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Study Tracks Rise of Feminine Pronouns

The use of male and female pronouns in books reflects changes in women's status during the 20th century.
More than 1 million books were examined for the SDSU-led study.
More than 1 million books were examined for the SDSU-led study.

Language use in books mirrors trends in gender equality over the generations in the US, according to a new study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge and colleagues. Their work explores how the language in the full text of more than one million books reflects cultural change in U.S. women’s status. The study is published online in Springer's journal Sex Roles.

Twenge and colleagues, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile of the University of Georgia, examined whether the use of gendered pronouns such as 'he' and 'she' mirrored women's status between 1900-2008, by examining books available through the Google Books ngram viewer.

Pronoun precipitation

Their analyses showed that the frequency of use of female versus male pronouns followed the ups and downs of women's status over time. More specifically, 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.

In addition, 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. U.S. college women were also 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.”

More lessons from language

In a separate paper to be published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Twenge and her co-authors also used the Google Books database of American books to examine trends in the use of other pronouns between 1960 and 2008.

The use of "I" and "me" increased 42 percent, the use of "you" increased 300 percent and the use of "we" declined 10 percent.

"These trends suggest that American culture has become more self-focused and individualistic since the early 1960s," said Twenge, the author of Generation Me. "Together, the two papers show the bright side of individualism in growing gender equality as well as the potentially darker side in increasing self-focus."

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