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Male and Female Pronoun Use in U.S. Books Reflects Women’s Status, 1900–2008

Abstract

The status of women in the United States varied considerably during the 20th century, with increases 1900–1945, decreases 1946–1967, and considerable increases after 1968. We examined whether changes in written language, especially the ratio of male to female pronouns, reflected these trends in status in the full text of nearly 1.2 million U.S. books 1900–2008 from the Google Books database. Male pronouns included he, him, his, himself and female pronouns included she, her, hers, and herself. Between 1900 and 1945, 3.5 male pronouns appeared for every female pronoun, increasing to 4.5 male pronouns during the postwar era of the 1950s and early 1960s. After 1968, the ratio dropped precipitously, reaching 2 male pronouns per female pronoun by the 2000s. From 1968 to 2008, the use of male pronouns decreased as female pronouns increased. The gender pronoun ratio was significantly correlated with indicators of U.S. women’s status such as educational attainment, labor force participation, and age at first marriage as well as women’s assertiveness, a personality trait linked to status. Books used relatively more female pronouns when women’s status was high and fewer when it was low. The results suggest that cultural products such as books mirror U.S. women’s status and changing trends in gender equality over the generations.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Candice Davis, Van Ethan Levy, and Grace Rasmusson for their assistance.

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Correspondence to Jean M. Twenge.

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Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K. & Gentile, B. Male and Female Pronoun Use in U.S. Books Reflects Women’s Status, 1900–2008. Sex Roles 67, 488–493 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0194-7

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Keywords

  • Language use
  • Status of women
  • Feminism
  • Cultural products
  • Change over time
  • Generations