The tomboy conjures an image of a girl in overalls and baseball hats, wearing short hair and nondescript shoes. She probably isn’t into Barbie. When the term “tomboy” first appeared, in the mid-16th century, it actually was a name for male children who were rude and boisterous. But by the 1590s, the word underwent a shift toward its current, feminine usage: a “wild, romping girl, [a] girl who acts like a spirited boy.”
Many girls, of course, exhibit both girly and tomboy traits, and the infinite shades in between. Nevertheless, the tomboy is an overlooked part of how American society understands gender, race, class, and sexuality. And as attitudes toward all those categories change and evolve, the relevance and appropriateness of the tomboy label is uncertain.
* * *
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tomboy was everywhere, dovetailing with both women’s suffrage and first-wave feminism. But the tomboy’s popularity was confined to a specific demographic: middle and upper-class white women.
Tomboyism became pervasive in the United States in the mid- to late-1800s. In her book Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History, Michelle Ann Abate explains that the tomboy was a widespread literary trope in this period. And while today’s take on the tomboy is likely to be progressive—bucking of gender norms, encouraging gender exploration, and so forth—the Victorian tomboy didn’t embody any of these traits.