Art History Department
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington

Tomboys, Girly-girls, & Little Ladies: Challenges and Transitions to Gender Norms in Late-Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American Art

A recent painting by artist Stuart Pearson Wright of a sister and brother whose clothing is similar but whose mannerisms are different sparked my interest in how young girls are presented in art. Focusing on images of childhood femininity by male and female artists in the late- nineteenth through the twentieth century, this paper deciphers how gender norms, especially for white, middle-class girls, were cast and what information they revealed. This exploration of artworks featuring girlhood through historical and social lenses illuminates the changes in rules as young girls’ sense of suppression and constraint paralleled that of the New Woman, who was then wresting freedom from patriarchal control.

Portraits of girly-girls and little ladies exuding feminine traits abound. To a lesser extent are paintings featuring tomboys – energetic and spirited girls who seem unhindered by gender constructs. The demure girl was still prized, while the tomboy (or “new girl”), although shunning societal rules, was tolerated. For many, the tomboy signified a fresh and even vital transitional figure as America moved into the twentieth century. Her ubiquitous figure also reflects twenty-first century mores as gender identities have expanded beyond simple male and female distinctions. In this paper the terms “tomboy,” “girly-girl,” and “little lady” are applied as vehicles for scrutiny of gender roles, and as definitions that reflect the restrictions or liberations allowed for girls and young women.

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