Underwood’s research shows paradox of women’s representation in literature through the ages

Ted Underwood
Ted Underwood, Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

While the issue of gender equality is more prevalent in modern times than in the Victorian era, a new study shows that in literature, the number of women characters and women authors has declined rather than grown over the years. Professor Ted Underwood led the research, which used machine learning to analyze the presentation of gender in more than 100,000 novels from 1703 to 2009 in the HathiTrust Digital Library. 

According to Underwood, "By 1960, women had lost half the space they occupied in nineteenth-century fiction, even though gender roles had become more flexible."

He and his fellow researchers, David Bamman, assistant professor of information science at the University of California, Berkeley, and Sabrina Lee, a graduate student in English at Illinois, recently published their findings, "The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction," in the journal Cultural Analytics. Using an algorithm Underwood and Bamman had built for another characterization project, they discovered shifts in the words that characterize gender as well as a decrease in the number of gendered words. 

Their work was recently featured in the Smithsonian.com article, "Women Were Better Represented in Victorian Novels than Modern Ones." As Underwood points out in the article, "Although literary historians have talked about women's departure from the novel at certain points before, nobody's done the kind of broad-scale work that would demonstrate continuous trends. That’s where machine learning comes in."

This research was funded by the Workset Creation for Scholarly Analysis and Data Capsule (WCSA+DC) grant through the HathiTrust Research Center (HTRC). The HTRC is a collaboration between the University of Illinois, Indiana University, and the HathiTrust to enable advanced computational access to the HathiTrust Digital Library database, a collection of just under 14 million digitized volumes.

Underwood is a professor in the iSchool and also holds an appointment with the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He is the author of two books about literary history, including most recently Why Literary Periods Mattered (Stanford, 2013). His articles have appeared in PMLA, Representations, MLQ, and Cultural Analytics. He is currently finishing his upcoming book, Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change.

Updated on
Backto the news archive

Related News

iSchool students present their research at Urbana City Council meeting

At the Urbana City Council meeting on May 9, students in the Community Data (IS 594) course presented their research on how communities are reducing gun violence. According to their instructor Chamee Yang, postdoctoral research associate with the iSchool, Community Data Clinic, and Just Infrastructures Initiative, the new course was designed as an experiential learning opportunity with a community engagement component, where students could gain research experience with real-world implications. Throughout the Spring 2022 semester, students worked in groups to explore community-driven approaches to prevent gun violence.

Chamee Yang, Sarah Unruh, and Gowri Balasubramaniam

Dinh defends dissertation

Doctoral candidate Ly Dinh successfully defended her dissertation, "Advances to Network Analysis Theories and Methods for the Understanding of Formal and Emergent Structures in Interpersonal, Corporate/Organizational, and Hazards Response Setting," on May 19.

Ly Dinh

New project to improve health of patients with kidney failure

There are approximately 600,000 individuals in the U.S. who are undergoing hemodialysis (HD) therapy for kidney failure. In hemodialysis, a machine filters wastes, salts, and fluid from the blood when an individual's kidneys are no longer healthy enough to do this work adequately. While lifestyle changes such as getting more exercise and making better nutritional choices would benefit HD patients, they are not popular with patients—leading to poor health outcomes. A new project, led by Assistant Professor Jessie Chin, aims to boost HD patients' commitment to exercise through a long-term motivational interviewing conversational agent (LotMintBot).

Jessie Chin

Emano receives grant for Timebanking project

BS/IS student Luke Emano has been selected as a recipient of a Research Support Grant for his project, "Time is Value: Exploring the Barriers of Scalability for Timebanks." The award, worth $1,000, is sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Luke Emano

iSchool researchers present at CHI 2022

iSchool faculty and students will present their research at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2022), which is structured as a hybrid-onsite conference from May 2-5 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The annual conference brings together researchers and practitioners who have the overarching goal of making the world a better place with interactive digital technologies.