And then I noticed that they were also significantly worse. Somewhat more poorly written, but the worst part was the blatant sexism. The women were much more likely to be annoying: clingy, incompetent, whiny, etc. Men were sometimes outright abusive. I gave up on pre-80s titles after a while.
What's interesting about this is that it's not a question of these 'old' books offending my modern sensibilities. I've read much older material with enthusiasm. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, to give two 19th century examples, wrote great female characters. Heck, Shakespeare wrote some good female characters (although most of his female characters are in relatively minor roles and fairly uninteresting, granted.) I'm not sure why much more recent fare would be so much worse. Maybe it's just that the quality of writing overall is much worse -- after all, a whole lot more writing is stil available from 50 years ago than from 200+, and hence a whole lot more schlock is also out there. Still, I'm hard-pressed to name many good female characters from pre-80s sf/f. Tolkein's Galadriel and Asimov's Susan Calvin come to mind. Tolkein's female characters are few and all in minor roles, but to his credit, what little you do see of women in LotR is generally respectful. Even the ones that aren't protagonists show some strength and determination. Remember Lobelia Sackville-Baggins? Contrast that with the cringe-worthy female roles in early Doctor Who episodes. come to think of it, the Heinlein books I've read (which aren't enough to make a good representative sample) have usually had good female characters.
Still, I'm wondering if whiny and incompetent female characters really were more common in popular early to mid-20th century fiction than in previous centuries, or if selection bias has winnowed out more of the crap from earlier periods. I think there's another factor at work in my impression. I'm not looking for egalitarianism or a lack of gender roles -- that is a pretty recent development in fiction. (And comes with its own pitfalls, like the rise of the omnipotent female character, who is not merely capable but excelling at absolutely everything). Rather, I'm thinking of books that treat women as intelligent and capable within whatever role they're assigned. And generally getting a role that's better than 'the victim in need of rescuing.' :P I'm not sure I'm expressing this very well.
Anyway, I'm curious if other people's impressions are similar or different from my own. What do you think the trends with female characters in fiction have been?