4 Influential Female Writers Who Hid Behind Male Pen Names

These world-famous female writers pretended they were men to ensure their work was read and published

In 1929, in her essay A Room of One's Own, novelist Virginia Woolf pondered why there weren’t any literary works, poems, or sonnets written by women during Shakespeare's time that had made it into the history books. Her conclusion makes you think:

"I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman."

While it is now impossible to know if any of these "anonymous authors" were women, what we do know is that many female authors and writers couldn’t sign their real names due to the constraints of the times, the subjects they were writing about, or the literary genres they were interested in... Instead, they used male pen names to avoid being judged, censored, or scorned. Their talent and creativity are responsible for major contributions to the history of world literature. Have you read any of their classic texts?

1. The Brontë sisters (the Bell brothers)

Sisters Charlotte Brontë (author of Jane Eyre), Emily Brontë (author of Wuthering Heights), and Anne Brontë (author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) launched their literary career signing the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

Their decision to do so was down to the fact that the subjects they were writing about were considered shocking, even immoral, at the time: controversial romances, alcoholism, violence... Although many of their contemporary writers still criticized their work for its "depraved" content, the reaction would have been far more extreme had it been known that these texts were written by three women from respectable families.

Today, these sisters’ novels are considered groundbreaking works of art that have made their mark on the history of literature.

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This portrait of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë was painted by their brother Branwell (1834).

2. Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)

The alter ego of writer Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot, became one of the most important English novelists of the 19th century, along with Charles Dickens. The latter greatly admired the works of the non-existent Eliot and was among the few who suspected the truth behind this male pen name.

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Portrait of George Eliot by Alexandre-Louis-François d'Albert-Durade.

Following multiple successes, such as Adam Bede (1859), Mary Ann's true identity came to light and created a stir, particularly because she was in a relationship with a married man, George Lewes.

Fortunately, the controversy did not affect her popularity as a novelist, and her work Middlemarch is still considered one of the best English novels in existence.

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Portrait of George Eliot by Frederick William Burton in 1864.

3. Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin (George Sand)

Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin was one of the most popular writers of the 19th century and European romanticism and one of the most controversial figures at the time. She was divorced and had numerous lovers (including the composer Frederick Chopin). Amantine Aurore smoked and dressed in men's clothing even though, at the time in France, a special permit was required to do so.

In her case, using a male pen name was not to hide her true identity but an act of rebellion against a rigid society and rigid gender roles. As the writer Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables) said:

George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female... but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.

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Details from a portrait of George Sand by Auguste Charpentier (1838).

Artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Flaubert, and Honoré de Balzac declared themselves unconditional admirers of George Sand, and her works such as Rose et Blanche, Indiana, and Lélia have stood out in the history of world literature.

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George Sand photographed by Nadar (1864)

4. Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr)

Although it was a woman who is considered to have written the first modern science fiction novel, over the years, this genre came to be thought of as a male genre. So when Alice Bradley Sheldon, a woman from the Women's Army Corps decided to start writing science fiction stories, she did so under the pen name James Tiptree Jr. She explained:

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.

Among those experiences was a career in the U.S. Army during World War II. She worked in the Air Force photo-intelligence group. She was even offered the opportunity to join the CIA, which she turned down to go to college to study.

Her stories tackled gender issues, one example being Houston, Houston, Do You Read?. This story is about a group of scientists who travel to a future planet Earth where all the men have disappeared and the women who are left behind manage on their own just fine without them.

Alice Bradley Sheldon was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012, this time, under her real name.

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Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr) with her husband in 1946.

So many other women had to hide behind male names to avoid the prejudices of times they lived in. Can you imagine how many other women had their work recorded in history under another name without anyone ever knowing the true identity of its author?

It is wonderful that today we can celebrate those writers whose true identities were eventually discovered.
Hopefully, in the future, the contributions of many other unknown artists who weren’t able to use their real names will be discovered.

English version by @eloise_edgington.

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