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Sarah Churchwell: 'Time' waits for no woman

Time magazine has named its 2010 "Person of the Year" – the individual judged by the editors to have most influenced the world over the past 12 months. Despite its readers having voted for Julian Assange by an overwhelming majority, Time's editors chose Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, calling him "The Connector" – "for creating a new system of exchanging information; and for changing how we all live our lives".

Zuckerberg may have done that – although this is open to dispute, especially by those of us who find Facebook easy to resist – but he has not, evidently, changed Time's criteria: Zuckerberg is the 75th man to be selected in 84 years.

Nor does this even mean that nine women have managed to win: "The Computer" was picked in 1982, "The Endangered Earth" in 1988, and "You" were chosen in 2006. Named women have featured on a grand total of six covers in 84 years, and only three times have individual women won on their own: Wallis Simpson in 1936, the Queen in 1952 and Corazon Aquino in 1986.

The other female winners, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek (1937) and Belinda Gates (2005), accompanied their husbands or other women. In 1975, "American Women" tout court were judged the most influential person – and it only took around 100 million or so of them to be noticed. Since then, we have been forgotten all over again. Not until 1999 did Time change the honour's title from "Man of the Year" to "Person of the Year" and, ironically, of the 13 covers since then only two have included females, unless we include "You".

But blaming Time for sexism would also be shooting the messenger: no doubt it's true that since 1927 men – primarily white men – have had far more influence upon the world stage than have women. Looking at the list of the people Time has selected, from Charles Lindbergh to Adolf Hitler, from Richard Nixon to George W Bush, from Martin Luther King Jnr to Ayatollah Khomeini, what becomes clear is how difficult it is to locate milestones along the global trudge toward women's equality. Nearly all of the women who have ever won have found their route to influence through domestic or dynastic corridors: only the 2002 "Whistleblowers" cover, featuring three women who took on Enron, the FBI and Worldcom, could be said to honour women for "achievements" that were not in clear ways bound up with their relationships to powerful men.

In explaining their choice, the magazine's editors emphasised Zuckerberg's youth: at only 26 he is younger than any winner except the first, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh. Zuckerberg is also, by no coincidence, very, very rich. The majority of 20th-century winners were national leaders and politicians, whereas Zuckerman becomes the fourth winner since 1999 to be the CEO of a multibillion-dollar US corporation. That is the true way in which Zuckerberg reflects how our lives are changing: the shift of global power not from men to women, or from white to non-white, or even from America to other nations, but the rise and consolidation of corporate global might in the hands of a few men, alongside gestures toward the democratisation of power that seem ever less convincing.

If Zuckerberg wins for "creating a social entity almost twice as large as the US", in 2006 we were told "You" won for similar reasons: "The World Wide Web became a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter"; it showed "the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing... that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes." Heady words, but judging by the rich, powerful men who've won each year since then – Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke and Zuckerberg – the more the world changes, the more it stays the same.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia