Photo: Flickr/John Loo
Really interesting research! From the magazine Pacific Standard:”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:
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 labour 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 centre. The implicit notion that women’s lives are important and worth documenting no doubt conveys an important message to young readers of both genders.” Read more here.
This is the kind of change that is subtle but hugely powerful. Young female readers, especially, no longer have to be bombarded with the message that “this text is not for or about you,” and that inevitably shapes how they feel about themselves and their place in the world.
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