Although the rise of feminism and the advent of queer theory make tomboyism seem like a relatively contemporary phenomenon, the concept originated in the sixteenth century. Interestingly, the term “tomboy” initially referred to rowdy gentlemen courtiers rather than boisterous young women. The first listing in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), from 1533, defines “tomboy” as a “rude, boisterous or forward boy.” Several decades later, in the 1570s, the term shifted from characterizing a spirited young man to a like-minded young woman. In so doing, it also acquired newfound sexual associations and age coordinates. “Tomboy” lost the innocently playful connotations it had possessed when it referred to an actual boy; it now began to signify a “bold and immodest woman.” Finally, in the late 1590s and early 1600s, the term underwent a third transformation, morphing into its current usage: “a girl who behaves like a spirited or boisterous boy; a wild romping girl.”

While North Americans commonly see tomboyism as a transnational or cross-cultural concept—as young girls who enjoy climbing trees and playing sports can presumably be found throughout the world—it is distinctly Anglo-American. An array of languages, including Spanish, French, and Dutch, do not have the term, while others, like German with its concepts of backfisch (which literally translates as “baked fish” but idiomatically refers to a rebellious and rambunctious girl) or trotzkopf (which means stubborn or pig-headed) have only rough equivalents. The geographic particularity of tomboyism calls attention to the relationship of this code of conduct to issues such as Anglo-European identity, gender roles in the West, and American and British nationalism.

Tomboyism as both a concept and a cultural phenomenon may date back to the Renaissance, but it did not become prevalent in Great Britain until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Both Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay advocate for an approach to raising young girls that can be seen as encouraging tomboyishness. In Letters on Education (1790), Macaulay urges new parents: “Let your children be brought up together; let their sports and studies be the same; let them enjoy, in the constant presence of those who are set over them, all that freedom which innocence renders harmless, and in which Nature rejoices.” The concept also appears in diaries, journals, and letters from the period. Deborah Simonton (2005) has found instances of young girls explicitly referring to themselves as being a “tom-boy” in documents written as early as 1760.

The appearance of tomboyism in the United States occurred even later, in the nineteenth century. Adolescent girls and adult women who engaged in behavior that could be characterized as tomboyish certainly existed in both the literature and culture of these nations prior to this period; however, these individuals neither considered themselves nor were labeled by others as “tomboys.” If such bold and daring female figures were called anything, it was “hoyden,” a word which is commonly—although somewhat problematically—seen as a precursor to “tomboy.” First appearing in the late sixteenth century, the term shares a similar etymological history: it also initially referred to rambunctious boys and men rather than girls and women. Indeed, the OED provides the following definition, from 1593, for “hoyden”: “A rude, ignorant, or awkward fellow; a clown, boor.” By the late seventeenth century, however, this meaning shifted and the word began referring to like-minded members of the opposite sex: “A rude, or ill-bred girl (or woman): a boisterous noisy girl, a romp.” Unlike a tomboy, a hoyden was more closely associated with breaching bourgeois mores than female gender roles. As an entry in the OED from 1676 notes, a hoyden “calls people by their surnames,” is “ungainly in her Behaviour,” and is “slatternly ignorant.” When the concept of “tomboy” made its debut during the mid-nineteenth century, it supplanted “hoyden.” After 1886, in fact, the OED includes no new definitions of, or textual referents to, the latter term.

While “tomboy” may have eclipsed “hoyden,” it also expanded on it, for this new code of conduct crystallized around a different set of cultural anxieties and served a vastly different societal purpose. Tomboyism is most commonly associated with the realm of gender, but it is also powerfully raced and classed. Emerging in the mid-nineteenth century as a product of growing concerns over the deplorable state of health among middle- and upper-class white women, tomboyism was created as an alternative and even antidote. Concerned that weak and sickly young girls would become weak and sickly wives who would produce even more weak and sickly children, advice writers during the 1840s and 1850s began to recommend active and unfettered girlhoods. As Sharon O’Brien (1979) has written, “[T]he rowdy tomboy would make a better wife and mother than her prissy, housebound sister… for participation in boyish sports and games would develop the health, strength, independence, and competence she would later need as a wife and mother.” Calling for sensible clothing, physical exercise, and a wholesome diet, tomboyism would improve the strength and stamina of the nation’s future wives and mothers and, by extension, their offspring. In this way, tomboyism was more than simply a new child-rearing practice or gender expression for adolescent girls in the United States; it was also a eugenic practice, a means to help ensure white racial supremacy. In the words of O’Brien (1979) once again, child-rearing manuals asserted that girls who were raised as tomboys “would surely develop the resourcefulness, self-confidence, and, most importantly, the constitutional vibrancy required for motherhood.” In this way, while tomboyism is commonly seen as challenging or, at least, standing in opposition to heteronormativity, it was introduced in the 1840s and 1850s as a preparatory stage for it. Young girls embraced this new code of conduct not as a means to transgress their adult roles as wives and mothers, but, on the contrary, to train for them.

The wildly popular central character Capitola Black from E. D. E. N. Southworth’s 1859 novel The Hidden Hand, who helped launch tomboyism in the nation’s literature and culture, offers a powerful example of the original eugenic purpose of this code of conduct. Capitola’s tomboyish bravery, daring, and autonomy do not turn her against either men or marriage. Whereas latter-day tomboys frequently proclaim that they dislike boys and will never marry, Southworth’s gender-bending character makes repeated reference to her intention of getting married in general and being betrothed to childhood friend Herbert Greyson in particular.

If Cap is eager to get married, many men are eager to wed her. Rather than being repulsed by her physical strength or emotional fortitude, they find these qualities attractive. Impressed by her pluck and amazed by her independence, male characters ranging from the admirable Herbert Greyson and Major Warfield to the villainous Craven Le Noir and Black Donald fall in love with her. Craven swoons at the sight of Cap’s “flaming cheeks,” Black Donald speaks of her complimentarily as a “brick,” and the cantankerous Old Hurricane concedes that the capricious young woman is his favorite.

Given that tomboyism was designed by doctors, parents, and authors of child-rearing manuals to be adopted by youthful girl participants, narratives intended for a largely middle-class female readership used their young female protagonists to present the benefits of tomboyism and persuade young girls to adopt it. From the title character in Mary J. Holmes’s ’Lena Rivers (1856) to the unruly Nancy Vawse in Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850), female figures who displayed the tomboyish traits of athleticism, adventurousness, and autonomy began to emerge in the domestic and sentimental novels written by women and directed at both adult and child audiences.

While it is commonplace to refer to tomboyism as a singular and static classification, it is actually far more fluid and multivalent. As Lynne Yamaguchi and Karen Barber note (1995), the term “tomboy” may connote “a virtually uniform picture of a girl who—by whatever standards society has dictated—acts like a boy,” but how one defines a “transgression into boys’ territory” differs for every individual because tomboys possess different coordinates of identity: they hail from different historical eras, live in different geographic regions, belong to different racial or ethnic groups or inhabit different socio-economic classes. Gender-bending female characters from the “golden era” of tomboy novels—the period extending from the 1860s through the 1930s—reveal the wide range of possible tomboyish identities. From the wealthy, feminine, and heterosexually alluring Nancy Drew from the mystery series to the poor, plain, and rough-and-tumble title character of Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), they demonstrate that tomboys can embody both masculine and feminine gender expressions, possess a diverse array of familial circumstances, and emerge against the backdrop of urban and rural settings.

Although tomboyism was initially conceived as a beneficial code of conduct that girls adopted as adolescents and maintained throughout their adult lives, this attribute quickly changed. Spurred by increased economic opportunities for women along with the emergence of the field of sexology and the accompanying “discovery” of female homosexuality during the fin-de-siècle, the phenomenon commonly known as “tomboy taming” (O’Brien 1979) was born. Exemplified most famously perhaps by the character of Jo March in Little Women (1868–69), young girls were now expected to slough off their tomboyish traits—ideally by choice but, if necessary, by force—when they reached the beginning of adolescence or the onset of puberty. Indeed, Jo’s sister Meg scolds her in one of the opening pages of the novel, “You’re old enough to leave off boyish tricks and behave better, Josephine. It didn’t matter so much when you were a little girl; but now you are so tall, and turn up your hair, you should remember that you are a young lady.”

For tomboys who were unwilling to abandon their tomboyish ways and embrace more feminine gender and sexual roles voluntarily, a popular literary method for compelling them to do so was the onset of life-threatening illness or injury. Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872) largely established the paradigm. In the opening chapters of the novel, twelve-year-old Katy Carr “tore her dress every day, hated sewing, and didn’t care a button about being ‘good.’” But, as Elizabeth Segel (1994) notes, the punishment for her gender disobedience “is an injury to her back that keeps her bedridden and in pain for four years.” By the time her injury heals, the young girl has sloughed off her tomboyish independence. By the end of both What Katy Did and Little Women, these tomboyish characters who had formerly thought about forgoing marriage and pursuing a professional career have abandoned that dream and become model and—in the case of Jo March, who has both biological and adopted children—even multivalent mothers.

This narrative trajectory for tomboy novels remained firmly in place until the second half of the twentieth century, when the advances made by second-wave feminism, the rise of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer movement, and the emergence of queer theory began offering alternatives. Narratives such as Norma Klein’s Tomboy (1978), Jerry Spinelli’s Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush? (1984), Cynthia Voight’s Jackaroo (1985), and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Riding Freedom (1998) present a tomboy figure who feels pressure to tame her gender-bending ways, but does not completely capitulate to traditional notions of femininity. Some children’s narratives have pushed this thinking further by addressing one final taboo—the link between tomboyism and nonheteronormative gender as well as sexual identities. Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s illustrated reader Tomboy Trouble (1998), for example, resonates with what Judith Butler (1990) famously called “gender trouble.” As I have written elsewhere, the book calls similar attention to the way in which gender is artificial and often even performative.

The eight-year-old main character frequently asserts that the outward, public manifestations of her identity—such as her short haircut, blue jeans, and baseball cap—are not accurate predictors of her internal, biological sex. As a result, these iconoclastic and even queer elements are unreliable indices. As such, they become, like the title of Wyeth’s text indicates and the storyline repeatedly demonstrate, sites of multiple and multivalent forms of trouble. In doing so, Tomboy Trouble ultimately advocates a form of girlhood that transcends the categories of maleness and femaleness. It ultimately places the concept in dialogue with new and emerging categories of queer female identity, namely transgenderism (Abate 2008b).

Tomboyism has broadened from a cultural perspective as well. During the final decades of the twentieth century, both the Anglo-American word “tomboy” and the concept of “tomboyism” began to appear in other countries. In the late 1980s, for instance, anthropologist Ara Wilson (2004) observed that the term “tomboy” was being used by butch lesbians in Southeast Asia. Similarly, around the turn of the millennium, a popular Korean animé figure named Pucca appeared who was explicitly described by the English word “tomboy” on trading cards and merchandise packaging. The presence of these and other elements raises questions about the meaning and purpose of this code of conduct when it assumes an international dimension, and perhaps becomes a force of globalization—that is, when tomboyism is seen as a cultural identity as well as a capitalist “brand” that can be used to sell products around the world. (To name but a few such brands, there are the Colorado-based Tomboy Tools, the TomBoy chain of grocery stores in St. Louis, and the “Tomboy fit” t-shirts at Aeropostale.) In countries where the concept of a tomboy has recently appeared, does this code of conduct constitute a new gender paradigm, or does it simply give name to a behavior that was already extant? What are the societal attitudes about tomboyism, especially in light of the imperialistic nature of Anglo-American culture? Finally, does tomboyism retain its connection to middle- and upper-class women’s eugenics and the maintenance of white racial hegemony when it crosses over into other cultures?

The gradual erosion of essentialist views of gender during the late twentieth century and the accompanying expansion of women’s gender roles called into question the future relevance of the term “tomboy.” In Klein’s Tomboy (1978), the mother of protagonist Antonia “Toe” Henderson announces that the concept of tomboyism assumes that “there’s a certain way girls should act and a certain way boys should act. That’s so old-fashioned!’” Given that it is now routine for girls to wear pants, play sports, and have short hair, it would seem that nearly all young women today could be placed on the spectrum of tomboyishness. As tomboyism enters the twenty-first century, the way that it responds to developments in the areas of queer theory, gender identity, and third-wave feminism will reveal whether it will remain a real and relevant social identity or become an increasingly antiquated idea.

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