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American Tomboys

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American Tomboys, 1850-1915

By: Renée Sentilles

Audio Interview

Revisit a conversation between Renée Sentilles and Vanessa Hildebrand about Sentilles' book, American Tomboys, 1850-1915. You can listen here. This discussion originally appeared as Episode 2, Season 8 of the SHCY podcast. Renée M. Sentilles is the Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. Vanessa Hildebrand is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University.

This review appeared in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 12, no. 3 (Fall 2019): 499-501.

American Tomboys, 1850–1915.
By Renée Sentilles.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018. xviii + 258 pp. Cloth $90, paper $26.95.

American Tomboys, 1850–1915 is a rich addition to the growing scholarly literature on childhood and youth, and in particular, on girlhood. Whereas previous studies have focused on the tomboy in fiction, American Tomboys aims to expand our consideration of this figure in a wide array of cultural forms, such as diaries, newspapers, sociological texts, and medical and prescriptive literature. As Sentilles explains, the book is “as much about the culture that created the tomboy as it is about the figure herself” (1).

Chapters accordingly focus on the tomboy in domestic fiction and dime novels, on the tomboy as a precursor to the New Woman, on the cultural idealization of boyhood as it applied to girls, and on the invention of the American girl as a type. Along the way, we encounter the rise of coeducation, athletics such as bicycling, the establishment of the Girl Scouts, and, of course, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

While some of this territory has been covered in previous studies, American Tomboys makes an original contribution to this scholarship in its attunement to the broader historical context that shapes gender. Indeed, what is perhaps most surprising about American Tomboys is that the tomboy emerges as a curiously conservative figure. Far from a queer presence or butch forerunner, the tomboy discussed in these pages is often a containment device, a cultural emblem, even an ideal, that channels excess and deviant energies and desires into appropriate forms of womanhood. As Sentilles puts it, “the tomboy emerged from the popular culture of the Civil War period to become the archetypal American girl by the end of the Progressive Era” (1).

Sentilles thus forces us to rethink any idealistic celebration of tomboys as inherently rebellious or challenging to the status quo. Indeed, as one antebellum article notes, the tomboy is a kind of “escape valve,” an opportunity for girls to express their boyish and deviant impulses before committing to respectable womanhood. Many social theorists, particularly by the end of the century, even believed the tomboy was a crucial stage of successful female development, a guarantor of a robust, fertile womanhood, rather than an alarming symptom of nascent homosexuality. As Sentilles shows, the “ideals of healthy and girlish spunk” dovetailed with the imperatives of eugenic feminism and social Darwinism, and white middle-class tomboys were thus imbricated in the project of white nation building (81). Most girls of color did not have the privilege of violating gender norms, making the tomboy category a white one and reminding us of the extent to which the scripts for childhood are always racialized.

While I appreciated its wide scope, American Tomboys at times seemed too capacious, as the tomboy ends up embodying every cultural shift that occurred between the antebellum period and the turn of the century, from the closing of the frontier to the rise of consumerism. And the definition of the tomboy occasionally becomes fuzzy: any girl who plays outside? A girl who wears boyish clothing? An athletic girl? Any girl who disrupts conventional femininity? Part of this ambiguity stems from the book’s slippage between representation and reality, between tomboys in the pages of fiction and the expressions of their real-life counterparts who left diaries and letters. This tension is fruitful, as it suggests the stakes for defining gender and the contest between adult desires and those of children, but a more explicit engagement with the disparity between these kinds of sources would have been helpful.

As much an age category as a gender category, the term “tomboy” here signifies a developmental stage, a temporary break from femininity, a short-lived period of reprieve from entrenched gender expectations. As Sentilles writes, “The age of the tomboy is what makes her adorable if she is under twelve, interesting in early adolescence, problematic in late adolescence, and downright dangerous in adulthood (especially if she remains unmarried)” (71). And while Sentilles makes the argument that the tomboy gives rise to the New Woman, I wondered about the “problematic” and “dangerous” tomboys, who are largely missing from these pages.

Sentilles’s coda gestures to the new paradigms and new language for gender that have emerged in the twenty-first century, reminding us that the history of tomboys is ongoing. American culture continues to grapple with girls who refuse the still-limited terms for gender performance available to them, making it crucial to have histories like American Tomboys to provide a genealogy of such struggles for self-definition and resistance.

Sari Edelstein
University of Massachusetts, Boston

About Renée Sentilles

Renée M. Sentilles is the Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate students in American social and cultural history with an emphasis on gender, region, age, and women’s history.  She is the author of Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge, 2003) and American Tomboy, 1850-1915 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018), as well as several articles. She is currently writing a book tentatively titled In Her Shoes: Getting to the Sole of American Women’s History, that uses pictures of historic shoes to get into stories of women’s history.  She has lived and traveled all over the United States and now lives in Cleveland Heights, OH.

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.