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Women Writers in Alternative Media Using Male Pseudonyms by Kirsten Anderberg

Women Writers in Alternative Media Using Male Pseudonyms

By Kirsten Anderberg (
Written Sept. 2004

"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.
"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said, with a short laugh. "My name means the shape I am and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape." - Lewis Carroll

I have a knack for choosing male-dominated career paths by accident. I was a street performer at an early age, which is absolutely a male-dominated sport. Then I was a comedian, and again, performed in male-controlled venues with predominantly male acts. I was most often sandwiched between male acts many deep, both before and after me, wherever I performed, from hippie fairs in Eugene to gay comedy clubs in San Francisco. I went to law school where I learned what men did the last few hundred years. And now I have moved to political writing. And once again, approximately 95% of the editors I work with, are male. And almost all the articles that surround my articles are written by men, most often, as well. Look at wherever you are reading this article right now. Unless the editor was especially savvy (just kidding), there is a good probability that the two articles before this one, and the two after it also, are written by men, not women. Maybe this week will be the big exception, but that has pretty much been the rule the two years I have been writing.

I am considering writing under a male pseudonym. I truly wonder, in a world of almost all male editors, and almost all male writers, in a sexist society, what effect me writing under a female name has. Am I getting less pay? Am I getting published less? Am I taken less seriously? If nothing else, it would be a fabulous social experiment to see how I was treated differently, as a writer, by both editors, peer writers and the reading audience, if I wrote as a male. Certainly writing is one of the few careers where a woman can get away with imitating a male pretty easily. I do not even have to alter my appearance, all it takes is changing the name and adjusting the persona I write about. Writing under a male pseudonym will still not help air the women's voice, though. Yes, I may get more publicity and paid more as a male writer, thus a woman's writing is getting out, but it is through a filter. I could not write in first person about being a mom or a woman or about my sexuality, in those articles. That angle and voice would be lost. And that is an angle that other women hear and respond to. It is an angle that can inspire girls to become writers. It is an important angle. But I am one of a very few political women writers floundering around out here. It is pretty lonely, and sometimes I just want to quit writing altogether, as it is too hard. Not the writing part, but the rest of it: the marketing, publishing, syndicating, editing, and the stupid comments and public backlash from some of my articles. The aloneness in taking a stand, and defending that stand, is hard. And I think some of this hassle is because it is still groundbreaking to be a woman political columnist. And this would also explain why so few women are willing to do it.

When I asked a female street performer peer, Tash Wesp, aka Mildred Hodittle, what could ever make her quit street performing, she answered, "It can take your spirit when you're the only woman on the pitch." (A "pitch" is a busker term for a street performer spot). I asked Tash why there are so few solo women buskers. She answered, "You're making yourself very vulnerable to the public. The first time someone said, "Show me your tits," I was shocked, embarrassed, and didn't know what to say back. When women are heckled on stage and on the street, it is usually in a sexual put down, tearing down her body and making her an object. As women, I feel we are not taught to fight back or comment back, but taught to put our head down and run away. If you want to survive on the street busking, you have to learn to stick up for yourself differently as a woman. Most women don't want to go through the trials of learning how to do this, it's just such hard work." And I see much of what she has said there about street performing, applying directly to my experience as a woman busker, but also to my experiences as a woman political writer. I have serious thoughts about quitting writing for just the reasons that Tash said would make her quit street performing.

It *does* "take your spirit" when you are the only woman on a pitch, whether that pitch is a publication or a performing venue. And we do have to learn how to "stick up for (ourselves) differently as a woman," as Tash has said, in writing as well as in street performance. I am still learning that. My skin is slowly getting thicker to idiot comments that try to derail the issues in my articles, or try to reinterpret what I said to their own agenda. Often people respond intensely to me fighting or commenting back on reader's comments in those situations. But women need to learn how to speak up, and the public needs to learn how to handle that. Women need to be allowed to be angry and the public needs to learn how to handle that, too. I think often I am *more* shocking than my male counterparts when I defend something I wrote because people cannot believe I had the nerve, as a woman, to say *that* in the first place, then to not shut up when I am reprimanded in public for saying it. It is perceived as pure blasphemy by some.

I felt the same pressure as a woman street performer. Men could be screaming "Give me back my foreskin!" as art, two blocks away and no one noticed. But if I pleasantly sang a song about the media's effect on women's self esteem, I was criminally charged for singing "…girls don't fart, they only fluff," as well as "always be willing, never get mad, or they call us bitch, they tell us we're bad." Yes, I was actually criminally charged for singing the words "fart" and "bitch" in Santa Cruz, Ca. in 1986. When I fought the charges, I was seen by many of my male performer peers, as well as others, as even more egregious. As a "troublemaker." There is still a very strong societal belief in play, that women should be put in their place. It is one thing for a woman to have "lost her way," but once reprimanded for her naïve departure from the cult of womanhood, and once she does not comply, then she is no longer considered just negligent. She is now seen as doing this intentionally, and now is identified as a defiant enemy who is a danger to all women and girls, and society at large. She is seen as enough of an enemy sometimes to even trigger criminal charges, such as the eight tickets I accrued (which were later dismissed) for supposedly endangering the public in Santa Cruz with my feminist comedy. If I just dressed like a male, I could sing on the streets about my foreskin, or about balling all night, without incident. But a woman singing comedy about birth control was grounds for criminal alarm.

Due to these types of double standards and sexism, women writers have used male pseudonyms in the past. Sometimes women scientists published under male names to be taken seriously. The aftermath of this is that many great women scientists have been forgotten as written works are often what connects us to our past. Additionally, women have not gotten credit for scientific writings that have been influential when writing as males. Some women in science used pseudonyms due to the cult of womanhood and saving their family face, from having to explain a non-feminine thing like science, education, and writing going on with their mothers, wives, sisters…it would make the males and parents in the house look bad in many eras, if not still today. Sometimes women wrote as men for their physical safety due to these mores. (Female Saudi journalists today, in 2004, have said they feel they have to write articles under assumed male names for safety.) Due to women pretending to be men in science, the few women who did have the courage to be "out" as women scientists, such as Curie, were touted as strange exceptions to the all-male scientist rule, when they may not have been as strange as is assumed by the lack of women writers' names.

Another reason women use pseudonyms is for personal safety reasons. Living alone, as a woman, with men you have angered due to your political or op/ed writing out there, is a real threat to safety in ways. In an article by Joyce Carol Oates entitled, "Pseudonymous Selves," (, Oates touches on the weird uneasiness of the reader seeing you, but you not seeing the reader, and of the voyeuristic nature of writing and publishing. "Choosing a pseudonym as the work's formal author simply takes the mysterious process a step or two further, erasing the author's social identity and supplanting it with the pseudonymous identity. For who among us, identified with such confidence by others, has not felt uneasy, if not an impostor, knowing that, whatever they know of us, we do not somehow share in that knowledge? Fame's carapace does not allow for easy breathing."

Sometimes women use different names because their names are difficult to pronounce or spell. Sometimes writing teams will merge their names to make a fictitious single author. Or even to be identified as fictitious characters, such as the Guerilla Girls. Guerilla Girls don gorilla masks and assume the names of dead women artists. This allows the women anonymity and also raises awareness about women artists of our past. The gorilla masks are a play on the revolutionary "guerilla," and even the use of the word "girl" is on purpose to mock the way women in art have been treated. In an article entitled "Guerilla Girls," by Sue Poremba (, she asks: "Are the Guerilla Girls really necessary? Take a little test. On one side of a piece of paper, list all of the female artists you've heard of. On the other side of the paper, list the male artists." I could ask you to do the same for political writers. Take some paper right now and list the male political writers you follow and enjoy. Now list the names of the female political writers you read. Do you see a difference there?

I have found myself using pseudonyms to cross publishing genres. I do not necessarily want the erotica articles I have written directly linked to my political writing career. I do not necessarily need my published personal memoirs in a small town paper in Mexico, linked directly to my most intense anarchist articles. I had the same thing in performance. My promo pack for a university differed from my promo packs going to women's festivals. This changing names for cross publication is a very standard reason that women use pseudonyms. Novelist Anne Rice writes erotica under the pseudonyms A.N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling, for example. One could still argue that if sexuality and women's writings were more accepted, we would not feel so much need to isolate the different genres with different names. Women may want to use pseudonyms because they made mistakes in their first writing attempts, being too personal, stating opinions that were before their time and too controversial, etc. You can, in theory, just reinvent yourself with a new writing name. You have to rebuild your following, which is laborious, but at least you can get a second chance to utilize what you learned the first time out. And I hear some women just change their names for better shelf positioning in libraries and at book stores! Supposedly names beginning with E-M get the best shelf space.

Many women writers have used male pseudonyms. In Oates' article, she lists a number of British women writers who have used male pseudonyms, "among them Harriet Parr ("Holme Lee"), Mary Molesworth ("Ennis Graham"), Mary Dunne ("George Egerton"), Violet Page ("Vernon Lee"), Margaret Barber ("Michael Fairless"), Olive Schreiner ("Ralph Iron"), Gillian Freeman ("Eliot George")." She also includes others who used ambiguous titles such as "Storm Jameson, Radclyffe Hall, I. Compton-Burnett, V. Sackville-West, A. S. Byatt…Janet Flanner became "Genet"; Florence Margaret Smith became "Stevie Smith"; Lula Mae Smith became "Carson McCullers"; Janet Taylor Caldwell published as "Taylor Caldwell" (and as the yet more virile "Max Reiner")." She also says, "Ezra Pound, that most ambitious of poets and poet-theorists, published occasional music and art criticism under the names "William Atheling" and "Alfred Venison."" The most famous woman writer in 19th century France, Aurore Dupin, published under the pseudonym George Sand. M.W. Benson, a writer for many of the Nancy Drew mysteries, also wrote under male pseudonyms. The Bronte Sisters, Charlotte, Anne and Emily, also published under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

The article by Oates' notes many men who have used pseudonyms. One British writer used 29 pseudonyms! Oates says, "Multiple-name writers tend to publish their quality work under their own names but may have a descending order of quality among their pseudonyms…Isaac Asimov, a rival of Simenon's in terms of sheer writerly abundance, has also published under the name "Paul French." "Ellery Queen" and "Ellery Queen, Jr." ( joint pseudonyms of Daniel Nathan and Manfred Lepofsky) have published dozens of books, and Stephen King, our most prodigiously successful writer of horror stories, has recently sired a sort of sorcerer's apprentice in "Richard Bachman"-a pseudonym so little a secret that King's name is listed with "Bachman" in advertisements." Most people know that Samuel Langhorne Clemens used the pseudonym Mark Twain, and George Orwell was the pseudonym for Eric Arthur Blair. Supposedly Mr. Geisel, was rejected at least 30 times by publishers until he changed his name to Dr. Seuss. But it is far more common for a woman to switch to a male pseudonym than it is for a male to use a female pseudonym. And I think the reason is that we live in a patriarchy. And as you can see, men rarely use female pseudonyms. When men use pseudonyms, they usually use male pseudonyms. Both females and males predominantly use male pseudonyms, which means it seems like there are more male writers in existence than actually exist in reality.

Not using your real name when writing can cause suspicion. Lewis Carroll (which is a pseudonym) wrote in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, about a page without a signed author; "If you didn't sign it," said the King, "that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name like an honest man." To use your real name is considered a check and balance of sorts to an article. People can follow up after you if you are saying untrue things, so it is supposed you are more truthful using your real name. But writers can still be held liable for statements made under a pseudonym. Women have tried to publish by just using initials and a last name, but often, in certain periods of history, people publishing under initials were often suspected as women and published less. A professor of mine said she enjoyed having her PhD., as it was the first time she could publish with a gender neutral heading; instead of Ms., Miss, or Mrs. Anderson, she could finally be Dr. Anderson, without a gender/sex inferment.

An odd entry on the site of Audrey Magazine, an "Asian Women's Magazine," ( discusses things women fake. "Faking is an illustrious female survival tactic. From the use of male pseudonyms to get published, to the use of a miracle bra to mirage cleavage, women have often surrendered to the fake reality of their socially conditioned lives. We fake the color of our hair, the scope of our hips, the arch of our brow. We even put pieces of plastic in our breasts and on our nails, because it makes us feel prettier somehow…But even when choosing to fake, when are women just setting themselves up for further disappointment and denial? When does faking become a matter of "faking ourselves?"…A periodic fake (orgasm) may be harmless, but the problem is obvious: faking marginalizes one's sexual capacity and pleasure. In short, he gets off and all you're left with is a feeling of dissatisfaction and insecurity."

The comment on Audrey continued, "Faking creates deception in an intimate environment and sustains an illusion of climactic sex. Women need and deserve to be sexually stimulated without the obligation of having to satiate a male partner's ego. So the question is, why fake?…Women ultimately "fake themselves" because the fake orgasm becomes a normalized entity of our sex lives, and it robs our partners of the knowledge that sex is insufficient. So how do we get out of this mess?" I feel that way with regards to having to accept certain things as a woman writer. Faking fulfillment at being paid and published less than my male counterparts, faking the fulfillment of having few anarchist women writing peers, at having few editors who share my gender and life experiences.

But inevitably, this all really leads back to the question of why so few women write and are published in the political genre. Naomi Wolf addresses this issue quite succinctly in her article "Are Opinions Male?" (, which was published in 1993, but is as pertinent today as it was then, unfortunately. The article starts with, "The barriers that shut women up. What is that vast silent wavelength out on the opinion superhighway? It is the sound of women not talking…Despite women's recent strides into public life, the national forums of debate--op-ed pages, political magazines, public affairs talk shows, newspaper columns-- remain strikingly immune to the general agitation for female access. The agora of opinion is largely a men's club…" She says, "women are being left out of the opinion mix because of passive but institutionalized discrimination on the part of editors and producers. General-interest magazines, newspapers and electronic forums tend to view public affairs as if they can be clothed exclusively in gray flannel suits, and rely on an insular Rolodex of white men."

Wolf continues, "The lack of media oxygen for women writers of opinion can strangle voice, putting them into an impossible double bind. Many women also write from a personal vantage point alone because they feel it is one realm over which they can claim authority." She goes on to say that this also puts the few women who do speak up into a position of almost speaking on behalf of women, which is most often not the goal of the woman writer. Wolf speaks about this issue eloquently: "The meager allocation of space for female pundits at the highest levels, what Quindlen calls "a quota of one," does indeed force the few visible women writers of opinion who take a feminist stance into becoming stoic producers of that viewpoint, counted upon to generate a splash of sass and color, a provocative readerly-writerly tussle, in the gray expanses of male perspectives and prose. Editors seem to treat these few female pundits as cans in six-packs marked, for instance, "Lyrical African American Women Novelists"; "Spunky White Female Columnists with Kids"; or, perhaps, the reliable category, "Feminists (Knee-Jerk to Loony)."

"Women are accused of writing too much about their "feelings" and their "bodies"--as if such subjects were by nature ill-suited to respectable public discussion…Of course, many women write about issues unmarked by gender, from city council elections to computer chips. But when women talk about politics, culture, science and the law in relation to female experience--i.e., rape statutes, fertility drugs, misogyny in film or abortion rights--they are perceived as talking about their feelings and bodies. Whereas when men talk about their feelings and bodies--i.e., free speech in relation to their interest in pornography, gun ownership in relation to their fear of criminal assault, the drive for prostate cancer research in relation to their fears of impotence, new sexual harassment guidelines in relation to their irritation at having their desire intercepted in the workplace--they are read as if they are talking about politics, culture, science and the law."

Wolf then asks if women leave themselves out of the writing forum of our own volition, in some sort of self-imposed exile. She says that editors defend their lack of women writers by saying women do not submit articles at the rate men do. I used to hear this as a performer all the time too, that the reason I was on stage with all male acts was because so few women acts applied. Wolf says the editors of major national press venues said that the numbers of articles submitted by men far outweighed the numbers of articles submitted by women many times over. A New York Times Op-ed page staff member said on one random day, for example, he received 150 unsolicited manuscripts, and the ratio of male to female manuscripts was 10 to 1. Wolf says some argue the reason for this lack in submissions is that the biggest groups of political writers are coming from think tanks, lawyers, universities and government officials and that women supposedly have not integrated those echelons in high enough numbers to be rivaling their hold on the press. Yet I have noticed, even as numbers of women grow in the fields of law and government, the numbers of women submitting opinion and political journalism, as compared with men, is still very low. Wolf asks whether this is a conscious or unconscious editorial bias against women's opinions and answers with a resounding, "yes."

Wolf asks, "does female socialization conspire against many women's ability or desire to generate a strong public voice?" She then answers, "There is, I think, a set of deeply conditioned, internal inhibitions that work in concert with the manifest external discrimination to keep fewer women willing to submit opinion pieces, and to slug it out in public arenas. The problem is not, of course, that women can't write." This is a very good point. Women and girls supposedly excel at writing in school, and supposedly women are creatures of communication, by many a stereotype. So, it is not that women cannot talk and write. It is, instead, that women are afraid of the fallout of the debate. As Wolf writes, "Unfortunately, you can't write strong, assertive prose if you are too anxious about preserving consensus; you can't have a vigorous debate if you are paralyzed with concern about wounding the sensitivities of your opposite number." Wolf also notes that "The globalizing tone that the conventions of opinion journalism or t.v. debate require, involves an assumption of authority that women are actively dissuaded from claiming." I noticed that there were very few *solo* women acts wherever I performed. Women and girls I spoke to all expressed an extra fear at performing solo, to performing with others. They avoided performing solo. I think this fear of authority is involved in that too.

Wolf acknowledges that women are taught to be social housekeepers, thus have mixed feelings about stirring up trouble with our opinions. Yet Wolf rightly says, "to write most purely out of herself, a writer must somehow kill off the inhibiting influence of the need for "connection." The woman writer of opinion must delve into what early feminists called "the solitude of self."" Wolf notes that another Woolf, Virginia Woolf "returned often in her diaries to this theme, to the need to be impervious both to criticism and approval: "I look upon disregard or abuse as part of my bargain." Woolf continues, "I'm to write what I like and they're to say what they like."" Without that thick skin, many women have turned to writing fiction to avoid the controversies of voicing their real concerns in a news forum. Jane Eyre is such a novel, as was the essay, "The Yellow Wallpaper."

I share this internal conflict of wanting to voice my opinion without constraint, and wanting societal and community acceptance and approval. I share this dilemma with other women writers, such as both Naomi Wolf, who admits she feels the tug of this also, and with Virginia Woolf as well. I also fear the punishments that come with taking a stand and speaking out. As Wolf rightly assesses, this is no "phantom anxiety," it is very real. Wolf says, "A woman who enters public debate is indeed likely to be punished…I feel a kind of terror when I am critical in public and experience a kind of nausea when I am attacked. The knowledge that another person and I publicly disagree makes me feel that I have left something unresolved, raw in the world; even if I "win"--especially if I win--I also lose, because I am guilty, in traditionally feminine terms, of a failure to create harmony and consensus; this bruise to identity manifests at the level of my sense of femininity."

Virginia Woolf wrote, "The effect of discouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured." Naomi Wolf writes, "These psychological and social barriers to women's opinionated public speech make it literally not worth it, in many women's minds, to run for office, contradict an adversary or take a controversial public stance. If many women feel ridicule and hostility more acutely than men do, if they are uncomfortable with isolation, then ridicule, hostility and the threat of isolation can be--and are--standard weapons in the arsenal used to scare women away from public life." I very much share these internal conflicts Naomi writes about as I teeter on the brinks of stopping writing for many of these reasons. I do not get enough out of it for a lot of the risks and assaults I endure for it. Wolf writes of "a prominent feminist muckraker" who keeps on her refrigerator the motto, "Tell the truth and run."

So what does Wolf suggest be done about this problem with editors and writers and the lack of women participants? She challenges editors to "root out their own often unwitting bias." She encourages editors to make a commitment to inform the public on a real range of views, instead of "leaving half the population ill-prepared to pursue their interests within the democratic process." She accuses these editors of shortchanging our nation by omitting a women's perspective and hard facts about women in the first person. Like me, Wolf is not a proponent of more gender polarization such as women-produced, women-owned press. That is not going to work as the real integral solution. The real solution is actual integration.

Wolf also stresses that women need to work through their ambivalence and step into the fire of debate. She offers the following advice to women like me, "We must realize that public debate may starve the receptors for love and approval, but that it stimulates the synapses of self-respect. Let us shed the lingering sense that authority is something that others--male others--bestow upon us; whenever we are inclined to mumble invective into our coffee, let us flood the airwaves instead. Let's steal a right that has heretofore been defined as masculine: the right to be in love with the sound of one's own voice." Which brings me back to Joyce Carol Oates' article. She says, "For all its strategies, art is an offensive maneuver from this perspective; it moves into another's private space, demands his attention if not his respect and admiration. To bring it off is so daring, so arrogant, so fraught with peril, the most ingenious defenses are required."

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Kirsten Anderberg. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Kirsten at

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