Mary Badham as Scout Finch in the 1962 movie
Universal International Pictures
origin story / culture

A Short History of the Tomboy

With roots in race and gender discord, has the “tomboy” label worn out its welcome?
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.
During the 1840s and ’50s, when the abolition of slavery began in the U.K. (the U.S. would follow in the 1860s), social elites became concerned about the physical health of white women due to restrictive clothing and a lack of exercise. Amid fears that white people would become a minority as more immigrants arrived and abolition neared, white women were encouraged to lead more active, outdoorsy lifestyles. The tomboy became a perfect cure for white malaise. It would, in theory, better prepare young white women “for the physical and psychological demands of marriage and motherhood,” as Abate writes, and further ensure that the white race would not die out.
The tomboy showed up everywhere in pop culture in the coming years, in some cases reaffirming white-supremacist ideas. Abate cites Capitola, the tomboy main character in E. D. E. N. Southworth’s 1859 novel The Hidden Hand, as an example. In the novel, Capitola, who is white, chops off her hair and dresses up as a boy to escape a life of dire poverty. Young Cap’s life becomes easier after her transformation, but she continues to treat black characters as poorly as she had when she dressed as a girl. Abate describes a scene in which Capitola threatens to beat her uncle’s slaves if they don’t listen to her, and notes that Capitola frequently insults her black friend, inadvertently demonstrating the ways that tomboyism was a lifestyle that would benefit white women at the continued expense of black people.
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