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.