Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch-Femme: Annotated Bibliography

NOTE TO STUDENTS: I prepared the annotated bibliography below to go with the literature review by the same title. Please read my note at the top of the literature review for information on the genre and rhetorical context.

Written by Amy Goodloe
Copyright © 1993, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
do not reproduce without permission

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991. (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307-320)

As in most of her work, this essay of Butler’s problematizes the constructed nature of all identity categories, raising in particular the question of what it means to identify oneself as “lesbian.” If the dominant ideology constructs heterosexuality as the “original, ” true, natural expression of human sexuality, then lesbianism can only be seen as a kind of “mimicking” of the norm, an attempt at pretending to be heterosexual. This is often the critique of consciously role-playing lesbians in particular, such as those who adopt butch-femme identities, who are accused of an imitation which is at best inferior and inadequate. But Butler argues that such a critique is grounded on the faulty assumption that there is an “original” to be imitated, when in fact all gender roles are an imitation for which there is no original. Heterosexuality has a vested interest, however, in disguising this fact by promoting itself as originary and constructing the illusion that there is such a thing as an essential sexual or gendered identity. But gay identities work in opposition to this illusion, not by emulating heterosexuality but by exposing it as “an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization” (314). In the context of homosexuality, then, gender roles are exposed as the product of social performance, which means that butch-femme role playing is not only not an imitation of a heterosexual “real,” it is perhaps the ultimate expression of gender in its “parodic replication and resignification of heterosexual constructs within non-heterosexual frames” (314).

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic.” Discourse 11 (Winter 1988-1989). (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 294-306)

Case begins her article with a critique of the feminist argument, particularly popular in the seventies and early eighties, that butch-femme role playing among lesbians belongs to an “old” pattern of heterosexual behavior which should be discarded in favor of a new identity as a “feminist woman.” This argument is built on the assumption that what is oppressive about heterosexual roles is the emphasis on difference, which necessarily implies hierarchy, and that equality depends on the elimination of difference in everything from appearance to sexual roles. Case counters with the critique that this feminist devaluation of lesbian butch-femme roles not only fails to take into account the importance of these roles for working-class and other marginalized women, but that it also fails to see in such role-playing the subversive potential of exposing all gender roles as masquerade. Whereas the dominant culture has naturalized heterosexual roles as innate or essential, butch-femme role playing exposes them as constructs with a specific agenda, which then lends agency and self-determination to the women who actively choose, rather than passively accept, these roles. Thus, Case continues, butch-femme roles are not replicas of a heterosexual pattern which disempowers women and deprives them of subjectivity, but are, in fact, anti-heterosexual in their ability to empower women in either role by allowing them both to occupy the subject position.

Davis, Madeline, and E. L. Kennedy. “‘They was no one to mess with’: The Construction of the Butch Role in the Lesbian Community of the 1940’s and 1950’s.” The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. Joan Nestle. Boston: Alyson, 1992. 62-79.

In this article, Davis and Kennedy focus particular attention on the function of the butch role among working class lesbians in Buffalo. Although both butch and femme roles were extremely important to this community in the forties and fifties, it was the butch role that was the most visible, and therefore the most likely to cause public scorn. In a time when “gender-appropriate” styles and behaviors were rigidly enforced in order to maintain a clear distinction between the sexes, butch women’s choice not only to reject traditional femininity but to actively adopt masculinity (the two being the only models available) was perceived as a threat to the very order of society, and a prelude to social chaos. Despite the fear, and likelihood, of harassment by police and other straight men, the courage of butches to claim their identities in many ways prepared the way for later generations of lesbians to break free from the narrow conventions of socially constructed womanhood and to claim access to a kind of power traditionally held only by men. But, as Davis and Kennedy insist here and elsewhere, although butches took their “masculine” role very seriously, they nonetheless had no desire to actually be men; rather, they often felt that adopting the masculine role was the only way they could actually validate who they were as women, since they only did so in order to signal their desire to be with other women. Nonetheless, there was some debate in the community over how far to take the butch role, particularly when its obviousness attracted “bad press” from the public. For lesbians in the forties, such visibility was considered to be too dangerous, and so butch styles of dress and behavior usually took place only inside the walls of lesbian bars; but by the fifties, visibility became more of statement, and it was thought that for one to be a “real” butch one must look butch all the time, even though this often meant a butch woman would either have to try and “pass” as a man to the outside world, to avoid conflict, or would depend on her femme for support, since there were few jobs open to working-class women who would not wear skirts. Although this arrangement may seem strangely parallel to working-class heterosexual relationships, Davis and Kennedy argue that these relationships actually subverted the heterosexual model, both because they did not consistently follow conventional gender divisions and because they were unconventional in their emphasis on women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure.

________. “Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York: 1940-1960.” Feminist Studies 12 (Spring 1986). (reprinted in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. eds. Martin Duberman et al. New York: Penguin, 1989. 426-440)

In this important study of the pre-sixties working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, Davis and Kennedy examine the cultural function of highly defined butch- femme role-playing as a means of resistance and survival. Rather than criticizing role- playing among lesbians as being nothing more than capitulation to the dominant heterosexual pattern of behavior, which is the common critique of sixties and seventies feminists, Davis and Kennedy argue for a reevaluation of the significance of roles as a “powerful code of behavior” which shapes women’s relationships both within the lesbian community and in relation to the straight world. Before the 1960’s, when the movement for gay liberation became explicitly political in organization and strategy, transgressing gender boundaries through rigid butch-femme role playing was one of the few ways to resist the dominant heterosexist ideology. According to Davis and Kennedy, this is why the Buffalo lesbian community strictly enforced role-appropriate behavior until the sixties, when other means of resistance became available. But role-playing still remained as a powerful critique of the dominant gender hierarchy, particularly in terms of sexuality, because unlike the male role in heterosexual relationships, the butch lesbian was/is concerned primarily with giving pleasure. A woman in the butch role has nothing physically invested in this giving, so it can be done freely and unselfishly, while it is the femme’s role to demand and receive sexual satisfaction, which is typically associated with masculine sexual activity. Thus, as Davis and Kennedy demonstrate, butch-femme role-playing can hardly be understood as an imitation of heterosexuality as it works within the community, even though its appearance of imitation is what separates and preserves the community apart from and in resistance to the dominant heterosexual culture.

de Lauretis, Teresa. “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation.” Theatre Journal 40 (1988). (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 141-158)

In this theoretically sophisticated essay, de Lauretis critiques the notion of gender as sexual difference because the very concept of difference is predicated on maleness as the norm and femaleness as that which differs, which means that gender in this view is therefore an essentially male category. If, as this male-centered thinking suggests, sexual attraction is presumed to depend on difference, then it makes no sense to speak of female homosexuality, unless one of the women is understood to be in a male role. But this, de Lauretis argues, is hommo-sexuality, because of the privileged status of the “male” in any conception of gender and sexuality, whereas a homosexuality that does not define itself in terms of difference has the potential to subvert the hierarchical system of male privilege. Such a homosexuality becomes possible when two women, instead of defining themselves in terms of the only erotic category available in the dominant culture, which is that of sexual difference, instead exploit that category as a means of articulating lesbian desire over and against male desire. In other words, a woman playing the role of “butch” in a clearly defined butch-femme relationship is not making a claim to male social privilege or sexual behavior, but is instead asserting sexual agency which is independent from men, and which fills the construct of the “male” role with the reality of a woman. Thus, de Lauretis argues in favor of the figure of the “mannish woman” as the representation of a “reverse discourse,” one which stands as “the representation of lesbian desire against both the discourse of hommo-sexuality and the feminist account of lesbianism as woman-identification” (146).

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin, 1991.

As a historian of lesbian life and culture over the past several centuries, Faderman’s approach is more one of recovery than critique, though she of course operates on her own set of assumptions when considering the cultural situations that have shaped lesbian behavior. In this book, she provides a particularly detailed account of the many forces that gave rise to the prominence of butch-femme roles in the lesbian subculture of the forties, fifties, and sixties, using a rather large and diverse selection of personal narratives as her “sources” and therefore attempting to maintain some degree objectivity by simply “reporting” the experience of others. In the forties, she explains, women’s dress codes began to relax ever so slightly as it became tolerable for women to be seen wearing slacks outside the house, which then allowed for more of a sense of distinction between butch and femme women. In the fifties, as lesbianism began to gain a small amount of national attention, the opinion of medical experts that lesbians were “men trapped in women’s bodies” began to filter into lesbian consciousness, which had the result of enforcing the notion that butch-femme roles were “natural” and of encouraging a rise in “passing” women. In addition to the medical opinions, most working class lesbians had nothing else to go on in constructing their sexual identities other than the model provided them by heterosexuality, which seemed only fitting if indeed one of each lesbian pair was really by nature “male.”

Thus for small communities of lesbians all over the country, butch-femme role playing took on a rather high degree of importance and significance, which dominated the way these women related to each other well into the sixties and seventies. For middle class lesbians in the same period, however, butch- femme roles had little meaning, and were in fact largely incomprehensible, as these women held the much more egalitarian standards of behavior that were supposedly typical of the middle and upper classes, even though they often gave into conventional definitions of femininity and seemed more concerned with social respectability than with social change. Unlike Joan Nestle and several other lesbian scholars, Faderman seems to share the middle class women’s critique of butch-femme roles as being simply replicas of heterosexuality, rather than seeing them as unique and potentially subversive. She does not, however, speak negatively of the way butch-femme roles shaped lesbian identity in the middle of this century, but rather attempts to account for the power and prevalence of these roles, and what they meant in the lives of women who lived them.

________. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendships Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Because the source materials for earlier periods in lesbian history are rather hard to come by, especially with regard to the lives of working class women, Faderman here focuses more on aristocratic women’s relationships, which means that her study doesn’t reveal much about the role of butch and femme identities over the past several centuries. She does, however, document the lives of several nineteenth-century women whose “romantic friendships” with other women seemed to have developed into a kind of butch-femme pattern, with one partner acting as the passive, submissive “supporter” of the more active and well-known partner. This was frequently the case when one of the pair was involved in artistic or literary pursuits, since these were the few areas open for exploration by women, and in which women could achieve some measure of public notoriety. In a relationship where one of the women became well known for her literary or artistic talents, it usually happened that she also took on a role similar to that of “husband,” with her female partner as “wife,” although such arrangements still didn’t reproduce structures of domination and self-abnegation quite to the extent that heterosexual arrangements did. So it would seem, then, given Faderman’s evidence, that before Freud and the other sexologists began to divide lesbians into “congenital inverts,” who were “butches” or “men trapped in women’s bodies,” and “mates of inverts,” who were “femmes” misinformed or maladjusted to the “true” calling of women, there were socio-cultural reasons why women might find themselves in relationships which seemed to replicate heterosexuality, even though such situations were more the product of cultural and economic forces than “nature.” The lasting effect of the sexologists was just this attribution of lesbian sexual preference to “natural,” even if “perverted,” causes, which makes butch-femme roles then seem a necessity rather than a choice, and thus (according to the approach Faderman takes to the material) suggests that these roles did not have the subversive potential, at least at the time, that many scholars which to claim for them.

Hollibaugh, Amber, and Cherrie Moraga. “What We’re Rollin’ Around in Bed With: Sexual Silences in Feminism.” Heresies 12 (1981). (reprinted in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. eds. Ann Snitow et al. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983. 440-459)

In this dialogue between two lesbian scholars from working-class backgrounds, the feminist critique of lesbian butch-femme role playing is foregrounded as one of the most divisive aspects of the feminist movement, particularly in its failure to recognize that issues of class and race surround role-playing as much as gender. Even lesbian- feminism, which has primarily been the preserve of white, middle-class, educated women, threatens to alienate a large population of lesbians from feminism in its denial of the fundamental significance of role-playing in so many lesbian lives. Hollibaugh and Moraga speak from personal experience of the ways in which the very movement that promised sexual freedom and autonomy for women instead made them slaves to a rigid and uncompromising form of sexuality, based on absolute equality in bed, which was both overly idealistic and ultimately unsatisfactory. In making “outlaws” out of anyone whose sexual practices appeared to operate on unequal power terms, the feminist movement effectively invalidated the experience of whole communities of lesbians whose identities were constructed around butch-femme role-playing, even though, as Hollibaugh and Moraga argue, these roles do not replicate the unequal distribution of power inherent in heterosexual roles. On the contrary, the very performative nature of these roles allows for the exchange of power positions between partners, so that power becomes not a tool of oppression but a means of erotic playfulness and stimulation.

McNaron, Toni. “Mirrors and Likenesses: A Lesbian Aesthetic in the Making.” Sexual Practice / Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. eds. Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993. 291-306.

“Most male depictions of lesbian relationships have substituted a phallic situation or rhetoric for the absent penis, leaving the reader/viewer undisturbed in his or her comfortable habit of seeing all human relationships through such a limited filter.” Because our culture is built around the idea of sexual difference, lesbians have in the past defined themselves in terms of this binary, but it has been “within the systematic growth of lesbian-feminist analyses of culture and psychology that real-life lesbians have come o understand these adopted modes of representation. Only within such a context have we been able to chose to alter them in favor of something more nearly approximating a valuing of self and other as expressing sexual likeness” (294-5). McNaron essentially wants to propose an aesthetic based on similarity rather than difference, so that roles such as butch-femme, which seem to depend on difference, would no longer be useful or even desirable between women because of the way such roles capitulate to the dominant cultural ideology that difference alone is the basis for attraction.

Nestle, Joan. “Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950’s.” Heresies 12 (1981). (reprinted in Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1987. 100-109)

As one of the first essays to emerge in defense of butch-femme role playing in 1950’s lesbian communities, Nestle’s analysis is particularly bold in its claim that such role playing, because it made lesbian communities so visible, actually helped pave the way for the subsequent women’s and gay liberation movements of the sixties and seventies. Nestle, a self-described femme, argues from personal experience against the feminist critique that butch-femme role playing is an inferior imitation of the male-female roles of heterosexuality. She explains that “[n]one of the butch women I was with, and this included a passing woman, ever presented themselves to me as men; they did announce themselves as tabooed women who were willing to identify their passion for other women by wearing clothes that symbolized the taking of responsibility” (100). Contrary to claims made feminist scholars in the seventies, Nestle insists that these women, the butches and femmes of the 50’s, were in fact feminist, that they exercised the very autonomy of sexual and social identities that feminism claimed to want for all women. But feminism, in refusing to see this, instead contributed to the further oppression of butch-femme women by marginalizing and even invalidating such behavior, rather than seeing in it evidence that lesbians “have always opposed the patriarchy; in the past, perhaps most when they looked most like men” (106).

Nestle, Joan. “The Femme Question.” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge, 1984. (reprinted in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. Joan Nestle. Boston: Alyson, 1992. 138-146)

In this essay Nestle argues against the historical devaluation of femmes, both within the lesbian community and in the culture at large, which is primarily based on the misconception that femme women are attempting to disguise their homosexuality by “passing” as straight — which is to say, by buying into rather than rejecting the dominant culture’s construct of “femininity” in appearance and demeanor. The femmes of earlier decades, most notably the 50’s, are often accused of not having been “different” enough from heterosexual women to actually be considered “resisting” or transgressive, in other words, for not being “feminist” enough, even though an examination of their historical context reveals that these women were in fact breaking gender taboos in much more subtle, ultimately more subversive ways than has previously been imagined. As Nestle notes, both butches and femmes created very distinct personal styles that, even though they may have seemed to replicate heterosexual gender roles and styles, were in fact radically “re-writing” them in order to signify their desire for each other. A butch woman dressed in men’s clothing was still a woman, but the creation of this particular style was used to “signal to other women what she was capable of doing — taking erotic responsibility”(141). And a femme woman, dressed in what might be considered conventionally “feminine” and therefore designed to attract the attention of men, was in fact subverting this convention altogether in using it to attract other women. Nestle points out, however, how quick feminists have been to overlook the empowering potential of this kind of role-playing, so much so that this “erotic conversation between two women” is not only completely unheard but is also devalued and relegated to the “dark ages” of lesbian history. In order to recover the doubly-oppressed image of the lesbian femme, then, Nestle urges feminist scholars in the present to look back on this role with new eyes, to begin to ask questions about what this role meant in the lives of actual women and to reevaluate its potential as a means of sexual liberation rather than oppression.

Newton, Esther. “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman.” Signs 9.4 (Summer 1984). (reprinted in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. eds. Martin Duberman et al. New York: Penguin, 1989. 281-293)

Newton’s argues that the image of the “mannish” or “butch” woman portrayed in Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, “was and remains an important symbol of rebellion against male hegemony, and … of one significant pattern in lesbian sexuality and gender identification” (281). The hero of the novel, which was written in 1928, is a woman who from birth finds herself “different,” somehow masculine in personality and desire while female in body. Hall has been criticized for creating a character based on the stereotype of the congenital invert defined by sexologists such as Krafft-Ebing and Ellis, but Newton counters that Hall’s character is, in fact, not simply a passive victim of nature (via a birth defect). She writes: “[b]y endowing a biological female with a masculine self, Hall both questions the inevitability of traditional gender categories and assents to it. The mannish lesbian should not exist if gender is natural. Yet Hall makes her the hero — not the villain or clown — of her novel” (291). According to Newton, what Hall is doing is asserting a vision of lesbianism that posits sexuality as the essential defining “difference” between lesbians and straight women, and it is precisely this emphasis on sexuality that troubles most feminist critics of the novel. But their criticism rests on the unexamined assumption that sexual desire is masculine, and that any woman who sexually desires another woman must therefore be acting “like a man,” rather than seeing the “mannish woman” as potentially subversive of the whole category of masculinity.

Newton, Esther, and Shirley Walton. “The Misunderstanding: Toward a More Precise Sexual Vocabulary.” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge, 1984.

Newton and Walton examine the way labels and sexual identities shape the way we interact with others on sexual and other levels. For example, to assume that all straight women act in a femme or “bottom” role by nature, because we assume men are dominant by nature, is to deny many women the possibility of sexual satisfaction. The same thing is true in lesbian relationships, where couples often either try to avoid labels and attempt “egalitarian sex,” or to maintain strict roles that may not feel natural or “right.” Newton and Walton argue for clearer definitions of erotic roles and identities, and for more effective communication between partners using these definitions to better understand each person’s sexual self.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 5 (1980). (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 227-254)

In this foundational essay in lesbian studies, Rich argues against the notion that heterosexuality is somehow “natural” or innate in human beings, and suggests that possibility that it is, in fact, imposed on women, whose “natural” bonding usually occurs with other women, starting with their mothers. She goes on to suggest that lesbianism is more than sexuality, that it is the emotional and psychological identification of women with other women and that women have enjoyed this kind of essential bonding throughout history, regardless of the gender of their sexual partners. In its critique of heterosexuality as a social construct with a specific political and economic agenda, Rich’s argument lends itself well to the claim that butch-femme role playing between women can’t be simply an imitation of heterosexual roles — a woman in the butch role is still a woman, without access to male privilege and with nothing invested in the systematic subordination of women. Rich does not use her argument, however, to make this claim, and would in fact probably critique butch-femme role playing, primarily because of the emphasis it places on sexuality rather than other aspects of woman-identification, but probably also because role-playing in itself can be seen as a construct that stands in the way of individual identity.

Roof, Judith. “Polymorphous Diversity.” A Lure of Knowledge: Lesbian Sexuality and Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. ch. 6.

In this chapter of her theoretically sophisticated book, Roof argues that cultural configurations of lesbian sexuality, especially butch/femme roles, are much more “complex, contradictory, and diverse” than is usually assumed by academics or by lesbians themselves. The configuration of butch/femme, she explains, seems on the surface to be “a resolution of the ‘inconceivability’ of lesbian sexuality in a phallocentric system, recuperating that inconceivability by superimposing a male/female model on lesbian relationships” (245). Thus, lesbian role-playing can be understood as a construct of the dominant culture, imposed on lesbians in order to make sense of female sexuality in the absence of a phallus, and therefore not a self-empowering move on the part of lesbians themselves. But, Roof notes, the internal contradictions inherent in the configuration of butch/femme produce a “systematic challenge to the necessary connection between gender and sexuality while appearing to reaffirm heterosexuality and [yet] forcing a consciousness of the artificiality and constructedness of gender positions” (245, emphasis added). Roof’s point, then, is that there is too much going on in the configuration of butch-femme roles to claim either that they are merely the tool of patriarchy or that they are wholly subversive of patriarchal gender roles. As she notes, while some lesbians may find it powerful to reject conventional definitions of femininity by adopting masculine attire and mannerisms, thereby also signaling her desire for other women, masculinity is often also the charge hurled against lesbians as an expression of “anger and anxiety about a decentering of phallic privilege” (249). Thus, in contrast to other scholars working in the same terms (Butler, de Lauretis, and others), Roof believes that while lesbian butch/femme does offer a critique of binary heterosexuality and the sex/gender system, “lesbian sexuality is already too completely intertwined with cultural constructions and configurations to comprise more than a partial perspective in any politics premised on identity” (251).

Roof, Judith. “The Match in the Crocus: Representations of Lesbian Sexuality.” Discontented Discourses: Feminism/Textual Intervention/Psychoanalysis. ed. Marleen Barr. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. 100-116.

Representations of lesbian sexuality is often evoke the phallus by calling attention to its absence — so that it appears and seems necessary even when it is not needed. Lesbians are often depicted as appropriating the penis, masquerading as though they “had” it, and therefore assuming male privilege and acting on it. Lesbian sexuality is assumed to depend of the taking on of a male role by one of two women, and therefore inspires the anger of men, whose power, primacy, and basic necessity is thereby challenged.

Rubin, Gayle. “Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries.” The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. Joan Nestle. Boston: Alyson, 1992. 466-482.

According to Rubin, the butch role is “most usefully understood as a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols” (467). In other words, according to Rubin, butchness and even masculinity itself are nothing but performative roles, complete with codes and symbols available for the use of anyone, regardless of biological sex. The reasons lesbians may choose to identify with masculinity vary, says Rubin, from a desire to use the role to signal their desire for women to an actual feeling of innate “maleness,” possibly even a sense of having been born the wrong sex (known as gender dysphoria or transsexualism). Because there many was to be butch, and many meanings of the role, it is no more useful to essentialize butchness than womaness, and thus Rubin’s aim in this essay is to “diversify conceptions of butchness, to promote a more nuanced conceptualization of gender variation among lesbian and bisexual women, and to forestall prejudice against individuals who use other modes of managing gender” (476). She does this by exploring briefly the cultural necessity of butch-femme roles in the forties and fifties, and then examining the multiple ways these roles come to have meaning for lesbians in the nineties.

________. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge, 1984. (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 3-44)

Rubin argues that the contemporary backlash against sexual behaviors considered to be “deviant” has its roots in the Western need to preserve monogamous heterosexuality as the paradigm of “natural” sexual relationships. Historically, whenever forces have risen to challenge this “norm,” the dominant culture has launched a campaign to strengthen the ideology that if sexuality is not kept under strict social control, the result is bound to be social chaos. This ideology inevitably produces moral panic in the culture at large, which leads to the persecution of those whose practices are not “sexually correct.” As Rubin notes, there is one particularly powerful strain of feminist thought that has contributed to this oppression, despite its presumed goal of sexual liberation for women, and this she terms “anti-sex feminism.” As a result of the hegemony this brand of feminism has over feminist analysis in general, even lesbian sex roles come under attack when they do not conform to the feminist definition of sexual correctness, which in this case means monogamous and non-role playing. Thus, such practices as S/M and butch/femme role-playing within the lesbian community are seen as transgressive and potentially threatening the fine line between social order and decay. But there is another strain of feminist thought that argues, rather powerfully, that such practices are in fact potentially sexually liberating for women, and therefore should not cause moral panic among feminists. Rubin’s critique, then, is of those forces that work towards the oppression of sexual minorities, particularly of those forces that claim to be feminist.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “Discourses of Sexuality and Subjectivity: The New Woman, 1870-1936.” Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. (reprinted in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. eds. Martin Duberman et al. New York: Penguin, 1989. 264-280)

Smith-Rosenberg’s article reconstructs the history of those women who, around the turn of the century, began to achieve more economic and social independence in America and England, and who were subsequently dubbed “New Women.” Because these women often rejected traditional female roles and conventions of “femininity,” particularly in terms of dress and means of financial support, they were frequently accused of “acting like men.” But, as Smith-Rosenberg notes, women who desired independence from men and freedom from patriarchal oppression did not necessarily want to become or be like men, but would instead adopt the appearance of masculinity to signify their rejection of the male-defined traditional role of “feminine.” In so doing, these New Women posed a threat to the binary structures on which society was built, because they called into question the relationship between biological sex and gender roles, thus exposing gender as well as other organizational categories in society as artificial, as not natural but constructed. The first generation of New Women, however, were tolerated to some extent because even though they seemed to want access to male social privilege, it was not thought that their desires extended to the level of sexuality; in other words, even though these women frequently formed close, intensely emotional primary bonds with other women, their relationships were understood by the outside world to be asexual. As the sexual “inversion” theories of sexologists such as Krafft-Ebing and Ellis became popular, however, the next generation of New Women, now termed “mannish lesbians,” came under attack for seeming to aspire to male sexual privilege, which was considered a far more serious threat to the social order than merely aspiring to social or economic privilege. Thus was born a cultural fear of those women who publicly adopted the male role, because according to the sexologists such behavior was the result of a congenital defect known as “inversion,” which carried the stigma of being not quite either male or female but almost a third sex altogether, and one doomed to a tragic existence at that. Here we can see the roots of the contemporary fear of the butch identity.

Stein, Arlene. “All Dressed Up, But No Place to Go? Style Wars and the New Lesbianism.” Out/Look 1.4 (Winter 1989). (reprinted in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. ed. J. Nestle. Boston: Alyson, 1992. 431-439)

If there was such a thing as a lesbian “style” in seventies, Stein argues, it was essentially an anti-style, a refusing to submit to the dominant culture’s standards of feminine beauty and behavior and a rejection of the rigid butch-femme role playing of earlier decades. But in the late eighties, a new trend has emerged in which lesbians are once again embracing “femininity,” and even experimenting anew with butch-femme roles, although this time, Stein notes, the motivation is not cultural necessity but the new freedom to explore erotic possibilities. While the “new lesbianism” has drawn fire from the older, more politically oriented lesbian-feminist community, it has also had the effect of promoting lesbian visibility in unprecedented ways, even though, as Stein states, “whenever power is at stake, a politics of images is not substitute for a ‘politics of substance’ [because] images are too easily manipulated, their meanings complex and evanescent” (438). Nonetheless, Stein suggests that those who participate in the new freedom of exploring and redefining the limits of lesbian identity should trace the roots of their liberation in the very “anti-style” lesbianism they are reacting against. If it weren’t for those who’ve gone before, both the strictly defined butches and femmes of the fifties and the androgynous feminist lesbians of the sixties and seventies, there might not be such a thing today as a new lesbianism which, perhaps for the first time in history, can actually produce a positive and even liberating experience for women. The new lesbianism, then, can be seen as a measure of the extent to which the gay liberation movement of the past three decades has succeeded in destabilizing gender categories so that all people can “play” at gender roles, and thereby perhaps begin to shake the foundations of the heterosexual monopoly on gendered identity.

Vicinus, Martha. “‘They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong’: The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity.” Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? eds. Dennis Altman et al. Amsterdam: An Dekker, 1989. (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. eds. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 432-452)

In this essay, Vicinus examines the possibility that there have always been different “types” of lesbian identity, but that the only type that has historically caused trouble for women is that of the “mannish woman” who goes so far as to attempt to assume masculine social privileges. While it has often been considered acceptable for mannish women to fulfill “men’s roles” during periods of necessity, such as wartime, real persecution comes to those women who refuse to give up their masculine identity even when there is no apparent social need for maintaining it. Such women call into question the very nature of what it is to be masculine, suggesting not only that it is not necessarily a function of one’s biological sex, but that it is possible for women to co-opt the sexual freedom implied in the masculine role, which is particularly threatening to the male- dominated social order when that freedom is exercised between women. In the historical evidence of women who have taken on a male role in order to be sexually and romantically involved with other women, Vicinus sees the roots of the modern butch identity, which is not so much a desire to be male as to have access to the same kind of freedom and privileges as males. This is why it is the butch identity which is so frequently the target of attack, both within lesbian-feminist circles and without, and why sexologists until recently have tried to explain the butch woman as a man trapped in a woman’s body.

Whatling, Clare. “Reading Awry: Joan Nestle and the Recontextualization of Heterosexuality.” Sexual Sameness. ed. Joseph Bristow. London: Routledge, 1992. 210-226.

Whatling’s essay offers a reading of Nestle that shows how necessary her argument is in re-evaluating butch-femme roles, recovering them from the bad press of the feminist movement. Nestle illustrates an “affirmative way of understanding sexual power and sexual pleasure” by examining the cultural and psychological function of butch-femme roles as something other than simply a replica of heterosexual roles. According to Whatling, Nestle’s work shows us that a woman who passed as a man, or wore masculine clothing, was in fact asserting her refusal to give in to the dominant definition of “womanliness,” and asserting her right to act on her desire for other women. Butch- femme, then, is not a “straight” imitation of heterosexual roles, but a kind of Irigarayan mimesis, using these forms to turn them inside out, so to speak — exposing all roles as constructed and not natural.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Forbidden Love”. Hidden Agendas: Theory, Politics, and Experience in the Women’s Movement. London: Tavistock, 1986. 169-182.

In this essay, Wilson traces the meaning of butch-femme roles in England from the 1950’s to the present, and argues for a culturally-situated understanding of the roles which allows us to recover the subversive potential they once had and to understand why such role playing is not longer as necessary. As in America, in England butch- femme role-playing was predominantly a working class activity in the fifties and early sixties, as the middle classes attempted to build relationships on egalitarian terms and in ways that would enable them to “blend in” to the culture around them — which usually meant that both women in a “couple” would adopt conventionally feminine dress and behavior. By the mid-sixties, however, the politics of a “permissive society” allowed for an increasing emphasis across class lines on androgyny, which was an attempt to blur the lines of sexual difference. Role-playing was viewed primarily as a tool of patriarchy, which oppressed all who bought into them, men or women, gay or straight, and freedom from roles allowed one to discover one’s “true” self. This attitude persisted into the seventies, encouraged especially be lesbian-feminism, even though lesbians were still often defined by the dominant culture as women who wanted to be men, who aspired to “maleness” and were therefore sexual outlaws of a sort. But even this cultural definition, which applied first to identifiable butches and later to all lesbians, was and continues to be extremely useful, Wilson explains, because it puts women in a position to destabilize, by their very existence, the categories of male and female, and to challenge the social construction of gender roles.

________. “Gayness and Liberalism.” Hidden Agendas: Theory, Politics, and Experience in the Women’s Movement. London: Tavistock, 1986. 137-147.

Although Wilson does not come out completely against butch-femme roles in the lesbian community, she does warn that inherent in any role playing is the possibility for the abuse of power, and that in this case butch-femme role playing can be just as sexist as heterosexual male-female roles. Because the identities of both butches and femmes are built on popular cultural stereotypes of male and female behavior, they tend to reinforce the inequality in power inherent in this dichotomy, where one of the partners is active, strong, dominant, initiating, etc., and the other passive, weak, submissive, and enduring. But perhaps the most negative aspect of role-playing, according to Wilson, is that women often feel compelled to adopt roles (in order to conform to the standards of certain lesbian communities, for example) and then find themselves constrained to the limitations inherent in each role. Wilson also argues that adaptation to role playing merely assuages the culture’s need to define lesbians in terms of stereotypes, that without this easy system of definition and classification, lesbian behavior would be less likely to be tolerated. Thus, she argues not for the androgynous ideal of feminists in the seventies, but for a broader cultural acceptance of many varieties of sexuality — an acceptance which she, as a socialist, believes is and will continue to be hindered as long as the “nuclear family” is put forth (falsely, and often with terrible consequences) as the heart of Western culture.

Wolfe, Susan J., and Julia Penelope. “Sexual Identity / Textual Politics.” Sexual Practice / Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism. eds. Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993. 1-24.

According to Wolfe and Penelope, it is more than a little coincidental that the recent theoretical move towards “deconstructing” the notion of a unified self began just at that moment in history when oppressed and marginalized people began to achieve some measure of subjectivity. The task of lesbian theory, they argue, is to posit a lesbian subject, “experienced through a collective history and culture we have had to construct before we can begin to deconstruct lesbian identity” (2, emphasis added), and an important part of this task is helping lesbians see in postmodernist and poststructuralist thought not only an overtly patriarchal agenda but also a more subtly heterosexist motivation. Although part of the aim of these theoretical movements may be the deconstruction of systems of power in the dominant culture, which has as an end the making visible of marginalized and oppressed groups of people in relation to these dominant powers, these movements nonetheless argue for the constructed nature of all subjectivity, which perpetuates the lack of a coherent identity that kept marginalized groups oppressed in the first place. As Wolfe and Penelope note, with some degree of irony, just as “women, lesbians, gay men, and racial minorities rose to challenge their marginalization and to define themselves as subjects, the white male intelligentsia declared that subjectivity was a fiction” (8). Thus, the aim of the essay is to remind scholars of the need to address just these issues in terms of lesbian identity, and particularly when deconstructing the politics of such controversial aspects of identity as butch/femme roles, s/m practices, and lesbian pornography.