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When All Boys Were Girls

Updated on February 21, 2010

I love history. Why? Because it puts the modern world into context. Too many of us assume that things as they are now are the way that they've always been, always should be and always will be. Spending just two minutes looking at history teaches us valuable lessons about the fickle natures of fashion and the fickle nature of man himself (and herself.) For example, I bet you did not know that at one time, all children were girls.

Now I've piqued your interest and stopped sounding like the creepy cardiganed history teacher with a drone that put you to sleep talking about wars, as if wars were the most important things in human history. (Seriously, far too much importance is placed on war in the study of history. A great deal of other interesting things took place in the past besides men slaughtering each other in interesting and involved ways and, yes, I'm about to get to the point right about now.)

Up until the 15th century, all children, regardless of gender, were referred to as girls. Was there a method for differentiating between male children and female children? Yes. Male children were referred to as 'knave girls', and female children were referred to as 'gay girls'. The term 'boy' was not used to refer to children, instead it referred to a manservant, waiter or some other member of the serving class.

From: Gender shifts in the history of English By Anne Curzan
From: Gender shifts in the history of English By Anne Curzan

How interesting that a term for 'servant' eventually worked its way into the language as being the name for male children, whilst female children ran away with the term 'girl' entirely, along with all the pretty fashion, the lace, the bows, the color pink, all of which were, at one time, more associated with male children than female children.

It's odd, for, as most feminists will assure you, women have been the object of misogyny for centuries, and in many case, still are, yet in so many ways, it would seem that male status has been reduced from debonair, classy and adorned, to being representative of a class of lumbering hulks only suffered to wear itchy grey or black rectangles, father children and run or make war machines. Of course, I over simplify here, but the male gender has undoubtedly lost something of its charm and indeed, its style over the past six centuries.

Nowadays we take it for granted that boys are boys and girls are girls and we assume that it has always been so. Many of us also assume that it has always been that men do not wear dresses or high heels, which only goes to show that many of us are disastrously ignorant.

If you're a man attracted to feminine things, the argument can easily be made (and supported,) that you are not odd or deviant from the norm, instead you are simply seeking the egalitarian status you would have enjoyed 600 years ago.


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      GoneNylon 8 years ago

      Thank-you, Hope.

      I submit that such a state of rootlessness is by design.

      Tribal peoples, people rooted in their own cultures, peoples with extended concepts of "family," are much more difficult to manipulate. Generally speaking, "modern" society has preferred to either disperse them or rub them out entirely rather than run the risk of some sort of uprising. Success comes when peoples re-root or re-discover their commonalities. Gandhi and Dr. King's efforts come most quickly to mind.

      Interestingly, it is in some of those rubbed-out or threatened cultures that we find out most clearly that ideas of gender and role are wholly artificial. Another good reason for "modern" culture to put an end to them, no?

      To a certain extent, you're helping in your own way along these lines. Society prefers that men with gender issues or with an otherwise harmless appreciation for lace, soft fabrics, etc. be neither seen nor heard. In urging the rejection of that narrowed vision, you call to others to stand together, even though great distances may separate them. It may, over time, for society to treat with such people on an even footing. If that happens, the fashion world will shape-shift in ways some folks can only dare dream. One can always Hope.

    • Hope Alexander profile image

      Hope Alexander 8 years ago

      Great addition to the hub, GoneNylon, I did not know that about Hemmingway. It is very interesting to hear. How unfortunate that so much of the past is lost so quickly in the fast paced modern world. So many of us (myself included) sometimes have no idea where we've come from, or indeed, where we are going.

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      GoneNylon 8 years ago


      A great and thought-provoking post, as usual. You continue to plumb the depths of gender trenches long forgotten.

      The realities you reference, in the text as well as the photograph, have not been gone that long. For instance, Ernest Hemingway was born in 1891, a scant 1189 years ago. His mother, Grace Hemingway, dressed Ernest and his sister Marcelline as girls throughout their childhoods. One photo of the two similar to the photo you used to illustrate this post was titled by Grace Hemingway "Summer Girls," with the manly, macho (albeit only in the future) Ernest Hemingway in a dressing matching that of his older sister.

      It should be noted that these were NOT secret or "kinky" photos. They were a mother's treasure. The white euroworld was awash in such gender-bending enterprises.

      As an aside, Hemingway's upbringing is cited by many biographers as having figured in the gender-fluid issues that arise in many of Hemingway's stories and novels.

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      Hope Alexander 8 years ago

      I'm afraid Dena, that's not correct. Women have two X chromosomes. Men have an X and a Y. Whether you are male or female depends on whether the male seed contained an X or a Y chromosome. The female egg is always an X.

      There are some animals that can change gender in the womb, humans aren't one of them.

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      Dena 8 years ago

      In the womb we all start as girls. later then some of us are given a bath of testosterone while in the womb and some are greater than others. We all really do start as girls biologically.

      There is nothing wrong with wanting to return as we once were. The people of earlier centuries understood the relationship far better than we do today.

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      Nanciboy 8 years ago

      From the picture you had with this hub I thought you were going to write something about young boys in dresses. Instead, you got all historical on the changes in language over time. :)

      And to think I was going to comment that my parents repurposed my old bedroom in their home hanging a picture of my grandfather in his christening dress.


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