For centuries women have had to hide their identity, use pen names, or have had their work misallocated to prominent and renowned men. From poetry to novels, the literary world has remarkably benefitted from the pen of a woman, but more often than not, they are were never credited during their time.

In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she perfectly summarized the sad but eye-opening truth, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

Up until very recently, most women were still expected to devote their lives to marriage, children, and their husband’s image. Though some women of higher status were able to receive an education and indulged in avid reading, they could not openly be poets, writers, or philosophers. Throughout the 19th century, which produced woman-written classics like Alcott’s Little Women and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, cultural norms and a judgemental society drove women to publish anonymously in the hopes of achieving more success (and personal creative freedom). Women unabashedly contributing to literature was considered lewd and unbecoming. For this reason, many of our beloved favorite authors who are only now perceived as revolutionists had to keep their work disassociated from their names.

One such example is Jane Austen. You may now know her as the esteemed author of the swoon-worthy Pride and Prejudice but in 1813, the novel was simply published “by a lady”. By the time she wrote her second novel, Sense and Sensibility things were slightly better when it was published by “the author of Pride and Prejudice”.

In fact, none of Austen’s novels revealed her name until after her death in 1817. It’s said that not even her close friends and family were aware that she was the name behind these popular romance novels. Her motives for masking her identity lie in the universal acknowledgment that women working for money during that era were simply not deemed respectable.

Another such example is Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Today she is a legend for creating a gothic creature from pure imagination, while most other creatures in the genre are based on myths and tales. Shelley not only shaped our favorite gothic tropes for decades but also influenced the entire science fiction genre itself.

However, when Frankenstein was published in 1818, it was anonymously. Mary Shelley was only publicly known as the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic poet and philosopher, whose name consistently overshadowed her own. She even helped promote and edit his work while masking her true identity as the author of an enduring classic (as well as around thirty others).

The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne are the minds behind some of literature’s most angsty, moor swept tales. Throughout their childhood in Yorkshire, England, the sisters faced difficult lives and troublesome family problems, which provided much of the inspiration for novels that are almost painfully beautiful. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are considered wonderfully dark classics, focusing on love, girlhood, obsession, revenge, and, of course, tragedy.

If you want to be immersed in the Bronte sisters’ gothic world, read some of their best works here.

Similar to Shelley and Jane Austen, at the time of publication in the late 1840s, the sisters used pen names to conceal their identities. The novels were publicly credited to the Bell sisters, Curror, Ellis, and Acton, each staying true to their initials. In the preface for an 1850’s publication of Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte revealed, “we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

The problem lies not with the desire to separate one’s identity from their work. The use of pen names and the wish to remain anonymous is ultimately at the author’s discretion. However, what separates this act from 200 years ago and today is the luxury of having a choice. The novelists above had no choice if they wanted to remain, respectable members of society, while simultaneously achieving literary success. In their 19th century minds, this was the right thing to do. 

Now, most work published by women that remains anonymous is due to personal reasons…but perhaps sometimes in fear of prejudice or harsh judgment from critics…which shows that we are more similar to the 1800s than we’d like to tell ourselves. 

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  • Zara Khan is a student at the University of British Columbia. She is an avid supporter of women's rights activism and fascinated by the startup ecosystem. She plans to further her passion for digital marketing, experience in social media and journalism.