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Lesbian feminism’s negative valuation of butch-fem communities also seems to be a response to the explicit sexuality these communities expressed through butch-fem roles. From the beginning, lesbian feminists tended to downplay sexuality between women in an attempt to free lesbians from the stigma of sexual deviance. They separated lesbians from gay men, primarily with respect to the place of sexual expression in men’s and women’s lives. This trend, which became fully elaborated in the 1980s, was central to the identity around which lesbian-feminist politics was built and to the debates that developed around sexuality throughout the entire feminist movement.

In 1980 and 1981, the publication of two works had a powerful impact on the shape of lesbian feminism and on research about lesbian history, Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men. Both works privileged passionate and loving relationships over specifically sexual relationships in defining lesbianism and explicitly separated lesbian history from gay-male history. Rich’s work is not intended to be an historical study; nevertheless, it proposes a framework for lesbian history. She establishes a “lesbian continuum” that consists of woman-identified resistance to patriarchal oppression throughout history. The lesbian transcends time periods and cultures in her common links to all women who have dared to affirm themselves as activists, warriors, or passionate friends. The place of sexuality in this resistance is not specified and the butch-fem lesbian communities of the twentieth century, because of their use of gender roles, are considered, at best, marginal to women’s long history of resistance to patriarchy. Thus, in this formative work for lesbian feminism, the only group of women in history willing to explicitly acknowledge their erotic interest in women are not central to the definition of lesbian.

Lillian Faderman’s book, an explicitly historical study, resonates with the themes of Rich. Faderman emphasizes the historical continuity of women’s passionate friendships in the middle and upper classes throughout history. She reclaims this hidden dimension of the lesbian past, which is particularly important in the late twentieth century, when the dominant culture admits little possibility of connection between women. At the same time, she gives minimal attention to the explicitly sexual lesbian communities of the turn of the century, treating their sexuality as problematic. She argues that the sexualizing of relationships between women was the result of the medical profession’s diagnosis of love between women as pathological. In her analysis, the nineteenth-century women’s movement’s achievement of some autonomy for women in the public world, coupled with the tradition of female passionate friendships, gave women the potential for self-sufficiency. Patriarchy responded to the severe threat by characterizing close ties between women as sexual and therefore suspect.

These works have been criticized for focusing on similarities in relationships between women, ignoring changing historical conditions that create different kinds of relationships, and for their valorizing of nonsexual relationships. For instance, Martha Vicinus shows that boarding-school “passionate friendships” in nineteenth-century England were not without strife and difficult power dynamics. Others have shown how the developments of urban life and the rise of consumer capitalism, combined with shifts in the organization of male supremacy, created new conditions that allowed for the development of explicitly gay-male and lesbian communities.

–Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community