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Gendering Anonymous

Monday, May 16, 2022 - 07:21

One of the most fraught endeavors of literary analysis is the attempt to suss out the gender of an anonymous or pseudonymous author. Everything we assume, believe, and project about gendered writing gets applied in ways that cannot help but confirm our biases, absent a "reveal" from the living author, or from previously unknown evidence. (A notorious example from the world of science fiction and fantasy is when author Robert Silverberg published the opinion that pseudonymous author James Tiptree must be a man, because the writing style was "ineluctably masculine", only to have Alice B. Sheldon revealed as the author behind the name.)

When examining texts of the early modern period, there are the competing dynamics that men were far more likely to gain publication than women, but on the other hand, women were under much higher pressure to publish in a form that concealed their identity. To what extent can the quest for author identity rely on gender clues in the subject matter or point of view? Is it reasonable to conclude that a polemic attacking misogyny stands a better than average chance of having been written by a woman? And does that matter in how we interpret the content of the text, apart of questions of the social history of authorship?

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Wayne, Valerie. 1999. “The Dearth of the Author: Anonymity’s Allies and Swetnam the Woman-hater” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Wayne, Valerie. “The Dearth of the Author”

The article starts off the section of the collection titled "Emerging Alliances".

This article pokes at the problem of “anonymous” authorship of early modern works. Given that there were strong social pressures against women writing and publishing publicly under their own names, might it be reasonable to put more weight on the possibility of female authorship for “anonymous” works, especially when the views expressed are sympathetic to women’s position? The specific work under consideration is an early 17th c play Swetnam the Woman-hater Arraigned by Women, a direct challenge and response to the misogynistic work Arraignment of Lewd, Idles, Froward, and Unconstant Women by Joseph Swetnam. The play was preceded by three prose responses to Swetname, at least two of which are clearly pseudonymous authors (the attributed feminine names being clearly allegorical) with one considered to accurately identify the female author. Note that Swetnam originally published his work under an allegorical pseudonym too.

Wayne doesn’t take a direct position on the gender of the author, but addresses the general question of “gender indeterminacy” in authorship of the early modern period.

The play clearly takes down Swetnam and misogyny in general in its conclusion, but the question of female agency in doing so is muddled by the central figure of (male) Prince Lorenzo disguised as the (female) amazon Atalanta. (Compare the disguised-as-amazon motif in Sidney’s Arcadia.)

The article concludes that regardless of the gender of the play’s author, they operate as an “ally” to women (in the play and generally). The article is fascinating and worth a read, but not directly pertinent to the Project except in how it depicts the range of possible attitudes of the time to feminist issues.

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