As I’ve worked my way through The Politics of Women’s Culture, which began, in part, as my dissertation in 1993 (gulp) the emergence of digital data has made things possible that I never could have imagined.

While I have long had the “sense” that the language used by the women I studied (the discourse they produced) was heavily influenced by their 19th century self-identified foremothers, google ngram and “big” data has revealed to me just how strongly they “spoke” the language of the 19th century.
Phrases like female sensibility, women’s culture, (and their variants female culture and women’s sensibility) abound in descriptions of women’s culture. Ngram shows just how old those phrases are.

Female sensibility by far and away oldest and most prevalent.  Note the spikes at the beginning of the 19th century, just as discourses about the emancipation of women began and then again in the 1960s.

I’m fascinated by the grammar of liberation here and the seeming small shifts between female culture, women’s culture, feminist culture

Female culture, (I believe) an attributive adjective in which femaleness (biology) an identity modifies culture

Women’s culture, attributive noun in which a group possesses culture (so then subculture)

Feminist culture, both an attributive adjective and an attributive noun in which ideology or an adherent of that ideology defines culture (so then political culture)

Running google ngram from 1760 to 2008

Lovely so far, and I’m now envisioning a sort of article mining “big data” via Ngram that would allow me to write about this transition. Then it all falls apart.  Here are the problems I encountered. The graph is disingenuous. I’d already run each search separately so I knew that female culture older than the 1800-1840 emergence that appears on the relational graph

Google ngram found a 1763 poem on education by one James Elphinston(e) as the earliest usage of “female culture.”

However, it also located a “1776” issue of the “Spectator” that the page scan makes clear bears the incorrect date (perhaps 1976) as the article makes reference to the Holland Tunnel (and has a crossword puzzle!).

An article on “The State of Female Education and Knowledge In Europe” from October 1798 The Scots magazine contains the first usage Ngram finds in the sense that I mean by female culture

From the graph it appeared the women’s culture came in somewhere between 1840-1880, so diving into that section of the data I found a novel of 1860 Harrington: a story of true love an “abolitionist’s novel” by William Douglas O’Connor (apparently best known as a champion of W. Whitman) in which a young man delivers the following passage

At all events, I am quite sure that you will see grander and more womanly women, and an increase of social happiness, when a vigorous muscular training is made part of women’s culture.

Similarly the graph is so flat for feminist culture that I could only hazard a guess as where to dive into the results, starting at the beginning of the 20th century (working off Cott’s grounding of modern feminism)

Rudolph and Amina: or, The black crook (1930)

it is even of some scholarly importance as it foreshadowed the eventual break-up of the Germanic feudal system and the dawn of modern feminist culture.

However as I rummage around I find that there was a “a melodramatic musical spectacle” of the same name, so perhaps Morely was writing about the play?

I found also a 1935 article in Sociology and Social Research that seems to uses feminist culture in a slightly different way

the conviction still remained that while the feminist culture pattern is known through feminist personalities in imperfect agreement and limited in their official expressions

In another document which claims to contain the phrase “feminist culture” I click on it only to find
in 1943 an extremely contemporary usage of feminist culture

Interviewer: How might you see the Irish, specifically Irish women, I suppose, defining the feminist culture in Ireland? Boland: There is no feminist culture in Ireland. I think you have to be clear about that. There is no feminist

In fact it seems so contemporary I google Boland to come up with a living poet. Hhhmm, more googling reveals that the journal has been around since 1912 and is available on Jstor. Hitting Jstor reveals again the google books dates are not to be trusted. The quote is from 1992 not 1943-44

An Interview with Eavan Boland Deborah McWilliams Consalvo Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 81, No. 321 (Spring, 1992), pp. 89-100

I then check the period from 1941-1945 which is when Google craps it. It returns an astounding 491 results which as I page through I find even more errors, a reference to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics in a work supposedly form 1950, although when I click on it the correct date of 1981 appears, and then Google, apparently aware that I’m checking up,  refuses to page through the remaining results.

Continuing my yearly search I get zero results, although google then defaults for searching the two words in proximity revealing the tantalizing snippet, supposedly from 1953

A feminist poetics from any ideological or theoretical perspective always contests the limitations of the “universal voice” which threatens to erase, marginalize or discount the cultural participation of women

When I click through this reveals itself also to be mis-dated as well. Googling finds that the article in question is from Talisman Nos. 23-26, 2002.  The next hit I get is also mis-dated, which is when I decided to give up on the idea of mining via Google Ngram.  I suppose their might be a way to clean up the data, and I do think that the larger trend represented by the comparative Ngram is useful, but I don’t know that a sound scholarly article could be based on it.

addenda: after confirmation that I hadn’t just effed up Ngram by the fine folks at the Center for Scholarly Communication Digital Curation, Northwestern University Library (@NU_CSCDC), I decided to run searches  on Women and Social Movements (which gave too few hits for everything but “women’s culture” and “sensibility” unmodified) and the New York Times.”female culture” the first of which occurred in reporting on the Buchanan Inauguration 1857.   “the possession of these female arts and science of female culture” in extolling the virtues of the New First Lady a second in an 1880 London art review, and then nothing until the 1960s.  Female sensisbility first appeared in conjunction with Virginia Woolf in  1948 (review by Diana Trilling) and then not again until the 1960s.  Women’s culture first mention ed reveals itself to be The Young Men and Women’s Culture society of a religious organization.  Clearly the Times neither starts early enough, nor is interested enough in women to serve as an adequately replacement for google books, while Women and Social Movements, which has about 250,000 digitized pages is probably too narrowly focused.

Update 2
@ted_underwood kindly emailed me the ngram which reveals the typographically limitations that @benmschmidt initially alerted me to.