Famous female authors who used male pseudonyms to challenge convention

Posted by
Hayley Spencer
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This week TIME Magazine published their list of the 100 most-read female authors in college classes. And sandwiched between Gloria Anzaldua and Marguerite Duras was a glaring anomaly on the list: Evelyn Waugh. Yes, the Brideshead Revisited author is a familiar fixture on many higher education courses, but a woman HE was not.

While TIME shake off the red face of their mistake and the resulting social media jibes, we've turned our attention to the female authors who've been mistaken for men. Because, while as one Twitter user noted Waugh would "be furious that journalists are still making this mistake," women have a history of passing as male writers and of choosing gender ambiguous names intentionally.

Some of our most beloved writers have used male pen names with a variety of motives, from combatting sexism in the industry as a whole, to breaking into male-dominated genres, and even as a means of totally reinventing themselves with a new persona.

Here are the inspiring stories behind seven famous female authors who've used male pseudonyms.

J.K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith

J.K. Rowling became the UK's best-selling author thanks to the Harry Potter series. And as many fans will know, she agreed to publish the books under her initials over her given name after publishers suggested young male readers might be deterred by a female author. We'll never know if this would have hindered the huge success of the series, but interestingly, when Rowling embarked on a second franchise she opted to go incognito, taking a male name by choice.

The first book in her Detective Cormoran Strike series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was introduced as the debut novel from Robert Galbraith, when it was published in April 2013. Galbraith was a name Rowling loved as a child and she hoped for a foolproof cover story in him being a military man now working in the civilian security industry. But it wasn't long before The Times broke Rowling's cover and outed her as the author. Sales of the book subsequently soared, but Rowling has maintained her alter-ego, even giving two interviews as Galbraith. She wore a suit and tie for a conversation in character with crime writer Val McDermid at 2014’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

Famously shy of the limelight, Rowling has since explained that inventing an alter-ego was about affording herself freedom as an author.

"To begin with I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. It was a fantastic experience [to go unrecognised under a pseudonym] and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer than it did. I was grateful at the time for all the feedback from publishers and readers, and for some great reviews. Being Robert Galbraith was all about the work, which is my favourite part of being a writer. Now my cover has been blown, I plan to continue to write as Robert to keep the distinction from other writing and because I rather enjoy having another persona."

Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë as Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell

The Bronte sisters were among a wave of female authors combating sexism in literature in 19th Century by using male pen names.

When Charlotte's poetry received the feedback that "literature cannot be the business of a woman's life" from poet laureate Robert Southey she rose above the criticism and tried again with a man's name, Currer Bell. Her sisters, Anne and Emily followed suit, both choosing a pseudonym using the first letter of their names. They called themselves Acton and Ellis Bell to get their work - a collection of poems - under the noses of critics.

We have the sisters audacity and perseverance to thank for giving us Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. After Jane Eyre was published the trio revealed their true identity to their publishers in London, though these novels were all published under their pen names originally. 

Mary Anne Evans as George Eliot

Also writing in the mid 19th century, Mary Anne Evans took a seriously feisty approach to getting her work printed. Her scathing essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, about the romance novels of female authors at the time was passed off as the work of a man, George Eliot.

Evans was vehement in separating her own work form that of her peers, both in terms of genre and gender, so she published her first novel, Adam Bede, under the name Eliot too. Following its success she came forward as the author and achieved similar success with her six subsequent novels, including Middlemarch.

Ann Rule as Andy Stack

True-crime novelist Ann Rule has penned 26 best-sellers, but breaking the traditionally male-dominate genre under her real name wasn't without obstacles.

In the late 1960s Ann started out as a writer for True Detective magazine, but even her experience as a former police officer didn't convince her editor of her clout as a crime expert, so they requested she work under male pseudonym to appeal to readers. And so the name Andy Stack was born.

Her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, about serial killer Ted Bundy - who also happened to be her former colleague - was published under her real name in 1980. Three subsequent crime books used her pen name, but following huge success of the book on Bundy she re-released it under her own name and became the huge success she is today.

Louisa May Alcott as A.M. Barnard

If you're a fan of the classics then no doubt Louisa May Alcott's Little Women adorns your book shelf, but you might not know she first earned recognition for much darker, sensationalist works under the male pseudonym, A.M Barnard.

Using the name wasn't about getting sexist publishers or readers excited about her work, but about money. Alcott wrote short stories as Barnard early in her career to fund the writing she was really passionate about under her own name. Thanks to her shrewd move, she went on to pen Little Women and was active in the suffragette movement, promoting women's rights in her work.