This episode of the “Stuff Mom Never Told You” podcast provides a supplement to the Keywords essay on the history and etymology of “tomboy.” One aspect of tomboyism that the Keywords essay didn’t mention is that of the friendship between “tomboy” girls and “sissy” boys. Christen Conger and Caroline Ervin, the hosts of the podcast, argue that these friendships can be read as “[foreshadowing] contemporary queer interpretations of tomboys as proto-lesbians and sissies as proto-gay men. Their friendship does not contain an erotic charge.”(Conger and Ervin)
This doesn’t quite fit the relationship between Jo and Laurie, especially given the awkward proposal which reveals his long-held romantic feelings for her. These characters both grew up to fulfill their expected gender roles, as evidenced by their respective heteronormative marriages, as well the fact that Jo is no longer described with adjectives hinting at her masculinity. This goes along better with the 19th century conception of the “tomboy” as a “preparatory stage for [heteronormativity].” (Abate, 221) I also noticed that various characters keep commenting on the fact that Laurie, though a refined young man, is not a dandy. “Dandy” could be considered the grown-up version of “sissy,” that is, men who are interested in things that are traditionally associated more with femininity than with masculinity.
In the Keywords essay, Abate raises the question: can we read “tomboy” as a trans identity? In the historical context of Little Women, “trans” as an identity category didn’t exist. When Jo talks about wishing she were a boy, we can’t exactly project a contemporary understanding of “transgender” onto her. What we can do is look at how Jo embodies “masculinity” and “femininity,” and what those terms mean in the historical and cultural context. We can also look at Laurie’s masculinity and femininity.
The 19th century saw a shift in society, as scientists in a wide range of fields felt the need to divide humans into gendered and racialized categories. They did not distinguish gender expression from sexuality (the terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” were not used until the late 1800s). Tomboy has historically been associated with gender identity (which, in the 19th century, was inextricable from sexuality- the podcast alludes to this when they talk about the history of the term “sissy”). In 1895, a physician named James B Weir, Jr., wrote that the “mild form [of physical and psychological aberrances was the tomboy] who abandons her dolls and female companions for the marbles and masculine sports of her boy acquaintances.” (Behling, 47) Weir was writing about how suffragists were too masculine, and how women’s suffrage would lead to society’s downfall. The scale ranged from “tomboy” to “the most aggravated form of viraginity… homo-sexuality.” Here we see the conflation of gender expression and sexuality, which still exists today, though much of contemporary Western society is beginning to move towards understanding gender and sexuality as separate.
Does “tomboy” mean anything today, in whatever wave of feminism we’re in? Some feminists today find the term outdated, with sexist implications, as evidenced by this op-ed from the feminist publication Bust Magazine. I think the term is useful in looking at historical context. “Tomboy” has had so many different meanings in its different iterations. The “tomboy index” referenced in the podcast was from a study done in 1996- a different historical moment than the one we’re in now, especially in terms of thinking about gender identity. They also mention a study done by Besty Levonian-Morgan here at UW in 1998 on the generational shift of the use of the term “tomboy,” as well as “tomboy-like behaviors.” Both of these studies were done about twenty years ago, at a time when the feminist, queer, and trans movements were in very different places than they are now.
Abate, Michelle Ann. “Tomboy.” In Keywords for Children’s Literature, edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1986.
Behling, Laura L. The Masculine Woman in America, 1890-1935. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Conger, Christen and Caroline Ervin. “Why Are Some Girls Called Tomboys?” from Stuff Mom Never Told You: The Podcast. Published January 30, 2013.
Connors, Catherine. “I Refuse to Call My Daughter a Tomboy. Here’s Why.” Bust Magazine, March 2, 2016.