The insanely talented women writers who posed as men to get published
It isn’t easy to make it in a man’s world. Women may benefit from more legal rights today than ever before but the truth is our world still runs on the wheels of a little thing called patriarchy. Ladies don’t (yet) run the world. Even the world of literature is still a boys club. Reports show that novels written by men sell better than those by women and men are more willing to read novels penned by someone with XY chromosomes. And women authors aren’t oblivious because even superstar wordsmiths like J.K. Rowling have traded in their feminine nom de plumes for those a bit more masculine (Rowling was allegedly told by her publisher that she shouldn’t write under her given name, Joanne for fear of isolating potential readers). None of this is new however, because long before women like Rowling gave us “The Boy Who Lived” and the world of Hogwarts, women were taking on male names and even – occasionally – slipping into male dress.
The Bronte Sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne all found the world of publishing a bit more hospitable after they swapped their names for Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Infamously, Poet Laureate Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Bronte to outright discourage her from pursuing a career in literature. Apparently Southey believed her womanly duties would get in the way of her craft. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be,” he said. “The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.” Even 200 years ago men were telling women they couldn’t be Beyonce flawless and have it all.
George Sand: This Parisian novelist and memoirist may have been born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin but she was known for sporting men’s trousers and smoking tobacco — a very unladylike thing in 19th century France. But Sand made her mark nonetheless and gained the friendship and adoration of literary heavyweights Gustav Flaubert and Honoré Balzac. However, Charles Baudelaire was openly a member of the anti-Sand camp, decrying her work as “stupid, lumbering and verbose” — but that never stopped Aurore who went on to pen 90 books and numerous plays and poems. Way to show the haters.
Marie d’Agoult: While we’re talking about George Sand, it’s worth mentioning one of her lesser known contemporaries, Marie d’Agoult a.k.a Daniel Stern. D’Agoult might be best known for her romance with pianist and composer Franz Liszt but she was a political writer and a historian in her own right. A journalist by trade, she authored the highly regarded three-volume Histoire de la Révolution de 1848 which chronicled the political happenings of Paris at the time.
Willa Cather: The author of American classic My Antonia may have published under her own name, but she was fond of being called William, donning men’s dress, and generally ruffling more conventional feathers. Even the characters in some of her early works mirrored her ways and her short story “Tommy the Unconventional” tells of a masculine up-and-comer who rejects social norms and marriage proposals in pursuit of what she wants. Cather’s politics may not have been left-leaning but she was surely a pioneer among women writers even if accidentally.
George Eliot: The author of English language classics Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda wasn’t a George at all but a Mary—Mary Ann Evans, to be exact. Long before she took on her boyish nom de plume, Evans was an important figure in Victorian England literary circles serving as the assistant editor to left-wing magazine The Westminster Review for two years. So why would an established writer and editor known by her birth name take on a man’s? Evans was critical of women’s literature and women authors of her day and age and likely wanted to set herself apart. By taking on the name George she could write realistic epics and Bildungsroman novels without the prejudice of her gender.
Dorothy Lawrence: Not a novelist but a journalist, Dorothy Lawrence is the kind of woman that truly stopped at nothing to try and get what she wanted. An aspiring war correspondent she made several failed attempts to enter the battlefields of WWI before realizing that the only way to get her story was to become a man — so she used her cunning and (some questionable) methods to become Denis Smith, a soldier. It didn’t go as planned though and she soon turned herself in.
Louisa May Alcott: The author of Little Women — the classic which gave us witty and hot headed feminist-in-the-making Jo March — didn’t always publish her works under her given name. Early in her career she was writing for magazines and publishing her works under the name A.M Bernard. Her early writings were much different than the realist Civil War-era family dramas that would make her famous. Rather Alcott’s early writings were suspenseful, sensational gothic thrillers. Alcott herself was a woman to admire: an outspoken abolitionist and a progressive feminist, she lived her life as she saw fit working as a nurse during the Civil War, taking in an orphaned child, and generally doing what her ethics, morals and humanity asked of her.
So next time you feel like the world is telling you “No” just because you were born a lady, remember: women are just as powerful, driven and successful as men. And if you need more evidence, look to the women who challenged gender norms and proved that point.