NEW YORK -- In the opening pages of "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan consciously captured the despair of so many housewives -- and unknowingly anticipated a shift in language that would mirror the revolution to come in women's lives.
"As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night," Friedan wrote in her 1963 book, "she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question -- 'Is this all?'"
"She" and "her" each are used twice; "herself" once. Not a single "he," his" or "himself."
According to a study released Thursday, the "he-she" gap in books, which has always favored the masculine, has dramatically narrowed since Friedan's feminist classic.
Drawing upon 1.2 million texts in the Google Books archive, three university researchers tracked gender pronouns from 1900 to 2008. The ratio of male to female pronouns was 3.5:1 until 1950, and peaked at around 4.5:1 in the mid-1960s. The ratio had shrunk to 3:1 by 1975, and less than 2:1 by 2005.
"These trends in language quantify one of the largest, and most rapid, cultural changes ever observed: the incredible increase in women's status since the late 1960s in the U.S.," Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University said in a statement.
"Those numbers are quite staggering," said James W. Pennebaker, author of "The Secret Life of Pronouns" and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas in Austin. "Pronouns are a sign of people paying attention and as women become more present in the workforce, in the media and life in general, people are referring to them more."
During a recent interview, Twenge said that she and fellow scholars had been talking about the Google database as a resource to study gender. They wanted to start at 1900, because pronouns have not changed since "thee" and "thou" fell out of style in the 1800s.