Tuesday, December 15, 2009

women using male pen names

it's not new. but few people think about why it continues to be necessary or attractive for women to use male (or gender ambiguous) authorial pseudonyms.  A female blogger who writes under the name James Chartrand has just explained her case here.  She has earned more money and respect writing under a pseudonym than she ever did writing under her own name.  Once she adopted the pen name, she says

Instantly, jobs became easier to get.

There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all.

Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.


Taking a man’s name opened up a new world. It helped me earn double and triple the income of my true name, with the same work and service.

No hassles. Higher acceptance. And gratifying respect for my talents and round-the-clock work ethic.

Salon.com writer Kate Harding has written a good analysis of why we might find the use of a male pseudonym surprising, and why we really shouldn't, saying

The most embarrassing thing about my initial surprise is that I know it's all of a piece -- that the constant threats and insults directed at female writers are meant to silence us and reinforce our inferiority when employment discrimination and crap pay aren't doing that fast enough. I get furious when people insist that western women have achieved full equality, feminism is no longer necessary, the wage gap is imaginary or the lack of women in positions of power is unrelated to sexism. But even I've bought into the myth of meritocracy enough that my first thought upon learning a female writer massively increased her success by adopting a male pseudonym was, "Wow, how retro! How Brontë, how Eliot, how Sand." Certainly not "how Rowling." [emphasis added]

How do we break the glass ceiling? By acknowledging there still is one. By getting young women active in feminist politics, and continuing to insist that feminism is necessary--not only for women, but for men as well (i read an article some time ago by a male author with a gender ambiguous first name, who was told his male character was too "feminine" and that women shouldn't try to write male characters . . . i can't find it now, unfortunately. but sexism hurts everyone by creating false binaries and ridiculous expectations of what a person should or should not be, say, write, and do based on gender and/or sexual preference).

Now i imagine that people are shouting "what about Atwood? what about Munro?" and it's true, that there are many amazingly successful female writers. Perhaps it depends what genre you write, perhaps it depends on where you publish, i don't know. But the fact remains that inequalities exist in terms of opportunities, pay scale, and marketing.  This needs to be addressed by publishers, by readers, by critics, and by writers.  We must insist that gender plays no role in ability. 

Thanks, James Chartrand, for being courageous enough to open up a public discourse on this issue.


  1. I go by Stewart, my middle name, and what Chartrand says is completely true. I do freelance writing and employers are much more interested in Stewart than in Elizabeth.

  2. If you don't mind me asking, have you noticed whether Stewart receives different types of criticism than Elizabeth, from either employers or readers?

  3. I write under my initials, and apparently this meant for the early part of my career that most readers (and reviewers) assumed I was female; the female protagonists may have contributed to this.