What’s in a Female Author’s Name?

March is Women’s History Month. So here’s a reading-related women’s history post.

Historically, writing books has often been a male-dominated role. But women still managed to get their voices heard. One way they did this was to write under a less female-sounding name.

Image of a woman working at a typewriter.
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Starting with total anonymity

In Jane Austen’s time, it was commonplace for authors not to be named on their books at all. When Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, it simply said ‘By a Lady’. 

This is not as awful as it sounds. At the time, many novels were published without an author name, whether the author was male or female. Adding ‘By a Lady’ was simply a way of labelling a book women’s fiction.

Mary Shelley, who also wrote in the early 19th century, published anonymously for a different reason. She wrote the gothic novel, Frankenstein. It was thought a woman writing about such shocking subject matter would cause an outrage. By not putting any name to the work, she allowed readers to assume the author was male. Outrage averted.

The advent of pseudonyms

A few decades later, when Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë started looking for publishers, things had changed. Writing any kind of books was starting to be considered a male role. The literary sisters originally wrote as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, to have a better chance of being taken seriously as writers.

Mary Ann Evans, who wrote Middlemarch, followed soon after. She is better known as her pseudonym, George Eliot.

And then initials became popular

By the early part of the 20th century, there were several female authors using initials. Children’s authors particularly seemed to like this idea.

Initials are great for authors who want to retain some level of anonymity. They are often used by men as well as women. Which is why they do such a great job of obfuscating gender.

E. Nesbit, best known for Five Children and It, was called Edith. L. M. Montgomery, who wrote Anne of Green Gables, was called Lucy Maud. And Mary Poppins author, P. L. Travers’ initials stand for Pamela Lyndon.

The popularity of initials continues to this day. Joanne Rowling writes as J. K. Rowling, and the K isn’t even her own initial!

Some genres move faster than others

In the 1850’s, Louisa May Alcott was writing gothic thrillers as A. M. Barnard. But when she wrote Little Women, she used her own name. I wonder how many men read A. M. Barnard books, while their wives or children read Louisa May Alcott books. And never realised it was the same person.

Even in the 1970’s, when writing books was no longer considered a man’s profession, certain genres were still hard for women to break into. When Alice Bradley Sheldon’s sci-fi tale Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home was published in 1973, it was under the name James Tiptree, Jr.

Crime is another genre where people seem to expect authors to be male. P. D. James was a well-known crime thriller author, and often assumed to be a man. The initials actually stand for Phyllis Dorothy.

Even today, romance author Nora Roberts writes crime thrillers under the androgynous pen name J. D. Robb. While J. K. Rowling writes crime thrillers under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

Personally, after all the effort I’ve made trying to get my name known, I’m not going to change it, whatever genres I choose to write!

Would you consider the author’s gender before buying a book? Would it depend on the type of story?

Enjoyed this post?

You might also like: To Kill a Writing Career.

Why not check out my travel mystery series on Amazon. Or follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Goodreads or Bookbub.


4 thoughts on “What’s in a Female Author’s Name?

  1. I absolutely loved this post, thank you so much for writing it! I had learned a brief overview of this during college but was always interested in learning more. I will absolutely be using this post as a jumping-off point for more research!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s