Celebrating the Courage of Women Writers
Today is March 3, and it’s National Women’s History Month once again! Since the theme for 2023 is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” we thought it would be fitting to revisit a post from 2014: “Celebrating the Courage of Women Writers.” Let’s continue to celebrate the women who tell our stories!
By Amy Sexton, MSEd, Purdue University Global Academic Success Center
March is National Women’s History Month, and the 2014 theme is “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment.” One area where women have shown great courage is in writing and publishing as they have boldly moved into literary scenes and genres often dominated by men and marked by limiting expectations of women writers. Historically, women have used male-sounding or gender- ambiguous pen names to be taken seriously as writers and to avoid unfair notions about female authors. More recently, women have chosen male or gender- neutral nicknames in order to publish in genres traditionally known to favor male writers, like crime and science fiction (Lytton, 2013).
Many people may not know that one of America’s favorite 19th century authors, Louisa May Alcott, best known for her portrayal of her own idyllic childhood in the novel Little Women, published much racier stories under the false name of A.M. Barnard (Lytton, 2013). The words of a Boston publisher immortalized in a letter to Alcott around 1855 reveal the preferences of publishers at the time: “We would like more stories from you … you may use the pseudonym of A.M. Barnard or any other man’s name if you will” (as cited in Lytton, 2013). While she received fame and praise for her work during her lifetime, readers did not learn that Alcott was also A.M. Barnard until over 50 years after her death (Lytton, 2013).
Alcott’s English contemporaries, sisters Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Bronte, published their first book, a collection of poems, in 1846 under male pen names similar to their real names: Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell. They went on to author beloved and acclaimed novels like Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne), as well as other well-received literary works, all under their male pseudonyms. Of the trio’s decisions to publish under false names, Charlotte wrote, “We had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice” (as cited in Cohen, 2012).
In 1856, another English author, Mary Ann Evans, also chose a male pseudonym, George Elliot, to ink her first publication, ironically titled, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Evans did reveal her female identity, but continued to use the pseudonym George Elliot to distinguish her work from other “lady novelists” in the Victorian Era and ensure that it received the serious literary attention it deserved (“10 Famous Females,” 2014). Today, Evan’s masterpieces continue to be best known by the male pseudonym, George Elliot.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, some women continued to find obscuring their gender necessary when publishing their writings. In 1967, 17- year-old Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the classic young adult novel, The Outsiders, about teen male gangs in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hinton’s publishers suggested that male readers may not appreciate a girl writing a story from a boy’s perspective, so Hinton used her initials instead of her full name (Cohen, 2012). S.E. Hinton’s male characters were so completely developed and realistic, however, that many readers were surprised to learn that S.E. Hinton was actually Susan Eloise. Similarly, as the 20th century ended, Joanne Rowling (her full name) wrote rich, vivid stories featuring a young male protagonist, Harry Potter. Rowling claims that she used a gender-neutral pseudonym, J.K. Rowling, for the insanely popular Harry Potter series at the suggestion of her publisher (Cohen, 2012). More recently in 2013, Rowling secretly penned the crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the male name Robert Galbraith. Like the Harry Potter series, this thriller has also enjoyed best-seller status – both before and after reporters discovered that Rowling was the author (Lytton, 2013).
As we celebrate the courage, commitment, and character of women during National Women’s History Month, let us also celebrate the courage of women writers who have assumed male pseudonyms or gender –neutral pen names in order to explore literary opportunities, as well as those who have penned their stories and poems using their own names. Let us also look forward to a time when a writer’s gender truly does not matter.
Cohen, S. (2012). Why women writers still take men’s names. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324355904578159453918443978
Lytton, C. (2013). Not just J.K. Rowling: Best-selling female authors with male monikers. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/16/showbiz/not-just-jk-rowling-monikers/
10 famous females who used male pen names. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.webdesignschoolsguide.com/library/10-famous-females-who-used-male-pen-names.html