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social sciences

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The word tomboy, like the behavior it designates, has crossed gender and class barriers. At one point in its history it even changed sex.

In the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to a rude or boisterous boy. By the next century, however, it had come to mean "a bold or immodest woman," most likely unchaste. Concurrently, it was also applied to girls who behaved like rowdy boys: wild, rough, and uncouth. By the late 1800s it had come to mean simply a frolicsome girl given to sport and other boyish ways.

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Related words are hoyden--another term that changed sex, by the eighteenth century, from awkward fellow to a boisterous, ill-bred girl--and gamine (of French origin)--a playful or mischievous girl of the streets.

In the United States, the word began appearing in child-rearing advice books after the Civil War. Many recommended exercise and outdoor play for girls in order to inculcate the resourcefulness, competence, and physical health demanded by vigorous motherhood. Sharon O'Brien postulates that this was a response to the emergence of "hysterical" ailments among middle-class women.

In her examination of the tomboy childhoods of temperance activist Frances Willard and writers Willa Cather and Louisa May Alcott, O'Brien cites recurring elements: rural settings; indulgence of one or both parents (or, conversely, parental restrictions in the case of Alcott's lack of success in breaking away); bookishness or academic skills (feeding both ambition and imagination); and a strong childhood wish for notable accomplishment.

It is probably not surprising that sex-role pioneers such as aviators Blanche Stuart Scott and Amelia Earhart, and athletes Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Picabo Street had tomboy childhoods. But so did actresses Charlotte Cushman, Ava Gardner, and Katherine Hepburn, blues singer Gladys Bentley, and New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton.

Once a derogatory slur, the tomboy designation has emerged as an icon of female non-conformance and resiliency.

Tomboyism and Gender

Much of the psychological literature on tomboyism is in the context of studying the relationships of childhood "cross-sex" behaviors and adult homosexuality, , or other gender-related outcomes.

Grellert, Newcomb, and Bentler report a number of associations between sex-typed childhood behaviors and adult sexual orientation, while Whitam and Mathy find such correlations to be comparable in four different societies. Phillips and Over report that while associations between sexual orientation and recalled tomboyism exist, they are not reliable predictors of lesbianism. Kennedy and Davis note the early occurrence of masculine-identified traits among many of the butch lesbians in their study, who felt they were born that way, but not among those who identified as femme.

Whether or not tomboyism is associated with adult lesbianism depends on its definition. Saghir and Robins found a high correlation with lesbianism (70%), but based this both on preference for boys' activities and aversion to girls' activities. When enjoyment of boys' activities is considered alone, the percentage of reported childhood tomboyism among adult women in general is relatively high: 51% to 67% (Hyde, Rosenberg, and Behrman; Mogan).

Studies such as these have established that some degree of tomboy behavior or identification has long been a common feature of girlhood. Hyde, Rosenberg, and Behrman term it an "active thrust" preceding transition to adult passivity. Halberstam, however, considers it "an extended childhood period of female masculinity," and takes a grimmer view than others cited here on the suppression and reorientation of girls' gender diversity at puberty.

Ehrhardt, Grisanti, and McCauley compare the frequency of specific childhood gender-atypical behaviors recalled by female-to-male transsexuals and lesbians and conclude that tomboyism, though prevalent in both groups, is neither an indicator nor a predictor of gender identity confusion. Zucker and Bradley advise those treating gender identity disorders in girls on how to distinguish these from "normal" tomboyism. Rottnek provides an extensive treatment of childhood gender disorder that includes several tomboy perspectives.

Burn, O'Neil, and Nederend argue that tomboy behaviors help girls acquire traits such as assertiveness and self-reliance that become useful in adulthood. Hilgenkamp and Livingston link self-perceptions of being a tomboy with "masculine" traits such as competitiveness and leadership ability, and postulate a correlation with expectations of career success.

There have been some indications--as in the study by Bailey, Bechtold, and Berenbaum--that tomboy behavior, as well as female gender disorder, is linked with mothers' prenatal testosterone levels, but longitudinal data has been difficult to obtain.

Insights from Research on Tomboys

Plumb and Cowan's research illustrates one hazard of studying childhood cross-sex activity. They investigate the greater willingness of girls than boys to cross sex-role barriers, leading to the "destereotyping" of traditionally boys' activities. While girls in their study were asked if they were tomboys (more than half reported yes), the researchers did not ask a comparable question of boys because they could not come up with a corresponding label that was emotionally neutral for them.

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