From The Guardian
by Alison Flood
Analysis finds proportion of female authors and characters fell after 19th century, with male authors remaining ‘remarkably resistant’ to writing women.
Women in novels have tended to “feel”, while men “get”; women smile or laugh, while men grin or chuckle. An analysis of more than 100,000 novels spanning more than 200 years shows how gendered even seemingly innocuous words can be – as well as revealing an unexpected decline in the proportion of female novelists from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.
Academics from the universities of Illinois and California at Berkeley used an algorithm to examine 104,000 works of fiction dating from 1780 to 2007, drawn mostly from HathiTrust Digital Library. The algorithm identified both author and character genders. The academics expected to see an increase in the prominence of female characters in literature across the two centuries. Instead, “from the 19th century through the early 1960s we see a story of steady decline,” write Ted Underwood, David Bamman and Sabrina Lee in their paper The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction, which has just been published in the Journal of Cultural Analytics.
As well as the drop in the number of characters who are women or girls, they also found “a fairly stunning decline” in the number of books written by women in the first half of the 20th century, writing that “the proportion of fiction actually written by women … drops by half (from roughly 50% of titles to roughly 25%) as we move from 1850 to 1950.”
The academics were so surprised by these findings, “in the very period when we might expect to see the effects of first-wave feminism”, that they initially suspected an error in their methods. They ran further tests, and found they tallied....