I had written this post in March, because March was not only reading month, but it was also women’s history month. Unfortunately that didn’t work out. Rather than scrapping this, I realized that confining conversations about women’s history to one month is ludicrous. I’m not interested in relegating women’s voices to one month, especially in context of this post, which talks about one aspect of the road female authors have had to trek: adopting male, and more recently, ambiguous pen names in order to legitimize or ensure success for their works.
It won’t come as a surprise to many that female authors have historically had to navigate sexism and prejudice in order to publish; upon submitting poetry for publication, Charlotte Bronte was advised that women had no place in literature. In their time all three Bronte sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) published under male pen names (Currer, Acton, and Ellis; I’ll refrain from commenting on name choice there).
Other well known authors of yore you might know under male pen names: author of Middlemarch, Mary Ann Evans, who published as George Eliot; George Sand, known for writing Valentine and Indiana, was in fact Amantine Lucile Aurore Dudevant. And while Louisa May Alcott did publish Little Women under her own name, some of her early publications were written under the pen name A.M. Barnard.
Post 19th Century a variation on this trend emerged with female authors adopting ambiguous pen names using initials or androgynous names. A great example of this is Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose name is Nelle Harper Lee. Another would be Pamela Lyndon Travers, who published Mary Poppins as P.L. Travers.
This is a trend we still see today. J.K. Rowling has published both under a male pen name (Robert Galbriath, crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling), and was asked to publish the Harry Potter series as J.K. rather than Joanne after being advised that using initials would help attract male readership. Prolific romance author Nora Roberts has been publishing her crime series, the In Death books (there are currently 50, which she’s been publishing since 1995), under the pseudonym J.D. Robb. Even 50 Shades of Grey author, Erika Leonard, did this (E.L. James)
These are only a few examples of women who have struggled to have their voices heard as a result of their sex. Looking back historically, this might not come as a shock. From this vantage a history of sexism is clearer–hindsight and all of that. What is more troubling to me is the current trend in the publishing industry of removing gender from particular genres under the idea that attaching a female name will detract from readership, particularly those targeted at male audiences, such as crime novels.