Celebrating Women’s History Month

Famous Women Writers Who Wrote Under Male Pen Names


(Ariana Magafas/ The University News)

In 2021, female authors made up 75% of the general and literary fiction titles. Women today continue to consistently occupy more space within the literary world. However, not long ago, women writers would often publish their books under false names, typically male pseudonyms to guarantee that their works would sell. 

     During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women frequently wrote under male pseudonyms for a variety of reasons, including the desire to publish their works without prejudice from male audiences, to experiment creatively and to encourage male readership. However, the main reason why female writers chose to publish under false names was to ensure that their work would be honestly and objectively considered for its craft and quality, and not judged through the lens of feminine emotion. Many of these writers would later publish their works under their real names, but only once the book had been successful already.

 In honor of Women’s History Month, here is a list of some of the many renowned female writers who have published their works of literature under male pen names. 

The Brontë Sisters

    In 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë published a collection of poems under the names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The surname Bell came from the curate of Haworth, England, where the Brontë sisters resided. Ironically, Charlotte Brontë would later go on to marry the namesake, Arthur Bell Nicholls. They decided against using their real names to ensure that their work would be considered seriously and gain objective praise for the work.

    In 1847, each sister published their first novels under the pen names: “Jane Eyre” by Currer Bell who was Charlotte, “Wuthering Heights” by Ellis Bell who was Emily, and “Agnes Grey” by Acton Bell who was Anne. 

     After Emily and Anne Brontë’s death in 1848, Charlotte Brontë wrote a forward for the second edition of “Wuthering Heights,” and explained their reasons for using pseudonyms. “We did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

   The women did not want their voices to be perceived as feminine, instead, they wanted to be recognized simply for their talent with the pen. Charlotte would reveal her identity following “Jane Eyre’s” success, but Emily and Anne would pass before they could reveal their identities. Therefore, in 1847, Charlotte published “Brontë’s Life and Works,” a set of all the sister’s collected works, and in the foreword, Charlotte would introduce the three of them as the Brontë sisters.

Louisa May Alcott

    Although it may seem surprising, since Louisa May Alcott’s most notable work, “Little Women” was originally published under her real name, Alcott used an androgynous pseudonym for her earlier works.

   Alcott’s pen name was discovered in the 1940s by historian Leona Rostenberg and bookseller Madeleine B. Stern, who found a correspondence of letters between Alcott and a group of small publishers written between 1865 and 1866. Alcott referenced herself as A.M. Barnard, the author of various bestselling gothic works at the time. Rostenberg and her fellow scholars would bring this information to the public in the 1970s, and Alcott’s lesser known works, such as “A Long Fatal Love Chase” and “Behind the Mask,” were re-published. 

     Alcott chose to write these works as A.M. Barnard due to the passionate and dark themes of sensation novels, which were considered highly unladylike at the time. Alcott decided to avoid public scrutiny for writing such works by using a pen name. 

     It is likely Alcott chose to publish “Little Women” under her real name because of its more traditional themes of sisterhood and romance, more commonly female literary devices. 

     However, even “Little Women” attempted to break traditional boundaries of literature. Alcott originally intended for her heroine Jo March to be an unmarried spinster, but she was discouraged by her publishers, who told her the novel would not sell if Jo ended the novel unmarried. This was seen as highly untraditional and scandalous. Ultimately, Alcott would conform and ensure Jo was married by the novel’s conclusion.

Karen Blixen

     Karen Blixen is a Danish writer best known for her memoir “Out of Africa,” written in 1937, which recounts Blixen’s time living in Kenya.

     However, before she wrote “Out of Africa,” Blixen was successful as a short story writer. Her first work, “Seven Gothic Tales,” was published under very specific circumstances. Blixen had unsuccessfully attempted to sell the stories to publishers in Britain, but she found success in America with the help of novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher. 

    Blixen’s short stories would be published under the following conditions: Fisher would write an introduction to endorse the novel, and Blixen would not receive an advance for the book. Blixen, herself, decided to add one more condition. She would write under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Dinsen was Blixen’s maiden name, and Isak is the Danish version of Isaac, which means laughter. Blixen decided to use a pen name to not just appear male, but to appear genderless. Blixen also came from a wealthy background and desired to be judged genuinely for the quality of her work, not her affluent background. 

     “Seven Gothic Tales” was an American success, and was chosen as the national Book of the Month in 1934. 

    Women writers have come a long way since feeling pressured to use male pseudonyms to ensure the success of their works. However, it is important to remember the female writers who felt they had to hide behind a masculine name in order to be taken seriously within the literary world. This list is not extensive, and there are countless other women who wrote under pen names, and some women still use male pen names today. Many of these works are considered literary classics, and it is worthwhile to consider whether or not these books would be so well known had the women chosen to originally publish them under their real names.