A Woman’s Place is On the Page

New research traces the dramatic rise in feminine pronouns in books over the past century.
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There are many ways to chart the progress of women over the past 100 years. But a research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge has come up with a new metric:

Pronouns.

Last month, we described a sobering study of 50 years’ worth of books, which found “an increasing use of words and phrases that reflect an ethos of self-absorption and self-satisfaction.” The same research team—Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile—has just come out with another analysis of our reading matter, and its implications are more inspiring.

Using the Google Books database, the researchers examined the ratio of male pronouns (he, him, his, himself) to female ones (she, her, hers, herself) in the texts of 1.2 million books published in the U.S. between 1900 and 2008. They suspected feminine references would represent a larger percentage of such words over time, as women gained in power and status.

They were right. But there were periods of regression, and a real shift didn’t occur until the late 1960s.

Specifically, they found 3.5 male pronouns for every female pronoun in books published between 1900 and 1945. This ratio increased to 4.5 to one in the 1950s and early 1960s—the Father Knows Best era, when women stayed in the kitchen and, apparently, off the printed page.

With the coming of the feminism, however, things shifted rapidly. “Beginning around 1968,” the researchers write in the journal Sex Roles, “the ratio dropped markedly until, by the 21st century, U.S. books used about two male pronouns for every female pronoun.”

“This pattern follows the ups and downs of U.S. women’s status over time fairly closely,” they note. “U.S. books used relatively more female pronouns when women earned a higher percentage of higher-education degrees, participated in the labor force (in greater numbers), and married later.”

When it comes to this kind of cultural marker, it’s impossible to distinguish cause from effect. Books reflect the society that produced them, but they can also challenge assumptions and change minds. As the researchers note, “cultural products shape individuals’ ideas of cultural norms and ‘common sense,’ a central source of awareness about gender roles.”

The proportional increase in “shes” and “hers” suggests a steady rise in novels, memoirs and biographies with female characters at the center. The implicit notion that women’s lives are important and worth documenting no doubt conveys an important message to young readers of both genders.

Twenge has found a unique way of documenting this important shift in thinking. Just in case she decides to chart gender pronouns in blog posts for her next project, we congratulate her.

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