Butch / Femme

Heather Love. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Volume 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

Butch/femme (sometimes called butch/fem) is a form of sexual and gender practice primarily associated with United States and British working-class lesbian communities in the middle of the twentieth century. The term describes an erotic and affective dynamic between women who adopt either a primarily masculine (or butch) gender style or a primarily feminine (or femme) style. Although the relationship between butch/femme and heterosexual (male/female) relations has been a matter of contention, it is important to understand butch/femme as a lesbian cultural form with its own history and specific forms of practice.

Roots of the Butch/Femme Culture

It is difficult to say where butch/femme culture came from. While it is possible to trace similar behaviors and identifications in different cultures and in various historical moments, the importance of gender cross-identification in understanding same-sex relations spiked in Germany, England, and the United States at the end of the nineteenth century with the rise of sexology, a pseudo-scientific study of sex and gender. The writings of important sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and Havelock Ellis focused on the figure of the sexual invert: the woman who was actually a man, and the man who was actually a woman. In these writings, the female invert emerges as the iconic figure of female same-sex desire. With her active sexual desires and masculine gender style, she longs for a feminine partner with whom she can complete herself as a man. What is much harder to explain within the sexological framework is the desire of a feminine woman for a masculine woman (or female invert).

Sexology does not, however, provide an adequate explanation for the rise of butch/femme in the twentieth century. As several historians have shown, this practice became dominant in communities that had no exposure to medical accounts of inversion where butch/femme developed as a popular form of identity. In their important history of the lesbian community in Buffalo, New York in the 1940s and 1950s, social anthropologist Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and activist and historian Madeline D. Davis suggest that butch/femme is a survival strategy within a violently homophobic (as well as classist and racist) culture. They argue that butch/femme roles are “the only vital alternative for working-class lesbians” and that they were “the key structure for organizing against heterosexual dominance” (Kennedy and Davis 1994, p. 395). While other (gender-normative) options were available to more privileged women, working-class lesbians in the twentieth century largely embraced the gender-dichotomous roles of butch/femme in order to announce their difference from the heterosexual norm and to claim public space.

Another important account of the emergence of butch/femme can be found in American writer Esther Newton’s 1984 article, “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian” in which she describes the importance of masculine identification in the forming of a modern public lesbian identity. Because, as Newton points out, women in the nineteenth century were not associated with sexuality or desire (but rather with its absence), looking like a man was one clear strategy for twentieth-century lesbians to signal their desire for other women. Newton considers the importance of masculinity in a novel that has served as a touchstone for modern lesbianism and for butch/femme, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928). This novel features an introductory note from the Ellis attesting that it is a realistic account of the life of a female invert. It traces the fortunes of Stephen Gordon, a masculine woman who longs to live her life as an English gentleman, but who is instead cast out as a gender and sexual misfit. Exiled from her ancestral home, Stephen can neither fight in World War I nor marry the woman she loves. The Well of Loneliness was banned in a public obscenity trial in London the year it was released, but underground copies of the novel circulated in lesbian circles until the ban was lifted in the 1960s. Despite the novel’s dark portrait of Stephen’s tragic fate, it remains the most widely read lesbian novel of all time.

Feminist Response

Butch/femme roles (as they were called) came under attack during the height of the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements. Many feminists and lesbian-feminists objected to butch/femme culture, arguing that it imported the worst of heterosexuality and patriarchy into lesbian relationships. In women’s groups in the 1970s, many butches and femmes were encouraged to adopt a more normative feminine or gender-neutral style. For butches this meant departing from an image of working-class masculine style; for femmes it meant toning down a hyper-feminine style and asserting themselves as empowered women. Women were also encouraged to promote equality and sameness within their relationships. For many such arguments were based on a dubious logic of false consciousness and internalized oppression, or the idea that women who adopted such roles must not know what their true desires were. Lesbian feminists were imposing a specific form of white middle-class sexuality and gender presentation as a universal standard, particularly for working-class women and women of color.

While butch/femme (along with pornography and sadomasochism) came under attack during the 1970s and the sex wars of the 1980s, the practice regained visibility in the 1990s. Perhaps the key text in renewing attention to butch/femme in the period was Leslie Feinberg’s popular autobiographical novel, Stone Butch Blues. The novel traces the difficulties of a Jewish working-class butch named Jess Goldberg growing up in the bars, streets, and factories of Buffalo, New York in the years leading up to Stonewall, the riot that sparked gay liberation. Feinberg recounts the terrible violence, harassment, and stigmatization that Jess is exposed to on a daily basis as a masculine woman. In response to such experiences, Jess becomes more and more stone, a word that refers both to a sexual practice (a refusal of sexual vulnerability or nakedness in bed) and to an emotional state, a hardness that is a form of self-protection.

Effect on and Importance in Queer Studies

Butch/femme has also played a significant role in the turn to queer studies in the academy. During the sex wars, a range of pro-sex feminists and lesbians made arguments about the inevitability of power in sexual relationships; early work in queer studies emphasized the impossibility of escaping from social power in any arena of social or intimate life. Philosopher Michel Foucault’s account of the imbrication of power, knowledge, and sexuality in the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976) profoundly influenced queer studies, and led to interest in topics like butch/femme, camp, drag, public sex, and gay shame. These stigma-inflected aspects of queer life were understood not as utopian escapes from homophobia and patriarchy, but rather as deeply ambivalent sites of resistance.

Writer Judith Butler made both butch/femme and drag central in one of the founding work of queer studies, Gender Trouble (1990). At stake in Butler’s attention to butch/femme was a familiar charge that butch/femme was an imitation of heterosexuality. Drawing on her own personal experience, Butler wrote in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” “I suffered for a long time from being told that what I am is a copy, an imitation, a derivative example, a shadow of the real” (Butler 1991, p. 20). Rather than argue that butch/femme gender was original, Butler used it to argue that all gender is derivative. Drag and butch/femme were for her sites of gender disruption that make visible how all gender is performative, a copy without an original.

In Female Masculinity (1998), gender theorist Judith Halberstam is primarily interested in the way that masculine gender style signifies on a biologically female body. She takes a long historical perspective, considering figures from the eighteenth-century tribade to the contemporary drag king scene. Unlike people such as Newton who provide a historical and cultural frame for the emergence of the butch at the beginning of the twentieth century, Halberstam argues for the durability of this form of gendered embodiment over time. If in the 1990s the figure of the butch came into her own, discussions of femme identity lag somewhat behind. Representing the specific experiences of femmes has proved difficult over the course of the twentieth century. With their inherently heterosexual understanding of desire, the sexologists failed to account for the desire of the feminine woman attracted to other woman: she remains a cipher in their accounts. In many twentieth-century fictional accounts of butch/femme desire, the emphasis often falls on the butch as desiring and suffering hero. The writings of Joan Nestle (A Restricted Country [1987]) and Amber Hollibaugh (My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home [2003]) and the 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader stand as notable exceptions to this rule; there have also been a couple of significant collections on femme experience. However the problem of femme invisibility continues to plague both fictional and theoretical accounts of butch/femme experience.

One of the most persistent tropes of butch/femme representation is the sanctuary that an erotic and intimate relation offers from a hostile world. In a dialogue framed as a response to the denigration of butch/femme by lesbian-feminists, “What We’re Rollin Around in Bed With” (1983), Amber Hollibaugh and CherrĂ­e Moraga discuss their personal experiences as working-class women both inside and outside the feminist movement. In speaking to Moraga (who identifies as butch), femme-identified Hollibaugh stresses the importance of butch/femme erotic practice as a response to a hostile world: “You see, I want you as a woman, not as a man; but I want you in the way you need to be, which may not be traditionally female, but which is the area that you express as butch. Here is where in the other world you have suffered the most damage. Part of the reason I love to be with butches is because I feel I repair that damage” (Hollibaugh and Moraga 1983, p. 401). While some women have written about the limits of butch/femme as a response to violence and inequality, this persistent notion of repairing the damage has marked it as a practice characterized by both extraordinary difficulties and extraordinary intimacy.

Global Perspectives in the Twenty-First Century

The significance of butch/femme was transformed by several developments in queer culture in the twentieth-century. A shift in perspective in queer studies from a primarily American focus to a more global focus calls for a rethinking of the meanings of butch/femme in a range of national and transnational contexts. While critics and historians have written about the importance of some gender-transitive practices across the globe (travesti in Brazil; berdache in Native American cultures), early-twenty-first century work has attempted to think through the meeting of contemporary American queer culture and specific gender and sexual formations around the globe.

The meaning of butch/femme has also been transformed by the visible emergence of a transsexual and transgender politics and community since the 1990s. As more women decide to transition and live as men, the limits of butch identity as well as the stability of the butch/femme identity come into question. The main-streaming of gay and lesbian identity in the late 1990s and early part of the twenty-first century also raises important questions about the relationship between butch/femme culture and social stigma. Understanding butch/femme primarily as evolving in a social context that is intensely threatening and in which it is difficult to signal active desire through a feminine style, one might be tempted to conclude that butch/femme will wither away as a practice as feminism and gay and lesbian activism transform the public sphere. In a 1998 collection on butch/femme, lesbian critic Sally Munt questions the transformation of butch/femme from a way of life to a lifestyle, as she asks “why a primarily working-class identification has become colonized as middle-class, white, and chic” (Munt 1998, p. 4).

The testimonies of several young black and Asian working class women interviewed in the documentary film The Aggressives (2005) make it clear that butch/femme is not a style that came and went in the middle of the twentieth century. The women interviewed testify to a deeply-felt masculine identification. At the same time, their stories of hostility and rejection on the street, by their families, and in the workplace, as well as their creative responses to such difficulties testify to the ongoing role that butch/femme practices play as a strategy of survival and visibility.