora Roberts (which is also a pseudonym, her actual name is Eleanor Robertson), was a successful romance author when she decided she wanted to start writing suspense novels. Her first romantic suspense novel, published in 1995, was under the gender-neutral pseudonym J.D. Robb (J and D are the initials of her two sons’ first names). Using a pseudonym was recommended by her publisher. She has ended up publishing dozens of books in the “In Death” series, which are futuristic science fiction police detective novels, using this pseudonym.
Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880)
Victorian novelist “George Eliot” was actually Mary Ann Evans. She used the male pen name to ensure that she would be taken seriously as a writer. Although by this time many women authors had been published, there was a stereotype that women could only write romances and so she wanted to escape that stigma. Many of her books have strong political themes and are heavy on exploring the psychological aspects of the characters. She is best known for her book “Middlemarch,” which received critical acclaim and was praised by other authors such as Virginia Woolf.
Ann Rule (b. 1935)
An American crime novel author, Ann Rule or “Andy Stack” as she is better known has written many books exploring stories related to serial killers and murderers. Early in her career, she worked for the Seattle Police Department and wrote for several publications during that time, eventually writing in a magazine under the pseudonym “Andy Stack.” She went on to write several books, some published under her real name and others under her nom de plume, which was created presumably to boost her credibility in the male-dominated genre.
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
In the mid-19th century, Louisa began writing for literary magazines and other publications, often writing about subjects relating to the American Civil War. By the 1860s, she began writing novels and stories under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. These stories were sensational and dramatic about heroes who sought revenge on their enemies. Then, she began writing more wholesome stories geared for children and she gradually began to write the kinds of stories she is known for today, including “Little Women,” which was published under her real name.
Alice Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987)
When Alice began writing science fiction, she adopted the male pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. to camouflage her identity in the male-dominated field of science fiction. Her identity was well-concealed for some time by the pen name, because although it became common knowledge that this name was a pseudonym, it was assumed that it was used because the author was an intelligence official whose identity needed to be protected. It therefore came as a shock when her actual name was revealed (upon the death of her mother when her real name was published in the obituary). Before it was known that she was a woman, some prominent authors had actually written essays about how she could not have been a woman, leading to great embarrassment on their part.
Karen von Blixen-Finecke (1885-1962)
Danish author Karen von Blixen-Finecke wrote under the male pseudonym “Isak” (along with several other pen names including Tania, Osceola and Pierre). The author is best known for her book “Out of Africa,” which was based on her own life experiences in Africa, as well as the book “Babette’s Feast.” Both were turned into movies. It’s been suggested that she wrote under a pseudonym because she was from a prominent Danish family and wanted to more freely express herself. Her sister also wrote some stories and essays using an ambiguous pseudonym.
Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876)
This early 19th century author is still best known by her pseudonym George Sand. Her first literary work was published under the name Jules Sand and subsequently wrote under the name George Sand for the rest of her career. In addition to her novels, she wrote pieces of literary criticism and political texts and was a well-known socialist. Although she was referred to by her pen name, it was relatively common knowledge that she was actually a woman. She was also famous for wearing men’s clothing and smoking in public, which were both scandalous habits for the time.
Nelle Harper Lee (b. 1926)
Although this pen name isn’t necessarily masculine or feminine, the author Harper Lee dropped her real first name, Nelle, effectively making her name more ambiguous and androgynous. She is famous for “To Kill a Mockingbird” which won a Pulitzer Prize. Harper Lee only wrote this one novel in her career as an author.
JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith
Joanne Rowling (b. 1965)
The British novelist Joanne Rowling, best known for the “Harry Potter” series, was originally told by her publisher that Harry Potter wouldn’t be as popular among boys if they knew it was written by a woman. So, the pen name “JK Rowling” was created to mask her identity. While “J” can stand for her first name, Joanne, “K” does not represent anything about her name, since she does not have a middle name. Of course, all seven Harry Potter books went on to become some of the bestselling books of all time, even after it became common knowledge that “JK” was a woman. After the Harry Potter series concluded, Joanne once again opted for a male pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, when she wrote a series of detective novels. It’s not known why she again chose a male pseudonym, although the decision this time around was likely for slightly different reasons; she probably wanted to enjoy the extra freedom that going incognito would afford her after the massive success with Harry Potter.
Bonus: William Shakespeare? (1564-1616)
Less is known about the professional practices of perhaps the most famous English writer of all time than some historians would like. The authorship of his works has been doubted for hundreds of years. It’s possible he acquired the works that have been attributed to him from other authors (or groups of authors) and some historians have even speculated that he acquired them from a female writer. Among the potential female authors put forth by scholars is Mary Sidney, a well-educated Countess, as described in the book “Sweet Swan of Avon” by Robin P. Williams.