Modern English-language novels have followed many incredible male and female characters, however according to a recent study, women were better represented in Victorian novels than they currently are in modern novels. The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction was published this week in Cultural Analytics, analyzing how gender is presented in over 100,000 novels. When they studied dates closer to the 20th century, they found that the number of female characters, and the proportion of female authors, decreased.
Ted Underwood, a professor of English and Information Sciences at the University of Illinois and coauthor David Bamman, information scientist from the University of California at Berkley, built the algorithm used to analyze characters and authors of 104,000 novels.
When the data was organized by date, the researchers could see certain trends, including a “steady decline” in the proportion of women authors (from about 50% to less than 25%) between 1800 and the 1970s. They also saw a decline in the number of women characters that were given names. The study also analyzed gendered words, showing active verbs more associated with male characters and passive verbs more associated with female characters.
“When you see [the study] alongside more traditional literary historical projects, you can see connections that you may not have otherwise seen,” said Claire Jarvis, a professor of English at Stanford University who has previously expressed “hunches” of her own, though she didn’t expect the decrease in women in literature.
“I would have expected to see some progress, just in terms of equality of representation in women in fiction,” said Underwood. “Maybe not a lot of progress, but some progress. And we really don’t see any.”
The study is a fascinating way for us to reflect on the last few centuries of literature, and how the future of literature might progress.
Featured Image Via the Smithsonian.