Writings Appropriate to Her Sex: Women Authors, Pseudonyms, and the Gendered History of Publishing and Reading

Writings Appropriate to Her Sex: Women Authors, Pseudonyms, and the Gendered History of Publishing and Reading

Recently, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti allegedly “outed” the popular Italian novelist Elena Ferrante by publishing in the New York Review of Books proof of her “true” identity. Ferrante’s writing, particularly the Neapolitan novels — a series of four books that chronicle female friendship, violence, poverty, and gender in postwar Italy — have become international bestsellers in the past five years.

Gatti decided that his time would be well spent poring through real estate records to declare to the world and to her readership who exactly Ferrante was. He writes, “In an age in which fame and celebrity are desperately sought after, the person behind Ferrante apparently didn’t want to be known. But her books’ sensational success made the search for her identity virtually inevitable. It also left financial clues that speak by themselves.”

His article suggests that because Ferrante was not truly from Naples (the setting of the Neapolitan quartet), and possibly not from a working-class background, she has no right to write about the subjects of her novels. As Gatti writes in the second installment of his expose, “There are no traces of … [Ferrante’s] personal history in Elena Ferrante’s fiction.1 The stories Ferrante tells are those of the Neapolitan poor, of postwar Italy, of social and female oppression. None of Ferrante’s books gives any indication of the tragedies experienced by … [Ferrante’s] mother and grandparents and their extended family — pogroms in Poland, Nazi persecution in Germany, anti-Semitic laws in fascist Italy and the Holocaust, which took the lives of her great-grandparents and a dozen other members of her family.” Throughout the rest of the article Gatti seems to bemoan the fact that Ferrante did not write about her supposed family’s tragic history in place of her topics of poverty and gender. Now, that family’s personal history is public content.

Journalist Claudio Gatti with a copy of Elena Ferrante's La Frantumaglia. (Domenico Stinellis/AP)
Journalist Claudio Gatti with a copy of Elena Ferrante’s La Frantumaglia. (Domenico Stinellis/AP)

When asked why he felt the need to pursue Ferrante’s identity, Gatti responded, “Why should lying by best-selling authors to readers who love their work and have a legitimate interest in knowing who the authors are [be accepted] … when you don’t allow politicians to lie to their voters.”2 Sorry to break it to you Gatti, but one, we do allow politicians to lie to us (in both Italy and the United States), and two, Ferrante is not a politician.

In fact, Ferrante’s use of a pseudonym is rooted in a long history of women writers hiding their identity to write about subjects seen as “for men” or “too salacious to be coming from a woman” and to publish and thrive as writers in a world dominated by men.

The modern history of writing, gender, and pseudonyms is connected to the rise in the novel’s authority in the nineteenth century. Literary scholar Susan Sniader Lanser argues that women writers helped produce the novel’s newfound dominance in the public sphere, yet by the 1860s — particularly in England and France — writing became increasingly professionalized. As writing novels became a career “worthy” of pursuit, it also became a man’s profession, and women were squeezed out of literary production, particularly as writers of “serious fiction.” This was, of course, despite the fact that their writing had made it a professional genre in the first place. It was during this period when women using a male pseudonym became a widespread phenomenon “at just the moment when the novel was becoming a serious literary form.”3

Taking up the male pen names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell allowed the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) to write about, as The Economist states, decidedly improper topics such as “vengeful love (Wuthering Heights [Emily, 1847]), adultery and insanity (Jane Eyre [Charlotte, 1847]), and alcoholism and broken marriages (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall [Anne, 1848]).” Even with male pseudonyms, Emily and Anne’s novels were reviewed as “vulgar,” “brutalizing,” and “pernicious.” Jane Eyre was highly praised, although even The Economist described a “coarseness” and “venial” flaw to the book. These reviews cannot be understood without analyzing them through the lens of gender. Imagine how the books would have initially been reviewed if the critics had known women were behind their lewd and lascivious content!

Mary Ann Evans used the male pen name George Eliot, and, in doing so, wrote one of the most-heralded novels in English history: Middlemarch. Think also George Sand and A.M. Barnard (or Louisa May Alcott for her lesser-known sensationalist gothic thrillers). And of course, more recently, J.K. Rowling.

This female adaptation of male names did not come without a backlash (a la Gatti). In 1863, one male critic attacked George Eliot and other female writers using male pen names for “misusing their sex.” He argued, “Women work more by influence than by force, by example than reasoning, by silence than speech: the authoress [Eliot] grasps at direct power through reasoning and speech. Having thus taken up the male position, the male ideal becomes hers,–the ideal of power,–which, interpreted by her feminine heart and intellect, means the supremacy of passion in the affairs of the world.”4

As a historian, I can’t discuss in any theoretical terms voice or narrative authority. I don’t know how to study the form of fiction. Rather, I am saying that the brutal attacks on Elena Ferrante must be seen as the historical continuation of gender biases in the patriarchal world of writing and publishing. This is not the first time women writers have chosen to use pen names (whether of a man or woman), nor will it be the last. And it does seem that macho backlash against female literary success (especially when male critics can’t precisely pinpoint who that woman is and thus critique her for other things, i.e. George Eliot’s physical appearance) continues alive and well.

An article in the New York Times has argued that the debate over Gatti and Ferrante is divided across the Atlantic. In Europe, discussions have hinged upon how Ferrante’s privacy was invaded; in the US, debate has centered on gender and the discrimination women writers face in publishing and criticism. I, however, argue that these two understandings are not mutually exclusive. Is it a coincidence that Gatti went after the privacy of a female pen name? Does not gender privilege allow some genders (i.e. men) access to both privacy and the public sphere? What if Ferrante had written under a male pseudonym (as has been so common in literary history)? Would there have been such effort to invade her privacy? Ferrante’s privacy was invaded partly because of her gender (or the perceived gender that her pen name put forward). If Ferrante had not written about women and gender, would she have chosen a male pen name? And if so, would that have meant that misogynist critics like Gatti would not have decided to attack her?

I’m definitely not a literary critic. I’m not even a scholar of literature. I’m just a feminist historian who loves to read fiction. I was drawn in by Ferrante’s novels, as a woman and as a scholar of gender. That being said, I felt the books were not without their flaws. I often felt while reading the novels that I didn’t truly understand Elena and Lila, the two main characters. Despite the closeness the novel brings you to these two women, I remained disconnected from their inner psyches. But I was overcome with the power with which Ferrante describes the intersection of poverty, a culture of honor, and gender, as well as how systems of oppression can both be fought against and reproduced in our own lives. Elena, in the novel, is a feminist writer who publishes groundbreaking work on gender. Yet she is in a marriage where she doesn’t demand her right to sexual pleasure, and she later begins a long relationship with a serial (academic) philanderer who repeatedly humiliates her. This is what life as a feminist looks like: complicated, heartbreaking, defiant, submissive, a struggle. Who cares what Ferrante’s name is? Her pen does all the talking.

Further Reading

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2012); The Story of a New Name (2013); Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014); and The Story of the Lost Child (2015), Europa Editions.


  1. I have chosen to not use the name of the person Gatti believes Elena Ferrante is. Return to text.
  2. The interview clip begins at around 3:45. Return to text.
  3. Susan Sniader Lanser, Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 88. Return to text.
  4. Quoted in Lanser, Fictions of Authority, 89. Return to text.

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.

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