The first person to call me a tomboy was Cathy Lidisky.
“Me and Sandy are tomboys, aren’t we?” she said, as if sure of my agreement. We were in sixth grade on the playground, in our green plaid Catholic uniform jumpers. I said nothing – as the child of a perpetually angry father I was good at that – but inwardly I fumed.
As a kid I was a natural athlete who loved sports but I violently objected to the word tomboy on the straightforward grounds that my name was not Tom and I was not a boy, ergo tomboy was a stupid word that did not apply. That didn’t stop people from continually trying to apply it to me, though, which eventually forced a more nuanced consideration of my hatred of the word.
As Bustle magazine points out in a recent article, the etymology of tomboy is actually a reference to an actual boy – a boy not behaving according to expectations. If not a bad boy, then an improper one. So the transference of the term from boys to girls was less about finding a cute term to refer to a girl who excels at sports like boys (supposedly) do, and more about shaming that unexpected behavior as bad…about naming and putting improperly behaved girls in their place.
The dictionary defines a tomboy as “a girl who enjoys rough, noisy activities traditionally associated with boys.” And there, right there in the definition, is the source of my real anger at the word tomboy: it’s that “activities traditionally associated with boys” that gets my goat. As if all the good stuff is reserved for boys, a forever club that excludes girls. As if I should be expected to give up sports and rollercoasters and jumping off the high dive at Turner’s Public Pool or else be branded a “tomboy” which, to my ears, translated as “ungirl” or “not quite girl enough”.
What irked me most about tomboy applied to girls was the way it gave boys automatic credit for being athletes, and diminished girls for having the same capabilities. Being an athlete was a good thing – if you were a boy. If you were a girl, it clearly was not a good thing – you were labeled a sub-standard kind of boy and a sub-standard kind of girl, all with one stupid word: tomboy.
The Urban dictionary asserts that tomboys tend to hang out and get along with boys. This applied to me, not by tendency or choice, but by Catholicism which frowns on birth control and is characterized by large families like the ones in my neighborhood.
I grew up in a sea of brewing testosterone – one next door neighbor had five sons, the other, two. Across the street a family of five boys, up the street families with two boys each included the Roths and the Taylors, the Museks and the Tweedys (not that Tweedy). Not to mention my own brother, two years older. There were exactly four girls in a mile radius – that was it. So I grew up playing games and sports with boys until the age they didn’t want me around anymore – not in their private forts where they were probably looking at stolen girlie magazines, and not in their games, where I could out-hit, outrun and out-throw any one of them, any day.
But I didn’t care because just as often as I wanted to play baseball or street hockey with boys, I wanted to do girlie things as well, like retreat to my bedroom with the yellow walls and flowered bedspread and listen to the Bay City Rollers, spending hours mooning over album covers with the ear phones on. I favored Avon Blushing Pink lip gloss, I wore fragrances like Wind Song and Love’s Baby Soft. I read all Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, every Nancy Drew book ever written, the Anne of Green Gable series (but I also read Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys). I read and re-read Little Women, identifying strongly with Jo, who I also suspect would have been unfairly dubbed ‘tomboy’ had she lived in my era. I had Barbies and liked to try on my mom’s costume jewelry from her double decker green brocade jewelry box with the hinged, mirrored lid. I used strawberry scented shampoo. I had a pet mouse named Socrates. I don’t know if that last is considered ‘girlie’ or not –which I guess is the whole problem. Because I’m a girl, it seemed to me that anything I’d want to do would be ‘girlie’ – a natural tautology, if you will. Accepting the label ‘tomboy’ felt like a rejection of being a girl, when doing the things I loved to do best made me feel like the most powerful girl in the world.
The fact that I could throw a fastball 70 mph by the time I was 17 was just another fact about me, like my brown eyes and brown hair – facts that were part of my girlhood but nothing to do with being a girl, any more than they had anything to do with being a boy, tom or otherwise.
It offended me to be called a ‘tomboy’ because it implied that boys are naturally better at sports – that to be a girl who was good at sports was to be a girl who was therefore like a boy. And this was patently ridiculous: it was clear to me and anyone else with eyes that I was a better athlete than any boy- every boy, of every age – in the neighborhood.
I was banned from playing softball in one of the summer city leagues after pitching an entire season of no hitters. “You’re too advanced,” the league umpire told me in my last game. He was nice about it and I already pitched for three other softball leagues, but I cried anyway. I hated to miss any chance to pitch, to test and hone my skills. He asked me to sign a softball for him. “I’m going to be reading about you someday,” he said, which helped take the sting of outrage out of being ousted from the league. When boys were as good as me, they got headlines in the local sports section.
But what was most enraging about the word tomboy was not the sexism but the diminution: tomboy is a silly word. It does not evoke anything serious. Tomboy suggests cute predilections; it does not evoke excellence or expertise. It does not suggest the majesty of pitching a no-hitter under high stakes pressure, standing in an 8 foot circle under the lights, a thousand eyes on you, a St. Louis newspaper reporter treading the sidelines, all waiting to see if you had it in you… or would you blow it? It certainly doesn’t suggest an average strike out rate of 13 per game, nor a fastball that sometimes topped 85 mph, nor a devastating 3-combination rise ball or an offspeed curving slider that had more than one umpire curse in admiration under his breath right in my catcher’s ear.
There were a couple of girls in that sixth grade class who were athletic – some could do backflips, some could run fast, some could head a soccer ball, or ace a volleyball service. I could do all of them, and I was good at all of them – even the boy sports, like ice hockey and pick-up basketball. And in my particular sport – softball – I was better than everyone, boys and girls. If I sometimes wore my brother’s hand-me downs, it wasn’t because I was more comfortable in boys clothes than girls clothes, it was because we were poor.
I didn’t mind because there was no point in minding it – minding wouldn’t change it. But truth be told I liked the multi-blue striped Beatles-style skinny trousers. Who cares if some stupid department store sold them in the boys section, I knew cool when I saw it, and I looked cool in those pants, way cooler than my brother, who had a tendency to take steps that were a fraction too short, and hated team sports, in all his years of little league only once hitting a home run, in the park and featuring a couple of helpful errors and tripping over home plate in his excitement.
I was different than my brother – I crossed home plate frequently, once stealing home on a pass ball to win a game in extra innings. I was fast and got a good jump and the catcher couldn’t fucking believe I was doing it – you could see it on her face as she turned to chase the ball. I evaded the tag by mere inches with my artful hook slide across the back corner of the plate and the umpire had to scream “SAFE” really loud, twice, arms flung flat and wide because the crowd was more than a hundred parents and kids going completely bonkers there in the stands under the bright night game lights. We were the last game playing in the sprawling Khoury League complex that night, and the players and parents from games that were long over had stayed to watch our nail biter. They carried me off the field and I don’t know what the word is for a natural baller who engineered the win with my speed, my intuitive sense of the game and my daring while smelling of Windsong perfume but I know for sure what that word isn’t, and that’s tomboy.
A tomboy does not throw a change-up pitch so elegant, so devoid of telegraphy it has on more than one occasion brought ambitiously over-swinging batters, including collegiate baseball players, to their knees, as if they wanted to corkscrew themselves right into the dirt with humiliation while I stood on the mound, ponytailed and as professionally expressionless as any hitman ever played by Jonathan Banks.
The word tomboy does not suggest even a whiff of umpires requesting extra chest plates to preside over games with the Girl Pitcher Who Threw So Hard, as I came to be known. When you catch the pitching of a tomboy, you generally don’t need surgery for the bone spurs that develop, which happened to two of my catchers and one of my husbands (I still like to throw from time to time…)
College coaches do not fly in from all over the country to sit in the stands to decide if a tomboy has what it takes to win the school an NCAA Division I championship.
I think Cathy was simply expressing a tribal empathy – we’re tomboys, to her, meant “we’re girls who like doing things – i.e. being active – better than sitting in a circle in the grass making clover necklaces and listening to the popular girls talk smack about other girls and pray it wasn’t your turn next”. I agreed, and sympathized, but I didn’t identify. I just didn’t feel like a tomboy.
I’ll tell you what I did feel like, though, standing there in the pitcher’s circle under the lights, my feet resting on the rectangular rubber flush in the ground, staring down that triumvirate of umpire, batter and catcher crowded together in a space about the size of a front door: I felt powerful and in control. I felt a smug kind of sorry for the batter who would shortly experience the terror of a fastball whizzing inches from her knuckles at totally unthought-of speed. I felt in total communion with my catcher, who could read the size, scope and nature of a batter’s particular fears in her stance. For the ump there was the distant, professional tolerance all business people feel for their imposed regulators. I felt like a badass with a job to do, a job I was good at doing. I felt glad and satisfied with the world, that there was such a specific place in it for a girl like me with the peculiar skill of throwing a ball underhand really really fast.
I felt like the pitcher’s white chalked circle, 8 feet across, was the eye of God, and I stood at the center, a pupil ready to rain a hellfire and brimstone sermon of pitches to the batter quaking nervously in the box.
My dad can be pretty sexist (“Thanks to feminism all the stewardesses are ugly now,” I remember him remarking after a business trip when I was in fourth grade) but about my athletic ability he was never diminishing – the word tomboy would never have occurred to him in a million years. He’d caught me too many times, and we were too poor to be flippant about the possibilities. “Golden Arm” he called me, because if I was going to get to college, it was going to be on the strength of my off-speed curving drop ball  (that struck them out every single time I threw it, no exceptions, ever) which he turned out to be right about – that pitch took me from high school championships, to traveling teams crisscrossing the US, and, eventually, the NCAA and the College World Series.
As I grew older I learned a new reason to hate the word tomboy – I could see how some people used it to mean dyke, which was a word guys used to put down women they thought might be lesbian, women who I couldn’t help noticing generally fell into one of three categories: women who rejected them, or women who they didn’t find conventionally attractive, or women who were better at sports than they.
In college, my roommate Dawn’s boyfriend picked up the Lady Panthers Profile brochure that contained a short bio for each player on the softball team, including key stats: batting average, RBIs, slugging percentage, most home runs against a left handed pitcher, on base percentage, etc. As a pitcher, I was featured in a full page profile. Dawn’s boyfriend played American Legion baseball, so as he perused the pages of stats and made ‘wow would you look at that’ sounds with his breath, I modestly thought he might be noticing my ERA (a sparkling 1.0 in 104 innings pitched) or perhaps my strike out record….(109, more than one per inning) but then he pointed to the profile of our right fielder and said “Who’s this guy?”, cracking up like the stupid jerk he was.
It pissed me off but in his defense, the first time I saw Mo (short for Maureen), at the team meeting before my first season of college courtesy of a softball scholarship, I thought she was someone’s boyfriend, mostly because she was very tall and actually sort of handsome. When she dropped by my dorm one night, the prissy Resident Assistant later scolded me for letting a male visitor roam the halls without an escort. Mo laughed when I told her but I was mad. Mo was pragmatic. “I’ve never been on a date,” she told me. “I’d like for some guy to ask me out, sure….but… “ We both looked at her, all six feet of blocky muscle and super short brown hair (this was decades before Game of Thrones and Brienne of Tarth, whom Mo resembled). I said nothing but cold-shouldered the RA every chance I got.
The Panther Profile booklet found its way to my parent’s house, where a friend of my brother’s paged through it, prognosticating which players ‘weren’t playing on his team’. My irritation at this exercise was in no way mitigated by his utter failure to be correct in a single guess. “I just picked out the ones I didn’t think were attractive,” he laughed. Sure enough Mo was one of them, and I remembered how her face looked when she said she’d never been on a date. Laughing, yes, but maybe a little bit wistful too, and it made me want to put him at the other end of a batting cage and experience the 85mph wrath of my rise ball.
When I told him so, he was genuinely confused. “I didn’t say it about you,” he protested, looking me up and down approvingly. At five foot nothing and barely one hundred pounds, I was frequently asked if I was the scorekeeper, which made me as furious as being called a tomboy. Was there no room in the world for a girl like me?
And that right there, is the main reason I hate the word tomboy – because so many men like my brother’s friend – and men not like my brother’s friend, and women too – use the word tomboy and others like it to reduce women to levels/categories of perceived femininity/sexual desirability. Tomboy, feminine….they are lazy ways to judge a female book by whether or not its cover is ‘female enough’, and the judgement standards are those of men. It’s a message I’ve heard my entire life, and not one I’m about to propagate on any girl with the gift and grit of an athletic and adventurous way of being. Nor should you. Our daughters, our world, deserve better.
And while we’re at it, Wonder Woman should retire the bustier, realizing she’s not really required to be a sex symbol and a superhero, she was just drawn that way.
Tomboy my ass.
(1)I taught myself to throw this pitch after reading a book about the physics of baseball, called aptly enough The Physics of Baseball. There was a sketch that showed how to grip the seams (crossing, not parallel), how to shorten the stride, release a fraction early, follow through with the hand and wrist just so. I added this pitch to the other six pitches I practiced throwing 500 times a day, at least three times per week (but more often, 5-7 times per week) . In the summer I threw to my dad, my brother, my sister…if I knew you, I was going to try to talk you into catching a few pitches. Eventually no one would volunteer so dad built me a contraption that netted my pitches, dropping them harmlessly to the ground. Commercial pitch backs could not handle my fast ball – the pitch would either punch through the net, or propel the device backward, yanking the stakes out of the ground which sometimes flew like deadly spears toward anyone stopping by to chat whilst I grunted through my routine. In the winter I would jump on my bike and ride three miles through biting midwestern cold to the Duncans’ house, where the oldest son was recruited by the Seattle Mariners. Johnny was a pitcher, so the garage was set up with a really nice version of the contraption my dad built – instead of a net, it was like an eight foot thick wrestling mat, with the strike zone outlined in masking tape, rather like the outline of a dead body you see at crime scenes. I would call Mrs. Duncan, let her know when I was coming, and she’d leave the side door to the garage unlocked. The garage was clean but wasn’t heated – it was cold enough for water on the floor to get a scrim of ice on it. I used yellow duct tape to mark around the strike zone the different spots for different pitches – a full count rise ball here, a 3-0 fast ball here, a 0-2 drop ball here. When I’d first start pitching it would be really cold – my breath would puff white vapor clouds and I’d slap my hand against my thigh a lot, trying to tame the extreme stinging of the ball rolling off my stiff fingertips. But as I warmed to the task, it hurt the fingertips less to throw a drop ball, my arm would get limber, and the surface of the mat would become pliable from the heat of my pitches, enough to put me to sleep at the end of the workout, when I leaned against it for warmth. Then Mrs. Duncan would wake me up, offer me something nice like hot chocolate or PB&J, ask me how my workout went, and it was see you next time, three or four times a week, all winter long.
(2) The first time I threw it, the umpire said “Holy mother of god” according to my catcher, Kelly, and I believe her, because the first time I tried the pitch out on her, she said Holy shit only she was from Oklahoma and it came out “Ho-LEEEEE Sheeeeeyit!”