We meet Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time on a dark and stormy night. As a hurricane batters her 200-year-old house, she’s consumed by worries about her missing father, her failures at school, and a piece of news she heard at the post office:
“[S]he’d heard about a tramp who was supposed to have stolen twelve sheets from Mrs. Buncombe, the constable’s wife. They hadn’t caught him, and maybe he was heading for the Murrys’ house right now, isolated on a back road as it was; and this time maybe he’d be after more than sheets.”
Looking up from the Kindle, one of my seven-year-old twins asks, “Mommy, what’s a tramp?”
“That’s a word people don’t seem to use much anymore. It can be offensive. What do you think it means in this context?
“A thief,” she answers after re-reading the passage.
That’s close. Consulting the New Oxford American Dictionary by clicking on the word in the e-book, my twins learn that a “tramp” is “a person who travels from place to place on foot in search of work or as a vagrant or beggar.”
They don’t notice the sexist “informal” definition a few lines below it, thereby avoiding the follow-up question: “Mommy, what does promiscuous mean?”
The meaning of “tramp” that appears in A Wrinkle in Time — a vagrant or beggar — developed in the 1870s, when the completion of the railroad enabled the unemployed to travel across the United States. This group of itinerant poor typically consisted of men, in part because they were less likely to receive charitable help than women were. As historian Kenneth Kusmer explains in Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History (citing the work of sociologist Theda Skocpol):
“By the end of the nineteenth century , the world of the homeless had become an overwhelmingly masculine realm. This was not because women were less at risk to become homeless… Rather, it was mostly a consequence of the gender ideology of the Victorian era, which assumed that women were weaker and less able to care for themselves than men… [T]his mentality led to the establishment of numerous institutions to assist indigent women and children…”
However, there were women riding the rails too, often dressed in masculine attire to blend in and to protect themselves from physical and sexual violence. As historian Tim Cresswell describes:
“Many commentators during the period 1875-1939 referred to female tramps and prostitutes in the same breath, often making the assumption that the two were more or less equal (186).”
With this history, it’s little wonder that “tramp,” a word used since the 1870s to describe a typically “masculine realm,” would assume a sexual connotation when applied to women in contemporary times.
In the public’s perception, tramps of all genders challenged mainstream American values. Female tramps challenged gender norms, while male tramps were supposedly lazy criminals who repudiated the American work ethic. Considering these culturally-entrenched negative perceptions of the itinerant poor, it’s understandable that Meg was worried when she heard about Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets.
Apart from this reference to “tramp” in A Wrinkle in Time and the occasional mention of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or the similarly titled show tune, I rarely come across the term. If Google Books Ngram Viewer is any indication, though, it might be enjoying a small resurgence.
If so, I wonder what definition of “tramp” is on the rise.