Study Shows Dip in Prominence of Female Characters in Novels

Metropolitan Museum Image and Data Resources (Gilman Collection, Purchase, Harriette and Noel Levine Gift, 2005)

A study recently published in the Journal of Cultural Analytics shows that the prominence of female characters in novels and the number of female novelists declined between 1800 and 1960. Male authors were “remarkably resistant to giving women more than a third of the character-space in their stories,” according to the researchers.

The study also found that gender differences in the novels became weaker over the years, a finding described by the researchers as a paradox. “While gender roles were becoming more flexible, the space actually allotted to (real and fictional) women on the shelves of libraries was contracting sharply,” they wrote.

The study used an algorithm to analyze 104,000 English-language novels published between 1703 and 2009, with the majority dated from 1780 to 2007. The books were mostly from the HathiTrust Digital Library.

The research was conducted by Ted Underwood, a professor of information sciences and English, graduate student Sabrina Lee, both from the University of Illinois, and David Bamman from the University of California at Berkeley.

Here are some of the findings of the study on the significance of gender in fiction:

  • The proportion of fiction written by women dropped by half from 1850 to 1950. One explanation is that women dominated fiction writing in the early 19th century when it wasn’t considered a high-status career. More men became novelists as fiction writing increasingly brought prestige. Women may also be taking advantage of other work opportunities during the shift.
  • The prominence of female characters in fiction declined between 1800 and 1960.
  • Women in the novels that were analyzed often “smile” and “laugh” while men “grin” and “chuckle.”
  • Women “felt” while men “got” in the novels.
  • Men were associated with countries and houses, while women were associated with private chambers and apartments inside the house.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum Image and Data Resources, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Harriette and Noel Levine Gift, 2005

Read more about the study:

The Transformation of Gender in English Language Fiction

Read stories about other studies:

Gosh Darn It! Study Shows More Cussing in American Books

New Study: Books Empower Readers to Do Positive Things

Study Shows Readers Judge a Book by its Cover

Leave a comment


  1. My first reaction at this news was surprise but then I thought about it and realized it wasn’t so surprising after all — interesting that it correlates to an increase in prestige in novel writing. Nuances interesting too. Men grin while women smile. Thanks for posting!

  2. And women “felt,” while men “got”! It seems like there’s a long tradition of gender stereotypes. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Reblogged this on Leena Maria.


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