Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Tomboys and Janegirls

By Cathy Laura Peterson

As I read Paula Gaikowski's “Tomboys and Sissies,” it was so true for me as well, but also quite poignant. Growing up in the ’50s, ’60s and into the ’70s with two older sisters, a younger sister, our divorced mother, all living with our twice divorced Aunt Catherine, let’s just say I was dressed up a lot as my older sisters decided (dictated?) all of our playtime at home.

My earliest memories are about age four and being in dresses and slips but with my own boy underwear. Our mother worked Friday-Saturday-Sunday as a grocery clerk, so dress-up games occurred after she left.  

Our mother’s bedroom was plain and boring. But all four of us dressed up for elaborate games of beauty pageant, school, hospital, beauty parlor or house including going to our Aunt in her lavish, ultra feminine bedroom (think Victorian British country home, flowers, lace, doilies, rugs, lamps, China tea sets, chest of drawers, three-mirror vanity table, elegant four-post bed).

Her response seeing me in dresses was always positive, so along with my three sisters, all I knew was this game is “okay.” And it was Aunt Catherine who first noticed I didn't have on lace tights like my sisters and emphatically said I should and also have “pretty panties” with tights like my sisters, who were happy to do oblige and of course, I simply complied. Again, it was confirmed and was “okay.” 

Auntie was usually smoking a cigarette and reading in her big wingback flowered linen chair wearing foundation garments under a sheer, lacy flowered floor-length robe. She would also dote on each of us at her gorgeous three-mirror vanity table, where we could each choose clip-on earrings from her vast collection. Then she did lipstick for us and a spritz of perfume from a crystal decanter with the beaded spray bulb. She or my sisters put my hair up in a pony tail or pigtails with ribbons and plastic clip-in barettes. Again, all positive reinforcements, so I got very comfortable being dressed almost all weekend. 

Catherine always warned I must be “back in your boy clothes before your mother sees you,” so that’s what we always planned for. But I clearly remember the day our mother left work early and walked into our kitchen around noon to find the four of us all in dresses eating lunch with our Aunt. Her reaction was quite negative, she used the word “sissy” and “pantywaist” in her outrage and took me by the wrist to the living room where I was derided with words like “embarrassing,” “prissy,” “wimpy,”  “humiliating” and “Why are you doing this to me?” It was no longer “okay.”

Thankfully, Catherine intervened. My sisters sat with me as we watched and listened to a heated debate between these two women and it was our Aunt who seems to have won the argument with words I remember: “It’s harmless, “Let them have some fun, “Why should you care, “You could use some fun in your sad life, “There’s not much else to do at home, “They’re all so happy when they play like this and of course, “He likes it and “Look at how cute he looks. Were we back to “okay?”

That particular day ended with an uneasy truce between us kids and our mother as our Aunt  reminded our mother “remember, I took you and your kids in and you’re living in my house. From then on dressing up was always okay, mostly when mother was at work, but now there was license to be dressed up when she was home, too.  

Our Aunt would say, “She’ll just have to deal with it.” Our mother was already quiet, depressed, solemn and distant since her divorce. From then on whenever she saw me fully dressed, she just had a blank expression, no emotion and I guess she tolerated it.

Catherine continued to be an active supporter of dress up all the way through my elementary school years and into junior high school. When she hugged me after earrings, lipstick and perfume, I can still see her smile and say, “Are you my little Cathy?” or “How’s my little Cathy?” as I’ve been since.

Like Paula, I knew very well that the kids at school, my teachers and neighbors would never approve of me looking and being so feminine. And I also wondered why two girls I knew were allowed to be classic tomboys very much like Scout in the Atticus Finch home. It seemed unfair that they could be very boyish not only at home but also out in public and there was seemingly nothing very negative they had to deal with. So if there were tomboys, why were there not also janegirls or something similar? 

Many cold-snowy winter nights, all four of us were in flannel nighties with fuzzy slippers eating Jiffy Pop watching TV and that was “okay.” 

In my school, I used to imagine being in a reading circle with a few girls and wearing a cute dress like them with a full slip, panties and tights, and everyone would be “okay” with that just like the two tomboys wearing jeans, sneakers, boyish t-shirts, maybe a ball cap and very short hair in what was called a “pixie cut.”

The contrast of tomboy and sissy continued into junior high school as I moved right into my older sisters’ training bras and shorter skirts and dresses, old garter belts with stockings or those new pantyhose, as I grew out my hair into a classic “shag” style for teenaged boys, onto my shoulders with bangs, which could easily look very girly/sissy. 

I still saw all kinds of tomboys freely out and about at school and in town, but society circa 1975 still had no place for sissies like me, who were publicly derided as “transvestites.” So I continued to dress at home, even without my older sisters, but with my younger sister and our Aunt seeing me and our ambivalent mother just had to go a long with it. 

Now in 2023, I go out into public all the time as Cathy, a middle-aged appropriate woman and societal norms in LA provide lots of freedom, acceptance and understanding 50 years after being a “sissy.”

Source: Rue La La
Wearing Nanette by Nanette Lepore

Andre Vasha
Andre Vasha


  1. Thank you for sharing a little tid bit of your life growing up. Enjoyed it.

  2. What a wonderful account of your childhood, Cathy. Very descriptive. Thanks for sharing that. I wish I had sisters when growing up.

  3. I loved that story, Cathy.

  4. as to Cathy's not atypical experience-while her Mom didn't realize it her actions may well reflect society's general attitude that feminine is of lesser value and a boy is lowering himself by wearing a dress.And the tomboy is striving to incorporate some of the good manly values so that is ok.

    1. I have never seen the parent problems most of have had summed up so simple and so effectively as in the last post
      The problem with women being regarded as second class citizens is, or was, a world wide phenomenom

  5. I’ve talked with my 3 sisters over the years about that day. They believe it was our mother’s one attempt at asserting herself as the only parent deciding for the only boy of her 4 children. But our aunt prevailed and my dressing from then on was relaxed “okay” around Catherine but I felt a little uneasy around mother - but she always had the blank stare (catatonic) looking away when she saw me dressed up.