The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction
This essay explores the changing significance of gender in fiction, asking especially whether its prominence in characterization has varied from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. We have reached two conclusions, which may seem in tension with each other. The first is that gender divisions between characters have become less sharply marked over the last 170 years. In the middle of the nineteenth century, very different language is used to describe fictional men and women. But that difference weakens steadily as we move forward to the present; the actions and attributes of characters are less clearly sorted into gender categories. On the other hand, we haven't found the same progressive story in the history of authorship. In fact, there is an eye-opening, under-discussed decline in the proportion of fiction actually written by women, which drops by half (from roughly 50% of titles to roughly 25%) as we move from 1850 to 1950. The number of characters who are women or girls also drops. We are confronted with a paradoxical pattern. While gender roles were becoming more flexible, the space actually allotted to (real, and fictional) women on the shelves of libraries was contracting sharply. We explore the evidence for this paradox and suggest a few explanations.