English Version | "Behind a great man, there's always a great woman" - unknown

14 Apr 2022
By Sara Andrade

And often there's simply one great woman and no man of any kind. As when there were great women behind masculine pseudonyms, signing iconic works, but hidden by alter-egos who served, and still do, as a shield. Not always (almost never?) for the best of reasons.

And often there's simply one great woman and no man of any kind. As when there were great women behind masculine pseudonyms, signing iconic works, but hidden by alter-egos who served, and still do, as a shield. Not always (almost never?) for the best of reasons. Photography by Grégoire Alexandre and Christophe Brunnquell.

© Grégoire Alexandre e Christophe Brunquell in > GUΣ.

"A woman, especially if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can." Jane Austen (1775-1817) was not one of those “do as I say, not as I do”, because this advice of hers was one of the ones she followed herself. The author of iconic works such as Pride and Prejudice (1813) enjoys a recognition that doesn't mind (her) gender, though that was not always the case. To say that today being a woman still entails inequalities is no spoiler, as is to argue that looking back in time and say that this occurred in an even more notorious dimension, isn't also. Austen is one of its examples: many women, from writers to artists, chose to sign as men or with an ambiguous pseudonym to cover up the person (usually, as a female author) behind the words. In the case of Jane, the author did not hide behind a male first name, but her manuscripts were simply signed “By a Lady”, to protect her identity (although not her sex), as being an author (woman) in the late 18th century was not seen as an indicator of respectability in society. In addition to being considered inappropriate, it wasn't pragmatic, as women didn't have the legal power to sign contracts. In Austen's case, it was her brother (since she was not married) who sent her works to publishers, and it was Henry Austen who, posthumously, launched Persuasion (1818) and Northanger Abbey (1817), revealing to the world the lady behind the "Lady".

“Virginia Woolf, in her essay A Room of One's Own (1929) stressed that, behind anonymous authors, there were often women”, starts by saying Anne Cova, with a PhD in History, assistant researcher at the Institute of Science of the University of Lisbon and vice-president of the Portuguese Association for Historical Research on Women (APIHM), affiliated to the International Federation for Research in Women's History (IFRWH). “In fact, many women didn't just sign with one or more pseudonyms. They also used acronyms or abbreviations of their own names. It should be noted that, throughout history, male writers have also resorted to this practice.” Why? “Knowing the reasons [for this] is not easy and they vary according to contexts and times. However, we can mention, for women in general, some motivations and, within the range of possibilities, the following stand out: protecting privacy, avoiding stereotypes/prejudice and contempt, anxiety for public exposure, desire for freedom, having a greater success and increase the sales of one's books, and show another aspect of your work.” Arguments probably shared by other female names in literature who not only concealed their identity, such as Austen, but also assumed another — often male. George Sand, who began by writing for the newspaper Le Figaro and later gained notoriety as a novelist (her first successful book was Indiana, from 1832), was actually the pseudonym of the French baroness Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin (1804-1876), an avant-garde figure for the time: she smoked cigars and preferred trousers, divorced her husband, Baron Casimir Dudevant, because she found marriage too suffocating, later collecting suitors and lovers (among whom the pianist and composer Chopin). She preferred to be George as far as words were concerned, even if she didn't hide her true face behind Sand. Today, she is considered one of the greatest French writers and was the first woman to live off literary rights. Another George who, in real life, was Mary Ann, was George Eliot — one of the most important British novelists, alongside Charles Dickens. Evans (1819-1880), the woman behind the pseudonym responsible for acclaimed novels such as Middlemarch (1871), was aware of prejudice in literature and even pointed it out in her essay Silly Novels by Lady Novelists (1856), writing that “By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point.” But that wasn't the only reason that guided her choice: Evans concealed her identity because she lived with a married man, the English philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes, and therefore Mary Ann was also persona non grata socially - though that didn't prevent, in 1977, the author to be invited to meet Queen Victoria's daughter, Louise, a staunch fan of her books. The iconic Brontë sisters also didn't start out as Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and Anne (1820-1849), instead signing as Currer, Ellis and Acton, respectively, aka Bell brothers, publishing works under these pseudonyms — among them Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë (then Ellis Bell) — because they knew from experience that signing as a female was not taken so seriously (Poet Laureate Robert Southey's response to Charlotte's poetry was that “literature cannot be the business of a woman's life”) and the women themselves did not want to be socially ostracized.

Charlotte Brontë's famed Jane Eyre, when initially released under her alter ego Currer Bell, was met with rave reviews and a new issue was printed about 10 weeks after her departure. However, when it was revealed that the person responsible was, in fact, a woman, the criticism changed its tone, devastating the work and clearly revealing the gender inequalities in the literary industry in particular (and in society in general) of the 19th century.

It's a fact that sexism isn't the only reason for adopting a pseudonym, but history (as well as modern times) has shown that it's certainly one of the strongets ones. For example, Charlotte Brontë's famed Jane Eyre, when initially released under her alter ego Currer Bell, was met with rave reviews and a new edition was printed about 10 weeks after her departure. However, when it was revealed that the person responsible was, in fact, a woman, the criticism changed its tone, devastating the work and clearly revealing the gender inequalities in the literary industry in particular (and in society in general) of the 19th century. Even Agatha Christie (1890-1976), making it already in the 20th century and having published more than 80 literary thrillers, signed, at the beginning of her career, works with the ambiguous pseudonym Monosyllaba — later, already famous, she released some body of work as Mary Westmacott, so “that her books would not be judged by their celebrity”, says Anne Cova. The historian also mentions a list of Portuguese women who opted for the same solution: “We can mention, in Portugal, many cases and, in particular, several aristocrats, an emblematic case being that of the Marquise of Alorna, who was portrayed in the book As Luzes de Leonor (2011), by the feminist Maria Teresa Horta. The Marquise of Alorna used several aliases: Alcipe, Laura, Lília and Lise. Other Portuguese aristocrats, such as Catarina Micaela de Sousa César and Lencastre, Viscountess de Balsemão, used the pseudonym Célia Carinthia, showing that she did not choose to hide behind a male name. It was also the case of Maria Amália Vaz de Carvalho, who signed her articles in the Diário Popular under the pseudonym of Valentina de Sucena. Also, the Countess of Vimieiro chose Tirse or Tirceia. Ana Plácido signed in different ways: A.A., Gastão Vidal de Negreiros, Lopo de Souza. Alice Moderno had a wide and varied range of pseudonyms (Da Janela do Levante, Dominó Preto, Ecila, Eurico, Gil Diávolo, Gyp, O Secular, Veritas), even using foreign names such as Gavroche (a character in Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo). Teresa Leitão de Barros signed in different ways (Branca de Noronha, Carmen Rosa, Donna Velata, Helena de Sampaio), as well as Guiomar Torrezão (Gabriel Cláudio, Delfim de Noronha or Henrique Zeferino). Irene Lisboa published her first books with several male pseudonyms (João Falco and Manuel Soares), but also female ones (Maria Moira and Mara). She took an active role in opposing Salazarism, belonging to the Movimento de Unidade Democrática (MUD), as did Maria Lamas, who was arrested several times and was the last president of the National Council of Portuguese Women (CNMP), a federation of several women's associations. which was closed by Estado Novo in 1947. In children's literature and poetry, Maria Lamas used the pseudonym Rosa Silvestre. In the women’s supplement Modas & Bordados of the O Século newspaper, she had a column entitled O Correio da Joaninha where she signed under the pseudonym Tia Filomena.” A list of examples that are just a sample of a much larger list of references - after all, it wasn't random that, in A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf stated that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Or even reality: “I'd like to point out the interesting case of the feminist daily newspaper La Fronde, whose first issue was published in 1897, in Paris, by the feminist Marguerite Durand”, adds Anne Cova. “The particularity of this newspaper is that it was written and carried out exclusively by women, something complicated insofar as night work was prohibited for women, according to a law dated November 2nd, 1892. It sparked a controversy that ended well for the newspaper, which managed to keep itself daily for some years. In this publication, several women used pseudonyms: Savioz was the pseudonym of the feminist Ghénia Avril de Sainte-Croix; Harlor's real name was Jeanne Fernande Perrot, etc".

In the art world, history repeats itself. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the paintings painted by the following artists speak not only about their talent, but about the life of the painter and the society of the time. Many turned to their husbands so as to put a face to their art or were simply relegated in importance by history because their spouses were also artists and gained a prominent place in the eyes of critics. An iconic example — or with plenty of media coverage, as it was portrayed by Tim Burton in Big Eyes (2014) — is that of artist Margaret Keane, now 94, whose illustrations with big-eyed characters catapulted her to popularity. Or rather, catapulted her husband. Walter Keane was a mediocre artist when Margaret met him, at the age of 25, although charismatic, seductive and surely egocentric, deciding that it would be himself the one to promote the work of this shy and introverted woman. It was only when the pressure of painting, for hours on end under the imposition of her husband, proved impossible to bear, that the artist decided to leave him and announced, in 1970, that she was behind that famous line (even Warhol had noticed her) that had brought so much fame (and profit) to her husband. In other cases, female painters were victims of their role in society: Sofonisba Anguissola (1535-1625) was an Italian Renaissance painter specializing in portraits, so much so that she was elected official portraitist of the Spanish Court in the reign of Philip II. I know what you're thinking: “Wow, way ahead of its time, nuestros hermanos of the 16th century.” Though not at all: her official position in the Royal masthead was as handmaid (which resulted in an increased difficulty in identifying her works, centuries later), and the job, in theory although not in reality, was assigned to (you guessed it) a man — Alonso Sánchez Coello, which was less talented than Anguissola and more his assistant than anything else. However, he had something she didn't. A penis. Still, the artist paved the way for women in the arts, at a time when this was not only unthinkable, but almost inadmissible. Other female names whose works have only gained recognition in the last few centuries: Caroline Louisa Daly (1832-1893), Canadian painter specializing in landscapes; Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821), French neo-classical painter — pupil of Jacques Louis David and strong in portraits; Judith Leyster (1609-1660), Dutch painter now recognized as one of the references of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. They are just a few examples of women whose works were only recognized relatively recently, long after their death, because both the society of the time and historians did not conceive of a female attribution to traits similar to those of other (male) contemporary artists. It is believed, therefore, that there will still be many works whose real authorship is yet to be discovered. Even when the identity wasn't hidden, there were many painters who, due to social constraints on the female role, were left in the shadow of an artist partner. In addition to the Keane case, there are other marriage duos in which the female element has been passed over, but not because of inferior talent. Lee Krasner (1908-1984) enjoyed less notoriety, in that male-dominated world of Abstract Expressionism, than her husband Jackson Pollock (1912-1956); a similar path followed by contemporary colleague Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989), wife of Willem de Kooning; and Gabriele Münter (1877-1962), a recognized expressionist painter, never gained so much importance throughout her life as her better half, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Perhaps the biggest proof of all will be that most readers will easily recognize the male element of the couple, but not the female. “I would like to mention the name of Hubertine Auclert who founded, in 1881, the first suffragist newspaper in France entitled La Citoyenne”, adds Anne Cova. “In this newspaper, in addition to obviously claiming the right to vote for women, several articles also claimed the right to education and a well-paid job, as other rights. In an article published on March 6, 1881, entitled Les Femmes Artistes, under the pseudonym Pauline Orell, [artist] Marie Bashkirtseff writes: 'But what we need is the possibility of working like men, and not having to perform feats of strength to obtain what men simply have. We are asked with indulgent irony how many great female artists there have been. 'Oh! Gentlemen, there have been some and it is surprising given the enormous difficulties they encounter. Everyone should have the freedom to follow the career that suits them'. This quote illustrates well the difficulties that women artists had to assert themselves and be recognized, hence the use of male pseudonyms to try to obtain it.”

"[Sofonisba Anguissola]'s official position in the Royal masthead was as handmaid (which resulted in an increased difficulty in identifying her works, centuries later), and the job, in theory although not in reality, was assigned to (you guessed it)  a man — Alonso Sánchez Coello, which was less talented than Anguissola and more his assistant than anything else. However, he had something she didn't. A penis."

None of this is obviously intended to vilify man: the social context dictated this experience in the shadow of a number of artists and writers, but there were peers who applauded them, even at a time when social dictates taught them to look at them as of inferior talent or unworthy. “There were men who agreed with this stigma and there were men who contributed to the recognition of these authors and artists”, corroborates the historian. “Among the men who dared to applaud them (namely, professional peers), we find Victor Hugo, who admired George Sand, and in the eulogy he wrote 'I cry a death and I salute an immortal'. During George Sand's lifetime, Hugo also supported him, declaring: 'George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female (...) it is not for me to decide whether she is my sister or my brother'. ” It is also worth noting the support that the writer received from fellows Gustave Flaubert and Honoré de Balzac”, and also from her friend Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, who described her, on one occasion, in this way: “What a heart of gold she had! What an absence of any meanness, malice, or false feeling! What a brave man she was, and what a benevolent woman!” Sand (i.e. Amandine Dupin) is one example, but there are others. Dickens, in a letter to George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), said of her talent: “The refined truth and delicacy, both of the humor and the pathos of these stories [in Scenes of Clerical Life] are something I have never seen of the genre before.” Even more curious is that there were also men who chose female pseudonyms — rarer and for reasons that have little to do with sexism, usually more commercial or for the freedom that incognito entails: “Indeed it is rarer”, agrees Anne Cova. “Recently, Briton Riley Sager, alias of Todd Ritter, wrote Final Girls (2017). It turns out that books that contain the word women and/or girls in their titles sell better if they are written by women, hence the use of female pseudonyms. Many men opt for initials only to avoid the question of whether they are male or female. Yasmina Khadra is the name of an Arab woman who signs several novels, but in reality the author is the Algerian Mohammed Moulessehoul who uses the first two names of his wife to pay her tribute .” Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) used several pseudonyms, many of them female, especially when the subject was criticizing or slandering other politicians or authority figures. Silence Dogood, Alice Addertongue, Caelia Shortface, Martha Careful, Busy Body, Abigail Twitterfield, Betty Diligent, Margaret Aftercast, and Polly Baker (let's face it, hed had a knack for poignant alter egos) were his false identities, and Baker wrote a few articles where she criticized the inequality of society and the way in which women were denigrated by the law. Franklin was perhaps a feminist without realizing it.

The 20th century brought a boost, with the suffragette movement joining the milestones that the aforementioned women were trying to conquer, but the evolution was not linear, as Cova points out: “There are advances and setbacks. Of course, there are turning points, but you must always be careful because setbacks can happen, in contexts, for example, of wars, or in the establishment of censorship and dictatorial contexts (the well-known ‘blue pencil’ during the Estado Novo in Portugal).” It is also because of this that the situation has not been completely annihilated. Even today, women sign as men for a variety of reasons and one of them continues to be the male authorial prestige (although the last few years have tried to change the paradigm a lot). JK Rowling, for instance, now well-recognized as the woman behind the Harry Potter saga, chose to sign her initials because she feared that her target audience, young boys, would not want to read her stories about a boy wizard if it were obvious that she was a female author and not a male one (for similar reasons, she chose the pseudonym Robert Galbraight when she released the thriller The Cuckoo's Calling, in 2013, because she wanted to distance herself from the literary genre that characterized her as the Potter author). Other contemporary writers did the same (E.L. James, of 50 Shades of Grey), and even non-contemporaries: Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), the author of Little Women (1868), also adopted the dubious pseudonym A. M. Barnard to launch a selection of gothic thrillers, following the idea that she could explore this dark side more if her name was ambiguous. Besides, obviously, it would be inappropriate to write about these topics as a woman. The stigma still exists: in 2015, American author Catherine Nichols sent her manuscript to publishers, signing under her own name, and received only two positive responses out of the 50 she requested. When the same work was submitted signed with a male pseudonym, the positive feedback increased to 17. Anne Cova confirms that “we still have a long way to go. We may have good laws, which is critical, but we need to be vigilant about enforcing them. Feminists of the past were aware of this. Furthermore, changing mindsets takes time. However, there are signs of change, such as with the #MeToo movement that has freed up women's words. (…) Education and legislation are two fundamental areas. Education is indeed important and this goes through, just to give an example, school textbooks. The training of teachers in issues related to the history of women is also essential”, warns the historian. Even so, in 2021, the panorama took on a positive twist, with women dominating the list of suggestions from major publishers and media outlets in the area, not only for the quality but also for the number of new authors on the market. In the last five years, The Guardian points out in a 2021 article, the annual list of debut novelists has included 44 authors, 33 of which are women, with similar ratios being seen for awards. The literary energy of recent years seems to be feminine. Which doesn't mean we've gone into cruising speed or that the fight is over. “French historian Michelle Perrot, known as a pioneer in women's history, mentions in an interview that she thought of using a pseudonym for the publication of one of her books, entitled Histoire de Chambres (2009). She ended up not doing so, concluding that 'we have to resign ourselves to being ourselves'”. Which is not to say that masculine or ambiguous aliases should be banished from existence—only that this option should be a right, or rather a freedom, rather than a convenience. And for that to happen, it's vitak to continue paying attention to the fine print, realizing the disparities, even when disguised under systemic social constraints. “I would like to mention a brief quote by a little-known Portuguese feminist, Maria Clara Correia Alves, from the National Council of Portuguese Women (CNMP)”, concludes Anne Cova. “She wrote in French in the first CNMP bulletin published in 1914: ‘Seule la femme ignorante n’est pas féministe’ (Only the ignorant woman is not a feminist)”.

Originally translated from Vogue Portugal's The Quote Issue, published April 2022.For full credits and stories, check the print version.

Sara Andrade By Sara Andrade

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