Butch-fem roles have been the subject of significant controversy in the feminist and lesbian feminist movement. Coming from a theoretical framework that associates masculinity and males with evil–violence, rape, exploitation, and destruction–some feminists have scorned butch-fem communities for their imitation of the patriarchal system of gender. Others, recognizing the entrenched nature of gender in twentieth-century Western industrial culture, have explored the ways that lesbians have appropriated gender roles as a tool of resistance. As early as the 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir, in her chapter on lesbians in The Second Sex, recognized the power to be gained by lesbians adopting masculine characteristics. Joan Nestle makes this argument historically specific, articulating how the butch-fem couple in the 1950s boldly expressed the sexual interest of women in women at a time when such love was outlawed and there was no political movement for protection. Our research has been influenced by and in turn supports this tradition, revealing the complexity of gendered resistance for lesbians during the 1940s and 1950s.
Butch-fem culture unquestionably drew on elements of the partiarchal gender system, but it also transformed them. On the simplest level, butches were masculine, not male, and fems were attracted to masculine women, not men. Butch-fem roles, therefore, expressed women claiming their difference, their right to love other women at a time when few, if any, other such opportunities existed. The masculine appearance of butches distinguished them and their fems as different, thereby serving as a badge of identifiability among lesbians themselves and to the general public. The possibility of recognizing one another was essential for the building of a distinct culture and identity.
Butch-fem roles crystallized the varied possibilities for resistance and stimulated people to carry them out. The extraordinary resistance that was documented in the past three chapters was highly gendered. It was accomplished by butches and fems. The core group that built that lesbian bar community of the 1940s were the severely masculine yet gentle butches who were willing to be identified as different, as “homos.” The Black and white tough lesbians continued this tradition in the 1950s, pushing to be identified as lesbians, or “queers,” twenty-four hours a day. They not only endured the hostility of the straight world but they defended themselves with physical force if necessary. The fem contribution was radically different, though no less important. Fems’ public resistance centered around support for their butches, being seen with them on the streets or in restaurants, or bringing them to family dinners. They also validated their butches’ existence by acknowledging and respecting butch identity.
–Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community
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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
We view [working-class lesbians] as having had a unique role in the formation of the homophile and gay liberation movements. Like virtually every other aspect of modern social relations, lesbian social life and culture differed according to social class. Lesbians who were independently wealthy and not dependent on society’s approval for making a living and a home could risk being open about their lesbianism with few material consequences. But this privilege also meant that their ways of living had limited benefit for the majority of working lesbians. Middle-class lesbians who held teaching and other professional jobs had to be secretive about their identity because their jobs and status in life depended on their reputations as morally upstanding women. So they, too, could not initiate the early effort to make lesbianism a visible and viable opportunity for women, nor develop a mass political movement that could change social conditions. By contrast, working-class lesbians pioneered ways of socializing together and creating intimate sexual relationships without losing the ability to earn a living.
Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community