The Rise of She: What a Shift in Gendered Pronouns Means

Researchers have been tracking pronouns by gender to see what shifts in our use of these tiny little words says about larger views of women in society.

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There's a new study that reveals that shifts are being made in the way we write. For a research project led by Generation Me author and San Diego State psychology professor Jean M. Twenge, with W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile of the University of Georgia, the three combed through 1.2 million texts in the Google Books archive, tracking pronouns by gender in works published from 1900 to 2008. Their survey of those books (note: the archive contains 4 percent of books ever published) found that, as Hillel Italie writes in a piece for the AP, the "gender pronoun gap" has changed. Yes, add this to your file on gender byline and media coverage gaps and How To Tumblrs for Women; there is a "gender pronoun gap" as well.

From Twenge's paper: "Between 1900 and 1945, 3.5 male pronouns appeared for every female pronoun [she, her, herself, hers], 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." Italie writes, "The ratio had shrunk to 3:1 by 1975, and less than 2:1 by 2005."

What's the significance of this? Twenge explains in her paper that "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 ingender equality over the generations." Or, more simply, the rise in all of those indicators—as women married later, had careers, and became more independent and assertive—correlated to a rise in the use of female pronouns in writing.

In a statement, Twenge said the shift in language evidenced by the research is "one of the largest, and most rapid, cultural changes ever observed," and that it reflects "the incredible increase in women's status since the late 1960s in the U.S." Italie adds, quoting Erin Belieu, co-director of VIDA:

"Women have certainly increased their 'literary output' in the last two decades particularly," she wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "And women fiction writers specifically have been able to achieve a large economic impact within the publishing industry."

Of course, the default pronoun, as formerly taught in high school English classes, was for a long time the male one. When gender isn't known, when the pronoun stands in for either gender, when the pronoun just means one or a person, he was traditionally the pronoun used. So does this shift indicate a change in the acceptance of the default pronoun? Can we make the leap that increasing use of she indicates that women have become more successful in writing and getting books published? After all, women write about a lot of things, not just about women, and men can and do write about women, too.

I reached out to both Twenge and James Pennebaker, who wrote The Secret Life of Pronouns, to get their thoughts. Pennebaker told me, "If the effect was merely a drop in the use of 'he' words, I would be quite worried. But if you look at the Google book graphs, you will see a corresponding increase in she-words and a drop in he-words since 1960." (See chart below.)

He added that the use of generic pronouns like they and them have dropped, too. "I think of pronouns as markers of where people are paying attention," he told me. "So, if people are thinking more about women and are paying attention to them more, by definition they will start using more she-words."

Twenge explained that she thinks the research "reflects two major trends which are interrelated: Women's status and visibility have gone up," she says. "More women are participating in public life, more women are lawyers and doctors and TV commentators and that's showing up here. Hand in hand with that is the awareness that having he as a universal singular human pronoun was not exactly fair to the rest of the population." Hence, a shift to alternating between he and she in books and papers, and also use of the slash, as in he/she. "I was born in the early '70s," she says. "I remember as a freshman in high school English class, a female teacher taught us that he was the way to go. I remember opening my Intro to Psych book in college, in 1991, and I saw that instead of using the universal he, [the writer] took pains to make it relatively half and half. That made a big impression on me."

But this shift isn't an indicator that everything's equal now, either. "Male pronouns are still twice as common than female," Twenge says. "Look at politics and government; we still haven't had a female president, we've made a huge amount of progress, but it's still not 50-50." And this isn't just about more women writing and getting books published, she says. "I don't think it's just a factor of who's doing the writing. Even if women were the majority of book writers, who are they going to write about? [She points out that 85 to 90 percent of books are nonfiction.] They're going to write about politicians, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; the topics they'll write about will have more he."

So what do we do about it? "You can't get complacent about it," she says. "I do think it's an indication that gender equality has not yet been achieved. We've made great progress but we're not there yet."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.