New research suggests progress in gender equality can be traced by the language found in published literature over the past 50 years.
In a new study led by San Diego State University researchers, investigators explored how the language in the full text of more than one million books reflected cultural change in U.S. women’s status.
Findings are published in the journal Sex Roles.
Jean Twenge, Ph.D., and colleagues examined whether the use of gendered pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ mirrored women’s status between 1900-2008. Their analyses showed that the frequency of use of female versus male pronouns followed the ups and downs of women’s status over time.
Researchers found that female pronouns were used progressively less often (compared to male pronouns) in the post-war era (1946-1967) when women’s status declined or stagnated, and more often after 1968 when women’s status rose considerably.
Investigators also found that U.S. books used relatively more female pronouns when women were more educated, participated in the labor force more, and married later – all signs of increased status for women.
Researchers posit that U.S. college women were more assertive at times when relatively more female pronouns appeared in books.
“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.,” said Twenge. “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.”