A Short History of a Tomboy

A Short History of a Tomboy
A girl who enjoys rough ,noisy activities traditionally associated with boys

Has the “tomboy” term outlived its welcome, with roots in racial and gender tensions? An Object Lesson is a lesson in which an object is used to teach
By Elizabeth King

In the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch and Mary Badham plays Scout Finch (Corbis Historical / Getty).
5 JANUARY 2017

The term “tomboy” brings up images of a girl dressed in overalls and baseball caps, with short hair and unremarkable footwear. She’s probably not a Barbie fan. When the term “tomboy” first originated in the mid-16th century, it was essentially a moniker for noisy masculine children. However, by the 1590s, the word had taken on a more feminine connotation: a “wild, romping female, [a] girl who acts like a vivacious boy.”

Of fact, many females exhibit both feminine and tomboy characteristics, as well as the countless shades in between. Nonetheless, the tomboy is an underappreciated aspect of how Americans think about gender, race, class, and sexuality. The relevance and appropriateness of the tomboy term is changing and evolving as opinions toward all of those categories change and evolve.

The tomboy was all the rage in the late 19th and early 20th century, coinciding with both women’s suffrage and first-wave feminism. However, the popularity of the tomboy was limited to a narrow demographic: middle- and upper-class white women.

In the mid- to late-1800s, tomboyizm became popular in the United States. Michelle Ann Abate writes in her book Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History that the tomboy was a popular literary trope during this time period.

While today’s tomboy is likely to be progressive—defying gender stereotypes, fostering gender experimentation, and so on—the Victorian tomboy had none of these characteristics.

When slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom in the 1840s and 1850s (the United States would follow in the 1860s), social elites were alarmed.

In the years that followed, the tomboy was omnipresent in pop culture, reinforcing white nationalist ideals in some ways. Capitola, the tomboy protagonist of E. D. E. N. Southworth’s 1859 novel.

The Hidden Hand, is an example, according to Abate. Capitola, a white woman, cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy to flee a life of abject poverty in the story. After her change, Young Cap’s life becomes easier, but she continues to treat black characters as badly as she did when she was a girl.


Although the tomboy has racist roots, the notion has evolved through time. For LGBT girls, the tomboy has been a particularly important identity. For reasons connected to sexuality, psychoanalyst Dianne Elise writes in her 1999 essay “Tomboys and Cowgirls: The Girl’s Disidentification from the Mother” that more lesbians describe having been tomboys in their youth than heterosexual women and girls.

Is a tomboy still a tomboy, or just another way of being a kid, if culture’s idea of girlhood isn’t limited to being “girly”?

Over time, the rebellious tomboy grew in popularity as a cultural symbol. Scout Finch, the inquisitive tomboy character in Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is the narrator, and she is young enough that her sexuality scarcely enters the story.

Instead, she is known for her remarkable intelligence, physical strength, and proclivity for asking probing questions. Jodie Foster then played young tomboy Annabel Andrews in the 1976 film Freaky Friday, an untidy, athletic high schooler who likes playing field hockey and water skiing over fussing with her hair. Annabel’s crush on her is, nevertheless, a significant plot aspect in the comedy.

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