Pen Names: Burying Your Identity to Avoid Bias

Please Enter Another NameMost of us go through life attached to the names our parents gave us, whether we like the “label” or not.

Naming my own children was a stressful endeavor. I sought to find names connected to their ethnic background, while avoiding names that were too obscure, too common, too difficult to pronounce, or too girly. While I remain happy with my choices, I know that I succeeded in meeting only some of these objectives, and we shall see how my children feel about their names as they mature into adults.

I hope my daughters’ relatively uncommon names will not subject them to discrimination in situations where all that is known about their ethnic background or gender comes from the name, such as on a job application or on a book cover. For example, research shows us the impact of ethnic names on the ability to find employment, finding that job applicants with Muslim names are at a disadvantage compared to applicants with westernized names. Discrimination remains a sad fact about our society.

A person facing these types of barriers can attempt the relatively arduous process of changing their name legally or could take other steps to mitigate the effects of their “problematic” birth name: use of initials, heightened prominence of a middle name, or a pseudonym.

For writers who may encounter similar sexist and racist conditions in the publishing world, use of a pen name is common. I touched on this subject in an earlier post, On Revealing Everything Except Who You Are, and my recent reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre raised this issue again.

The Brontes -Bells (2)

I read Jane Eyre for the first time in high school, practically eons ago, when I was more focused on the story and the characters than on the circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication. This time, the preface to the third edition caught my eye. In it, the author, writing under the pen name “Currer Bell” attempts to correct the public’s conflation of Charlotte with her sisters, Emily and Anne, who wrote under the pen names Ellis and Acton, respectively.

The use of these masculine pen names added to the mystery surrounding these authors. Charlotte published Jane Eyre in 1847 under two layers of pseudonymity: a fictitious woman’s autobiography edited by a fictitious man. Many readers assumed the fictitious editor, Currer Bell, was actually the author. As a reviewer for the Harbinger wrote in 1848: “we think we see ‘a beard under the muffler.’ Jane Eyre, rare and excellent as she may be, is not to our mind a genuine woman.”

After the untimely deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte “felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil,” and so she explained the motive behind the pen names in a note to the 1850 edition of Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Charlotte wrote:

Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking is not what is called ‘feminine’… we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice

The reactions the Brontës’ books received reinforced this “vague impression” of bias against female authors, as many contemporaneous reviewers praised the novel by distinguishing it from supposedly “feminine” writing. While there were certainly a handful of successful female authors at the time, the degree of sexism female authors faced makes me wonder whether Jane Eyre would be the classic it is today if not for the mystery surrounding the fictitious editor/author and “his” purported autobiography.

Unfortunately, female authors continue to face bias in the publishing industry that marginalizes their work. For example, though women are heavier consumers of books than men, books written by male authors receive more reviews in prestigious publications. Female-authored books are labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” while similarly-themed work written by men is called “literary fiction.”

Maybe a masculine pseudonym — one that is truly kept a secret — would help these authors, but then again, readers expect to know more about authors today than in the past, and more information is publicly available about individuals. It’s thus much harder to bury an identity now than it was in the 19th Century.

28 thoughts on “Pen Names: Burying Your Identity to Avoid Bias

  1. Despite that those with white sounding names receiving more attention by employers and agencies than those with ethnic ones, some forget an important point. Not every ethnic person carries an ethnic name and not every every name is carried by an ethnic person. It is possible for a white person to have a ethnic forename or surname (either due to marriage, converting to religions, etc.) and still be unconsciously or consciously discriminated against by employers and agencies. If it does happen, one wouldn’t know it. So, while it is difficult to prove discrimination, it is harder to disprove it. Most ethnic minorities at the top of organisations have white sounding names. Take a look at Fortune magazine’s top black chairmen and executives, and you will see. Sadly, white names make it easier finding employment and getting promoted than ethnic ones.

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  6. Alex in Leeds

    I changed my name to Alex, not short for anything. It’s actually pretty easy to change your name legally here in the UK – the cost is replacing your passport, notifying everyone etc. I did it mostly because I was fed up of my simple but unusual name being mispronounced. I didn’t really think of the gender issue at the time just the simple, strong sound of Alex but honestly, changing to an unisex name made my day job way easier and changed the tone of online conversations with clients, something which saddened and surprised me.

    1. I have a gender neutral name, too (in the US–it’s feminine everywhere else), but it’s associated with an ethnicity that doesn’t help me much here. There are benefits to gender neutral names, though. It’s very sad indeed!

      Changing names can be quite difficult where I live, even for women simply trying to take a married name or return to their maiden name after a divorce. For example, I’ve seen situations where professional certifications have refused to accept new names.

  7. My biggest difficulty is owning a mid to late sevetnies popular name with an unusual spelling. A: it ages me, very accurately . B. People always add a blasted vowel. so c: I go by an abbreviation and then silly poeple always go and add a vowel to that, turning it into a man’s name. Aragh!

    I agree with your child name goals. WIth my third after my twins, I had to find a name that harmonised in a family kind of way and agonised that a flower name would see a bit hippy, but none the less, it stuck. None of my children have middle names.

    1. Finding a third name was so difficult! We picked a girl’s name and a boy’s name, and I’m so relieved she turned out to be a girl because I much preferred the girl’s name. As difficult as it was to find three names for girls, it was still easier to choose a third one than to pick one name for a boy. For middle names, we went with family names on my side (because the girls have their father’s last name and I kept my maiden name).

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  9. After nearly 60 years I’ve totally failed to drop the Kevin which is the first name on my birth certificate. I’ve tried using the ‘common usage’ method of ignoring it only to get roundly told off by various bodies and departments. Can’t be bothered to try any more.
    My son Eoin hated his name as a teen, with no one able to pronounce it properly (Owen) but now he’s perfectly happy with it.
    As to authors I lean towards female writers so it can work the other way.

    1. It’s nice to hear from men who aren’t dissuaded by a female name on the cover, but I believe that isn’t the case for everyone. The “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” labels probably reduce readership overall, even if enough people (mostly women) buy those books to make them bestsellers.

      It is tough to change a name these days! For one thing, even after it’s done, it seems like you can never fully escape the Internet’s long memory.

  10. It makes me quite upset when a book written by a female becomes “women’s fiction”, while there is no such equivalent for a man. Why not just label something “men’s fiction”? Not only does it give possible insult to the author, as though the book cannot just be called “a book” but has to have a label to it, but to its audience as well. If something is “women’s fiction”, does that mean can’t–or shouldn’t–read it?
    –JW

    1. That’s exactly the problem with “chick lit” and “women’s fiction” labels. Women buy those books and can make them bestsellers, but it likely dissuades male readers and thus reduces the book’s overall readership. Those books probably should be called “commercial fiction” or “literary fiction” without any reference to gender.

  11. I know that having a man oriented profession in a man’s world is a disadvantage. I have always used initials signing work and in every signature. My work itself is always without a feminine touch too, having appealed to both sexes. It is easier to be somewhat gender free than be known by your gender.

    1. Yeah, it’s very tough for women when men dictate the norms! My name is gender neutral in the US (elsewhere, it’s feminine), and I don’t think that’s been a problem. The fact that it’s Arabic is another issue.

    1. I have a tendency to read more books by female authors, too. My sense is that even though many readers buy books by female authors, the industry dismisses those books when it comes to prestigious reviews and to how those books are labeled (thus reducing the readership overall).

  12. I write under a pen name. I chose it with care and have good reasons for using it. While it’s understandable reader/fans want to know more about you and your life, I’m cautious about revealing too much online. While I appear to be an open book, and I certainly don’t pull punches about my thoughts and feelings, there is a definite barrier between me and them. I choose to make it so.

    I’ve been stalked, though it turned out to be mostly harmless. However, I can’t help but wonder how things would go if some seriously psychopathic fan decided to focus on me. Hence, one reason for the pen name (though I admit I’ve considered making it legal more than once; kind of like Theo Fenraven).

  13. I think the tides are shifting toward the positive though. Although J.K. Rowling did the initials, I think the generation who grew up with and loved Harry Potter care less about whether it’s a woman or a man writing the story because she wrote those books so well. I won’t deny there are many in the older generation who probably still harbor that bias, but I think most of us born post 1970 really don’t care about who wrote what as long as the what is fantastic. (Which is not me saying than anyone born pre-1970 always harbors bias, btw.)

    1. Yeah, I agree that the tides are shifting. The problem isn’t the readers these days (women’s fiction books still sell); the problem is how the industry discounts those readers (mostly female) by deciding that the books they read (often written by women) aren’t worthy of prestigious reviews. It helps that the Internet spreads the word about authors whose books are shunned by more established reviewers.

      As for initials, I find them so confusing! I can’t remember the author’s name.

  14. My name was the first name in the baby book according to my mother. My children were named by my husband. I gave them their middle names. The first son has my dads and the second son has my husband’s dad…It was quite nice not worrying about naming the boys. They both have strong first names, but we call them nicknames started by my oldest’s sons love of disney characters. WE are OK as long as he does not call me Big Mama from The Fox and The Hound!

    1. That’s cute! We had such trouble coming up with boys names! It was such a relief to have three girls! I choose their first names because we had decided to give them my husband’s last name (I kept my maiden name).

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