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."