top of page

Matilda Effect: Women Writers

Today is 8th March. The day all of us women get excited. Some of us possibly for no reason at all and some maybe for the reason that we are being recognized as part of humanity and not just for our reproductive organs. As a woman coming from a country in which mostly a woman is identified with a male peer (someone's daughter, sister, wife), I allow myself to talk about Matilda Effect in which women's achievements were erased from history by men or been stolen by them or women who hide their name behind a male Pseudonyms for recognition. Spoiler alert: I'm not gonna trash men. I'm not that type of feminist so please bear with me ;)

The empress of the Jazz Age, Zelda Fitzgerald

Matilda Effect

Overall, Matilda Effect is a bias against the achievements of women whose work is attributed to their male colleagues. We normally define this in the science field as we have a long list of women who were subjected to Matilda Effect such as:

  • Nettie Stevens: the discoverer of the XY sex-determination system

  • Gerty Cori: Nobel-laureate biochemist, worked for years as her husband's assistant, despite having equal qualification as him for a professorial position.

  • Rosalind Franklin: now recognized as an important contributor to the 1953 discovery of DNA structure.

Or women who lost a Nobel Prize because their men scientists favored over them such as:

  • In 1944 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was given to Otto Hahn as the sole recipient however Lise Meitner had worked with Hahn and had laid the theoretical foundations for nuclear fission (she coined the term "nuclear fission").

Matilda effect was first described by Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–98) in her essay, "Woman as Inventor". Science historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term in 1993 (source).

Why of Matilda Effect

Matilda Effect is not a historical concept, and it's still happening all around the globe. In August 2020, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Baileys launched Reclaim Her Name, a joint initiative honoring the literary award’s 25th anniversary for the goal to "giving female writers the credit they deserve," the campaign centered on 25 classic and lesser-known books who historically wrote under male pseudonyms. To reclaim these titles, organizers republished them as free e-books featuring the writers’ actual names on the covers.

On Bailey's website they announce that "throughout history, many female writers have used male pen names for their work to be published or taken seriously." Hence, Baileys put their real names on the front of their work for the first time to honor their achievements. The intention was good, however, Reclaim Her Name quickly attracted criticism from scholars and authors mentioning that there are several historical inaccuracies embedded in the project. Bailey’s later removed the incorrect cover and apologized for the error.

Catherine Taylor, writer, and critic, explains in the Times Literary Supplement that this "one-size-fits-all approach overlooks the complexities of publishing history, in which pseudonyms aren’t always about conforming to patriarchal or other obvious standards." such as many writers used their own name like Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to publish their books. Rutigliano argues that the choice to republish authors under their so-called 'real' names erases their agency, ignoring "their own decisions about how to present their works, and in some instances, perhaps even how to present themselves."

Some critics bring up the idea of gender identity. In a 2019 blog post, Lavery explained that Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans in 1819, "relished being thought of as male, and was disappointed when people thought otherwise." The only reason we typically refer Eliot to as 'she,' according to Lavery, is because Charles Dickens outed her in a widely circulated 1858 letter. Rutigliano goes further by saying that even the name of the Baileys campaign which uses the 'her' pronoun to refer to its authors assumes the complex historical gender identities of these authors.

So, in this perspective possibly as Sophie Coulombeau mentioned on Twitter, women used pseudonyms to express creativity, align with queer identities, make money, and an array of other reasons and it's not necessarily a result of suppression from the male dominant society. So, "One size of grand reclamatory gesture does not fit all women. It feels ham-fisted to lump all these women together and sell them as a 'reclaimed' set." (source) A very good and up-to-date example of such assumption is J.K. Rowling who published her 2013 crime mystery The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, which attracted some criticism when its true author was revealed. Rowling defended her choice, saying, "I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career with this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback." (source)

Matilda Effect in Literary works

Let's talk about Fitzgerald for a minute. We know that The Great Gatsby is going to be the most recognized work of F. Scott Fitzgerald who was neither a literary genius nor a nice person. Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was actually a huge contributor and victim of his work. In The Great Gatsby, the character Daisy says,

"I hope she’ll be a fool! that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."

This quote was not F. Scott’s own words, but Zelda’s after their daughter was born. Zelda was known for her quick wit and sharp tongue throughout her life. She, herself, was actually an accomplished dancer and writer. She frequently wrote in her diary which F. Scott must have absolutely adored to read through. In an interview with The New York Tribune Zelda Fitzgerald spoke about The Beautiful and the Damned, saying that "on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar."

A recent example of such a distressful situation is Susan Sontag who in her new biography claims she was the brains behind her first husband Philip Rieff’s most famous book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959). Sontag researched Rieff's study before their divorce in 1958 and contributed to the book so much that she has been considered an unofficial co-author (source). The cases are less and less in developed countries and women are increasingly taking control of their narratives, but this is not the case in other countries in which the government or cultural groups silence the women's voice and also we will need a lot more books and films to right all the wrongs regarding this topic.

The Power of Patriarchy, gender harassment, and pen name

To summarize today's thoughts for honoring the 8th of March as International Women's Day, I would like to talk about gender harassment as a reality that I personally faced with since I was young. Gender Harassment is about "disrespecting, demeaning, and deprecating women and their work, abilities, and accomplishments, simply because they are women" (source). What I see is that such a concept has gotten less attention than other forms of sexual harassment. Looking at Google Scholar you can see that in academic science, Gender harassment is by far the most prevalent form of sexual harassment, as Meredith Wadman highlighted.

It's true that today female scientists, researchers, writers and artists have made substantial progress and that women hold a wide range of significant positions, including some of the most powerful and prestigious in today's world, but even so, gender harassment continues to thrive, adversely affecting women as a whole. It is not hard to imagine that "the disrespect is still rampant, and the insecurity it can create could discourage today's brilliant women from taking the risk of putting forward offbeat, controversial, or not yet totally proven ideas." (source)

As the research on the subject shows there is an unbalance in statistics about women and academia, referred to as STEM fields of knowledge. Such reluctance not only robs individual researchers of deserved recognition and collaboration but also robs science of potentially significant insights and advances. This is the erasure of 'dangerous women' whose ideas may endanger the people in charge. If we don’t know that women were responsible for or contributed to these scientific breakthroughs or defining pieces of art, how do we teach young women that they too can strive to do the same?

I was taught about the significant work of inventions, literature, art, etc. of Fleming, Edison, Hawking, Newton, Einstein, and Sigmund Freud, of the Camus, Dickens, Allan Poe, Orwell, and Hemingway, of Klimt, da vinci, Degas, Cezanne, and van Gogh but the only female I can tell you I learned about in the school is Marie Curie who was mentioned alongside Pierre Curie. I am not a feminist in the sense of today's definition of it but let's be honest. The patriarchy is designed for men and their benefit after all and more credible works in different fields of art and science are by far belong to male gatekeepers.

And for women who had landed on discoveries, they believed that sharing the life-changing information with the world was more important than taking credit for it. As many women are like Mary Ann Evans — better known as George Eliot. We are the outcast living a socially unconventional life forced to work, invent, publish, write, and create under an assumed name, not only to escape having our work judged because of our gender but to avoid having it judged because of a scandalous life. Ironically, letting ourselves sink deeper and deeper into a world of secrets and deception.

Happy Women's Day to all women around the Globe

Thank you for Reading <3

Can you tell me about women writers whose work was stolen by a man or had to write under a pseudonym?

Fun Fact

The empress of the Jazz Age, Zelda Fitzgerald inspired fashion in much the same way she inspired her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing: firmly and fiercely. The two married in 1920, and soon after Scott achieved literary success with This Side of Paradise. Feisty, talented and a prodigious social butterfly, Zelda quickly made a name for herself as his charismatic muse. Dubbed the “first American flapper” by her husband, Zelda epitomized the Roaring Twenties with her bobbed hair, short skirts and unapologetic drinking as she made her way through the most exclusive social circles in New York and, later, Paris. She wore a flesh-colored bathing suit to fuel rumors that she swam nude–she liked the attention. However, in reality, life wasn’t quite so enchanting — the Fitzgeralds’ marriage was often turbulent. Zelda spent much time in and out of institutions being treated for mental illness. She was staying in an institution in North Carolina in 1948 when she died after a fire broke out. However, despite the personal hardships, Zelda had embodied everything that fabled era promised: defiance, recklessness and, above all, glamour. (source)

82 views0 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page