As Women's Status Rises, So Do Literary 'Shes'

Glasses sitting on open books.
Open books and spectacles. (Image credit: Tischenko Irina, Shutterstock)

The prevalence of female pronouns — she, her, hers, herself — in American books could be used to track the changing status of women in the 20th century, according to a new study, which found the he/she ratio after the late 1960s mirrored advances in gender equality.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, and her colleagues analyzed more than a million books on Google's Ngram Viewer for the use of gendered pronouns published between 1900 and 2008.

For every "she" found in this sample between 1900 and 1945, there were about 3.5 "hes." The gap then grew during the post-World War II era, increasing to a male-to-female ratio of about 4.5 to 1. But the use of female pronouns in books began rising in the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, the male-to-female ratio of pronouns in American books dropped to 3 to 1. And by the 2000s, it was 2 to 1. The researchers believe these changes occurred in step with rapid advances in gender equality — evident in other factors such as more education and more participation in the labor force — starting in the late 1960s.

"These trends in language quantify one of the largest, and most rapid, cultural changes ever observed: The incredible increase in women's status since the late 1960s in the U.S.," Twenge said in a statement from Springer, which published the research in its journal Sex Roles."Gender equality is the clear upside of the cultural movement toward individualism in the U.S., and books reflect this movement toward equality. That's exciting because it shows how we can document social change."

The researchers pointed to a few possible reasons for this correlation. Authors might have used the universal "he" as a default pronoun during periods when women's status was lower, the researchers wrote in their paper. Meanwhile, authors in eras with increased gender equality might have switched between "he" and "she" or used constructions like "he/she" and "he or she." They also might have included more female topics or characters in their books.

This isn't the first study to look at the link between language and equality. Past research found that languages across the globe in which nouns are given male or female status are linked to gender inequality. Surprisingly, that study, detailed in a 2012 issue of the journal Sex Roles, found that languages with no gender ("he" and "she" are represented by the same word) had the most gender inequality, perhaps because people automatically categorize gender-neutral references as male.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.