The Tom-Boy who was changed into a real boy
This story is remarkable in its characterization of the “tom-boy’s” behavior and the decision “to change her sex completely.” The main character’s chief offense was that she “played with all the boys, was so rude, and fond of noise.” Much of the story involves a classic tomboy tale – she follows the boys, joining them at football, tree climbing, jumping, roaming. But most damningly – and the clearest signal of what was to come - she was terrible at sewing. “At works of skill and grace she held the lowest place, and was very far from clever at her stitches, stitches, stitches.” As the story develops, she becomes a boy. "At last she grew so coarse, E'en her voice was rough and hoarse, And her attitudes became so like a boy's, boy's, boy's, That they thought it only right, On a certain Summer's night, To change her sex completely, without noise, noise, noise." Contemporary readers might think of the changes to the voices of young transmen going on testosterone – and further shifts in attitude and deportment that might arise as one grows more fully and comfortably into a male identity. The tale is disconcerting in that it attributes the decision “to change her sex completely” to an anonymous third party. Our lead tom-boy does not have their own voice, though nothing in the story suggests they would oppose this decision.
Sex was signified chiefly through play and labor. And so the answer to turning her into a boy involved work. “So a sailor she was made, And a ship’s captain was paid Quite quietly to take her off to sea, sea, sea; Where for anything I know This said tomboy may be now; And a caution may it prove to you and me, me, me.” This tale is so rich with meaning. First of all, there was ease of movement between and considerable overlap within gendered categories. The tom-boy could become a real boy. The tom-boy was also transgender. And being transgender did not preclude the main character from becoming a real boy. Wow – if only our present culture allowed for such multiple, layered, non-binary representations. If only trans* people were embraced by society and culture as authentic and real. In the nineteenth century, the lack of precise language for describing gender crossing or variance may have created space for people to live beyond gender in ways that we are still fighting for today.
This tale is one of the most light-hearted accounts of gender crossing I have seen. Rather than a caution, it seems like a road map or even reward for the young tomboys – relief, at last! You will not have to renounce your ways once you grow up or hit puberty. Rather, your desire and identity will be affirmed! You will do man’s work and live as a man. It might have been more historically accurate for the tomboy to be sent to work in one the factories popping up all throughout the industrial northeast rather than to sea, but the centuries-old tradition of young boys and girls passing as boys and going to sea provided an easier and less threatening ending. It anchored the tale in the past rather than the present. Furthermore, it foregrounds that which brings about an end to childhood – work. It is all fun and games to “play” like a boy but the gendered division of labor was a real thing. This tale (and the next one as well) show how sexual difference was a chief organizing principle of labor. Our tom-boy was able to live as a real boy chiefly because they were able to secure men’s work.