I’m using “gender” in the now-accepted usage meaning “societal roles,” as distinct from biological sex. I see almost everyone on both sides acting as if traditional American society has only two genders, and I don’t think this is right. It’s at least half-wrong, anyway. Because since its inception, American society has always had a third gender option for women, and I think this is true for all anglophone cultures for several centuries now. I speak, of course, of the tomboy.
Tomboys are not expected to behave like feminine girls at all. They play with boys toys, they wear boy clothes, the talk with boys vocabulary, and their primary peer group is male children. They sometimes have a hard time gaining acceptance with the local boys, depending on the region, but often find a way to gain acceptance and are included in boys games and rough housing. Other girls find tomboys odd and off-putting and don’t socialize much with them.
Upon reaching puberty many tomboys are reluctantly forced into feminine peer groups, but even so, many stay distinctly separate in demeanor and activity choices throughout life. They repair cars and don’t take shit, etc. You know the stereotype, if you live in an anglophone country you’ve met one.
I don’t think people realize this is a third gender, because this social role has been around for far longer than the idea that “gender” means “social role” has been around. Most people still equate gender with sex, and tomboys are overwhelmingly female. But its pretty easy to identify the female-bodied people who are feminine-gendered and those who are tomboys within just a few minutes of conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that, many are apparent from dress, attitude, and stance. Perhaps I’m overestimating how easy it is, I may have unconsciously developed the skill since I’m personally attracted far more to tomboys than any other gender. But I’d wager most Americans can discern between the two very quickly, as we run into so many of both types.
I believe that the presence of the tomboy gender is why clothes that were traditionally only worn by men (most famously trousers, but pretty much every man-gendered clothing) are acceptable clothing for women. The prevalence of tomboys moved male-clothing into ok-for-both-sexes territory, and the feminine-gendered benefited by this. There is no equivalent socially-accepted alternate gender for males, so the same thing never happened to women-gendered clothing, and thus it still looks “funny” for a man to wear a dress.
There are interesting parallels between tomboys and the Samoan fa’afafine. First, both genders are basically restricted to a single sex. Secondly, both are named for the sex that its members feel comfortable with, in contrast to their own sex. Ie: fa’afafine comes from fa’a–, meaning “in the manner of”, and the word fafine, meaning “woman”. Tomboy comes from the English name “Tom,” which around the 16th century was such a common boy’s name that it came to be interchange for the word “boy.” “Tomcat” means “male cat” for example. So tomboy emphasizes just how boyish the girl is, so much so that the gender-name means boy twice. And finally, both genders are given the pronouns of their sex. So fa’afafine use the male pronouns (English equivalent of he/him) and tomboys use the female pronouns (she/her). (Note that I DO NOT have much knowledge of the Samoan culture or the fa’afafine gender, so these could be entirely surface-level similarities without much substance)
Much like the metaphorical fish that doesn’t notice the water it’s swimming in, Anglophone societies simply didn’t notice that there is a third gender within them. By the time the term “gender” began to mean what it does now, the two female genders had already been around for centuries, and no one really bothered to think of them as separate genders. They were both just “ways to be a girl.” But it very much seems to me that we have been, in fact, living with three genders all this time.
Or am I missing something? This is somewhat tentative, and I’m curious as to what others think about this.