Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch-Femme


The paper below is a literature review I wrote for a gender and sexuality class I took in graduate school. The purpose of a literature review is to survey the research on a topic in order to become familiar with the different perspectives scholars and theorists have taken on the topic, without arguing for one perspective over any other. In other words, a literature review falls under the genre of analysis rather than argument.

I wrote the paper in 1993, at a time when it was nearly impossible to find information about scholarly perspectives on butch/femme identities on the internet, so I published the paper on the web site I set up at lesbian.org It became popular long before Google made it easy to find, mainly because the paper provides the kind of information that had previously been available only through academic journals, and in a relatively accessible style (although of course it uses the kind of language you’d expect from academic discourse).

I’m asking you to read the paper not as a model for your own literature reviews (which may be considerably shorter), but rather as an overview of the “rhetoric” of butch/femme identities — in other words, of the variety of conversations scholars and theorists have had about the origins and implications of these identities. I don’t personally align with any of these perspectives, nor do I identify within the butch/femme dynamic myself, but I find the phenomenon a fascinating source of material for rhetorical analysis.

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


1. Lesbian Identity/Politics
2. The Politics of Butch and Femme
A. Butch-Femme Roles as Replicas of Heterosexuality
B. Butch-Femme Roles as Challenging Heterosexuality

  • The Emergence of the “New Woman”
  • Butches and Femmes in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s
  • Butches and Femmes in the 70’s and 80’s

C. Butch-Femme Roles as the Subversion of All Gender Categories
3. Butch-Femme, Lesbian Identity, and the Politics of Tomorrow


One of the fundamental tenets of postmodern theory is that all identities are socially constructed, and that, throughout history, dominant groups have had the power not only to construct their own identities, which they disguise as “innate” or “natural” rather than created, but also to construct the identities of groups the dominant group has a vested interest in marginalizing. The appeal of postmodern theory lies in its method of “deconstructing” the power relationships inherent in constructions of identity so that it becomes possible to articulate a counter-ideology which has as its aim the liberation and de-objectification of marginalized groups. The irony in this is that those most often attracted to and who are in a position to utilize postmodern methodology are themselves members of a dominant group, even if only in terms of level of education, and in the attempt to give voice to those who have been historically silenced and oppressed, they frequently run the risk of further marginalizing some members of these groups.

The contemporary feminist analysis of lesbian identity is an example of just such a tendency. For the past two decades, the dominant form of feminist discourse has, in attempting to “liberate” lesbian identity from patriarchal control, instead imposed its own identity politics on the lesbian community, with the result that those lesbians whose behaviors or “styles” do not conform to the feminist agenda have been doubly-oppressed — once by the dominant patriarchal culture, and again by the movement that claimed to seek the liberation of all women. This is perhaps most obvious in the feminist critique of role playing among lesbians, which is considered by the dominant feminist discourse to be a barrier to one’s “true” identity as a woman (assuming that there is such a thing).

Despite the power and influence of this discourse, however, voices have risen from within a sort of “counter” lesbian-feminist community of scholars who wish to challenge the limiting identity politics of the seventies and early eighties. Before moving into a review of the way these voices address the identity issues surrounding lesbian butch-femme role-playing, however, it would be useful to consider some of the more general attempts at understanding the politics of lesbian identity which have both influenced and been influenced by this more specific issue.

Susan J. Wolfe and Julia Penelope, in an article entitled “Sexual Identity/Textual Politcs” (1993), have recently issued a warning to theorists who are too quick to use postmodern theory to deconstruct lesbian identity, arguing that any move to invalidate the “identity” of a marginalized group necessarily prevents that group from attaining the degree of subjectivity needed to overcome the oppression of having been for so long objectified. In other words, if theorists make the whole notion of lesbian identity so problematic as to suggest that there can be no such thing, on what grounds then are lesbians to come together in the fight against oppression and homophobia? Deconstructing lesbian identity in such a way perpetuates the “divide and conquer” strategy of the dominant ideology, which has historically been used to deprive oppressed groups of the unity needed for power, by failing to recognize the agency of lesbians in resisting dominant constructions of their identity in favor of ones that more accurately reflect their lived experience.

It is the task of lesbian theory, then, Wolfe and Penelope argue, to both resist a kind of deconstruction that would render lesbians even more invisible, and to work towards the (re)construction of a lesbian identity as it is “experienced through a collective history and culture” (2). This is not to assume, however, that identity is an unproblematic concept, but rather to insist that any analysis of identity which concerns a historically oppressed group pay close attention to such questions as where do different constructions of lesbian identity come from, what agendas underlie those constructions, and what do different constructions of identity mean in the actual lives of lesbians. Thus, though it was written more recently than the rest of the essays I will be reviewing and does not directly address any of them, Wolf and Penelope’s essay in a way makes clear some of the theoretical concerns of earlier academics working on the issue of lesbian identity.

One of the problems with the construction of lesbian identity that is often noted by theorists is that it most often takes place within the terms of the dominant discourse, which has established heterosexuality as the “natural” or normative expression of human sexuality against which all other expressions are considered deviant and deficient. One of the first academics to challenge the naturalization of heterosexuality was Adrienne Rich, in an important and controversial essay entitled “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980). Rich’s main argument is that heterosexuality is not only not natural or innate, it is in fact an institution designed to perpetuate male social and economic privilege, which means that the ideology of difference as the natural basis for sexual attraction is, in fact, a construction. While she is not the first to make this claim, Rich goes on to argue that it is the primary bonding between women that is, in fact, natural, but which is disrupted by the imposition of compulsory heterosexuality in all women’s lives — or rather, in all but those few who resist heterosexuality in favor of the more “natural” state of woman-identification, which is the broader definition Rich gives to lesbianism.

The problem with Rich’s argument is, of course, that she assumes that it is possible for any identity to exist naturally, and that women by nature identify with other women, but this does not lessen the impact of her insight that heterosexuality has a vested interest in making itself appear to be “natural,” and therefore unchallengeable, in order to maintain male dominance. If it were not compulsory, Rich claims, most women would never choose heterosexuality because of the inequality and insubordination built into the system — if, that is, they were indeed aware of them. But the issue at stake here is that heterosexuality is compulsory precisely because it is not natural, which means that it makes no sense to speak of homosexuality as “deviating” from natural sexuality, regardless of whether or not we accept Rich’s belief that lesbiansim is in fact natural. Thus, Rich’s essay contributes to the deconstruction the dominant definition of lesbian identity as “deviant” and “unnatural,” a definition which is at the heart of lesbian oppression.

A common critique of Rich is that she places too much emphasis on woman-identification as the basis for lesbian identity, almost to the exclusion of sexuality. In fact, some critics consider her position to be anti-sexual, presumably because sexuality is constructed as “masculine” and therefore has no natural place in woman-identification, which thus perpetuates the oppressive ideology that women are not sexual by nature. By not questioning the constructed nature of this ideology, then, Rich in a way fails to follow her analysis all the way through. Instead of seeing that all sexuality, all attitudes towards sexuality, are socially constructed with specific agendas in mind, Rich simply rejects heterosexuality, thereby dismissing role-playing and all other forms of sexuality that seem to replicate the oppressive structures of heterosexuality — with the notable exception of monogamy, which is still considered “natural.” This thinking, in turn, leads to an insistence on “egalitarian sex” between women which, ironically, parallels the dominant ideology that there is only one “right way” to have sex.

According to Gayle Rubin, in her article “Thinking Sex” (1984), the ideology of compulsory heterosexuality may be a powerful force in the social construction of lesbianism as “deviant,” but the supposedly feminist insistence on regulated sexuality even between women is equally powerful, and no less oppressive. Rubin argues that the dominant ideology regulates social/sexual behavior by positing the notion of “sexual correctness” (institutionalized heterosexuality) against the fear of social decay should trangression occur. Rather than challenging the whole notion of “sexual correctness, ” anti-sex feminists like Rich simply redefine lesbian sexuality within feminist terms, using the fear of being “unfeminist” or “oppressive” as a means of social control within the feminist movement– which has the ironic result of enshrining “feminist” (read: non-role playing) sex as normative and all other forms as deviant.

Rubin’s critique of this brand of lesbian-feminism is that it fails to interrogate its own assumption that egalitarian sex is not only possible, but that sexual difference (which makes role-playing possible) can never be anything but oppressive. In failing to see that regulating women’s sexuality, albeit in a different form, runs counter to the stated goal of feminism to liberate all women from all forms of oppression, the dominant feminist discourse perpetuates the marginalization of women whose behavior is not “sexually correct.” What is obscured here, Rubin argues, is that the question of identity is still in the hands of the dominant group, so that a lesbian who defines herself as role-playing has less of a voice in naming her identity than the lesbian-feminists who declare her behavior “out-dated” or “misguided.” It is precisely issues such as these, Rubin insists, that feminist analyses of identity and identity politics must engage with, especially in terms of the unequal use of power inherent in the regulation of sexuality; it is also issues such as these that point to problematic nature of using sexuality as a source of identity in the first place.


The critique most often leveled against role-playing in the lesbian community comes, as we have just seen, from the feminist belief that all role-playing replicates the very (hetero)sexual structure from which lesbians are supposedly free. The idea that one’s sexual identity might depend on or evolve from such role-playing is considered “unenlightened,” and a sign of one’s successful socialization into the dominant ideology. But there is also a growing body of lesbian-feminist scholarship that attempts to shed new light on our understanding of the function of role-playing within the lesbian community, arguing that lesbian roles not only challenge the constructed nature of heterosexual roles but are, in fact, subversive of the sex/gender system as a whole. Before turning to the work of these scholars, however, I will first review some of the work of those scholars who assume or insist that butch-femme role-playing is merely a replica of heterosexuality.

A. Butch-Femme Roles as Replicas of Heterosexuality

The main assumption underlying the feminist disdain of role-playing is that roles depend on sexual difference, which is inherently hierarchical, polarizing, and oppressive. Sexual difference, it is argued, is the ground on which heterosexual roles are built, and thus contains within it an inherently unequal distribution of power. This is the argument that Adrienne Rich makes, in the essay discussed above, when she claims that compulsory heterosexuality exists to perpetuate male dominance, which does not exists naturally but must be replicated through the institutionalization of male-female roles. For Rich, lesbian existence and identity, or “woman-identification,” exists outside the constructs of these roles, and it would seem by extension that any lesbians who do engage in role-playing would not be considered to be “woman-identified.” Although Rich does not explicitly make this claim, her thinking in this regard is representative of the very powerful form of lesbian-feminist discourse that virtually controlled the politics of lesbian identity in the seventies.

A more moderate view is offered by Elizabeth Wilson in her essay “Gayness and Liberalism,” which was originally published some time in the early eighties but revised slightly for publication in a 1986 collection of essays. Instead of arguing completely against lesbian role playing, Wilson issues the warning that inherent in any role playing is the possibility for the abuse of power, and butch-femme roles have the potential for being just as sexist as heterosexual roles. Because the identities of both butches and femmes are built on popular cultural stereotypes of male and female behavior, she argues, 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 is passive, weak, submissive, and enduring. The assumption here, however, is not that butch and femme roles are inherently sexist, but that in the popular construction of these roles along heterosexual lines, the possibility for sexism is increased. What Wilson does not address, at least in this essay, is the extent to which butch and femme lesbians simply absorb or actively resist popular constructions of their roles; her later work, which will be discussed further on, begins to take up such questions.

Another scholar whose earlier work assumes that butch-femme role playing replicates heterosexual structures of identity is Lillian Faderman, whose groundbreaking work, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendships Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (1981), laid the foundations for the study of lesbian history. 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 (among whom butch-femme identities seem to take on greater importance), Faderman focuses more on aristocratic women’s relationships, which means that her study reveals more about lesbian role playing in general than it does about specifically butch and femme identities.

For example, she documents 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 noteriety. 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 did not reproduce structures of domination quite to the extent that heterosexual arrangements did. Nonetheless, one can imagine that such relationships might well have suffered from the kind of sexism Wilson warns against, especially given that the heterosexual roles they imitated arose out of an rigidly sexist culture.

Faderman’s evidence points to the possibility that, before Freud and the sexologists developed the notions of “butch” and “femme” lesbians, there were socio-economic reasons why women might find themselves in relationships which seemed to replicate the clearly defined roles of heterosexuality. In these instances, then, it was cultural necessity and not “nature” (as Freud would claim) or ignorance (as later feminists would argue) that compelled women to adopt role-playing. Although the same may well have been true for subsequent generations of lesbians, the impact of Freud and the sexologists, as well as other male representations of lesbian sexuality, was such that role playing could never quite recover its primarily utilitarian status.

Male representations of lesbian sexuality have had perhaps the most influence in shaping attitudes towards butch and femme identities throughout the twentieth-century, and such representations have almost always assumed that lesbian role-playing is an imitation of heterosexuality — that it is based on sexual difference, if only through pretence. According to Toni McNaron, in her article “Mirrors and Likeness: A Lesbian Aesthetic in the Making” (1993), most (male) literary representations of lesbians have long perpetuated this construction by “substitute[ing] a phallic situation or rhetoric fo the absent penis, [and] leaving the reader/viewer undisturbed in his or her comfortable habit of seeing all human relationships through such a limited filter” (294). This filter is, of course, that of sexual difference as it is conceived within a phallocentric discourse, which insists on the presence of the phallus in all situations of sexuality, whether in actual or symbolic form.

The insight of lesbian-feminist analyses of male constructions of sexuality, McNaron argues, is that their phallocentric bias is exposed, which then frees women to resist these “adopted modes of representation,” based on sexual difference, in favor of “something more nearly approximating a valuing of self and other as expressing sexual likeness” (294-5). McNaron’s aim, then, is to propose an aesthetics which challenges compulsory heterosexuality’s insistence on difference, and which provides a way of reading, writing, and thinking that seeks similarities rather than differences, and thus affirms a more “lesbian” way of looking at the world. While this may be useful as an alternative approach to textual representations of sexuality, such an aesthetic, taken to an extreme, would render language meaningless, since difference is the guiding principle of linguistic constructions. McNaron’s argument, then, can be critiqued for its assumption that difference is by nature oppressive, rather than heterosexuality’s misuse of difference, and that a truly lesbian aesthetic would reject difference in favor of seeking likenesses. This kind of thinking, in claiming to represent what is “truly” lesbian, perpetuates the ideology of sexual correctness by invalidating the experience of those women who construct their identities, through role playing, around the principle of difference, and who nonetheless consider themselves lesbians.

Despite what I perceive as the shortcomings in McNaron’s essay, it is true that male representations of lesbian sexuality as replicas of heterosexuality have had a significant impact on women’s self-conception of their sexual desire, to the point that it is difficult to determine where women have simply absorbed such representations and where they have actively resisted them — particularly in the case of women who have adopted what would be considered a “male” role. In her article “The Match in the Crocus: Representations of Lesbian Sexuality” (1989), Judith Roof suggests that it is just this ambiguity that gives rise to the dominant culture’s outright disdain of “mannish” lesbians, even though it is partly responsible for this construction. According to Roof, representations of lesbian sexuality in the dominant discourse often evoke the phallus by calling attention to its absence (or its substitution) in sexual relations between women, so that it appears and seems necessary, at least symbolically, because of the inconceivability of sexuality without a phallus present. Thus, lesbians — or at least one of every “pair” — are often depicted as having appropriated the penis, masquerading as though they “had” it, and therefore assuming male privilege and acting on it. This, of course, evokes the stereotypical image of the lesbian as a woman who acts like or imitates men, an image which is both imposed on lesbians by phallocentric discourse and seemingly embraced by the lesbian community in the form of the butch role.

What Roof’s analysis makes possible is an understanding of the ways in which the dominant ideology has a vested interest in making butch-femme role playing appear to be a mere replica of heterosexuality, as a way of calming male anxiety over the threat of female appropriation of male dominance. If lesbian role playing is merely imitation, then it is always inferior to the “real” thing, or so the thinking goes. But there is another way of understanding butch-femme roles which arises, importantly, from the experience of self described butch and femme lesbians, and which suggests that lesbian role playing, far from imitating heterosexuality, in fact poses a powerful challenge to heterosexuality by exposing its roles as nothing more than constructs which are far from stable or “real.”

B. Butch-Femme Roles as Challenging Heterosexuality

Those academics who wish to argue that butch-femme roles challenge rather than uncritically replicate heterosexual roles typically employ a historical approach which examines not male representations of lesbian sexuality but what lesbians themselves have had to say about role playing in their own lives. This approach draws on writings by lesbians, from letters and journals to fiction, oral history, and the experience of the academics themselves, and focuses primarily on one of three main areas of contemporary lesbian history: the turn of the century emergence of “New Women,” the urban working class lesbian communities of the forties, fifties, and sixties, and lesbian-feminist communities of the seventies and eighties.

The Emergence of the “New Woman”

In an article entitled “Discourse of Sexuality and Subjectivity: The New Woman, 1870-1936” (1985), Carroll Smith-Rosenberg reconstructs the history of those women who, around the turn of the century, began to achieve more economic and social independence in England and America, 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 “female.” 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.

According to Smith-Rosenberg, the first generation of New Women was, however, 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 dominant culture to be asexual. In fact, this is the way “romantic friendships” between women had long been constructed in society, as Lillian Faderman has demonstrated, because of the dominant ideology that women were not by nature sexual creatures, and that their sexuality existed only in their relationship to men. As the sexual “inversion” theories of Freud, Krafft-Ebing , Havelock Ellis and the other late nineteenth century sexologists 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, Smith-Rosenberg argues, 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 a male role, because according to the sexologists such behavior was the result of a congenital defect known as “inversion,” which carried the stigma of having been born into the “wrong” gender and therefore doomed to a tragic life.

Given their vested interest in perpetuating rigidly defined heterosexual roles in order to preserve male dominance, it is not surprising that the sexologists tried to erase the implications of a woman adopting a male role by ascribing such behavior to a congenital defect; after all, compulsory heterosexuality depends on the assertion that there is a necessary connection between biological sex and gender, and so a woman who acts contrary to her gender must in fact be a biological male, albeit one with the ultimate misfortune of having been born into a female body. While the dominant culture was most certainly influenced by the work of the sexologists, which subtly implied that if women werent’ themselves “cursed” with inversion they might fall victim to the seductions of such women, the New Women themselves responded to this work by arguing that their oppression was unjust if their condition was the product of nature rather than choice. But that is not to suggest that all New Women did indeed absorb the dominant construction of their identity. In fact, Esther Newton argues that one New Woman, Radclyffe Hall, resisted the construction of the invert as a passive victim of nature in the creation of Stephen Gordon, the female hero of her famous novel, The Well of Loneliness.

According to Newton, in “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman” (1984), the figure of Stephen Gordon “was and remains an important symbol of rebellion against male hegemony” (281) because of the way she challenges the “natural” relationship between sex and gender. As Newton notes, the “mannish lesbian should not exist if gender is natural” (291), and the sexologists answer that she is, in fact, the victim of “inversion” does not work in the case of Stephen Gordon. According to Newton, who counters the feminist critique that the novel perpetuates the stereotypes created by the sexologists, the character of Stephen Gordon is not “mannish” because she wants to be a man, but for the more complicated reasons of resistance to the dominant construction of “femaleness,” and decision to publicly announce and act on her desire for other women — which, in a phallocentric culture, means appropriating the male role.

The claim Newton is making for Hall’s character is that, rather than capitulating to the dominant construction of lesbian identity as a defect of nature, she instead destabilizes gender categories by exposing them as roles that can be assumed by either sex. Masculinity then becomes nothing but a social role, albeit one accorded power and dominance in the culture, and therefore women who reject the prohibitive and dehumanizing role of “femininity” symbolize this rejection by “cross-dressing,” appropriating the codes and symbols of masculinity while remaining fully female. Role-playing then becomes, at least for the “butch” woman, a challenge to heterosexuality rather than a replication of it.

Despite recent theoretical trends which make Newton’s reading of Hall’s novel seem “obvious,” there has long been a good deal of resistance within the dominant culture, and especially within lesbian-feminism, to the idea of the mannish woman, due largely to the failure to see the power of such a figure as a challenge to stereotypes rather than a fulfillment of them. Martha Vicinus traces the resistance to this particular type of lesbian identity in her essay, “‘They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong’: The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity” (1989). According to Vicinus, there have been times in history when it was considered socially acceptable for women to fill male social and economic roles, the most notable example being during wars, but as soon as these periods of necessity end, the dominant culture seems to forget that it was possible for women as women to cross gender boundaries into male roles.

When there is no clear social need for gender-crossing, women who do so face public persecution, and with the increasing influence of the sexologists around the turn of this century, persecution might involve being labelled a “congenital invert.” Of course the irony is that many women adopt a masculine style of dress and behavior precisely in order to signal their desire for other women, with little regard for whether their condition is the product of a birth defect or simply a choice, so that the label has little effect except as a means of inspiring fear in the culture at large. In other words, they are not mannish because their nature compels them to be, an assumption which rests on the belief that sex and gender are the same thing; “mannish women” instead disrupt the sex/gender system by crossing genders out of choice, which therefore challenge the very foundation on which compulsory heterosexuality is built. Such women, according to Vicinus, also lay the foundations of what later lesbians would appropriate as the “butch” identity.

Butches and Femmes in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s

Perhaps the most popular area of study for scholars interested in the social history of butch-femme roles is the middle of this century, when working class lesbian communities began to be visible in urban areas precisely because of very clearly defined role-playing. The most frequent approach to this period has been, however, somewhat negative, centering around the feminist critique of role playing as mere imitation of heterosexuality. While role playing may have been necessary in the forties and fifties, so the typical argument goes, the “enlightenment” made possible by the women’s movement renders role playing obsolete; in fact, those who participate in it only do so out of ignorance, or a misguided desire to be men. In a move which is ironically paternalistic (not to mention “classist”), lesbian-feminism labels role playing as a working class phenomenon and sets out to “reform” it, without ever considering the power of role playing to serve the same ends as feminism: the deconstruction of patriarchal ideology.

More recent work on the lesbian communities of this time period has begun to consider just this issue, arguing for a re-evaluation of the positive impact role playing has had on lesbian identity. As early as 1981 Joan Nestle began to voice some of these concerns, but at the time her work stood on very lonely ground, and it took several years for other scholars to brave the threat of feminist critique in order to make arguments similar to Nestle’s. As perhaps the first essay to emerge in defense of butch-femme role playing in the lesbian community of the fifties, Nestle’s argument in “Butch-Femme Relationships and Sexual Courage in the 1950’s” 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 male-female heterosexual roles. 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 by feminist scholars in the seventies, Nestle insists that these women, the butches and femmes of the fifties, were in fact feminist, that they exercised the very autonomy of sexual and social identities that feminism claimed to want for all women. But they did so in a way that “made lesbians visible in a terrifyingly clear way” (108), which thus provoked the anger of the dominant culture as well as of those lesbians who preferred the safety of invisibility.

In a later essay, entitled “The Femme Question” (1984), Nestle again argues for a re-evaluation of the social function of butch-femme roles, but in this case she focuses on the often neglected identity of the “femme.” Because it is butch women who visibly disrupt the dominant ideology of gender roles with their seeming appropriation of masculinity, scholarly attention tends to focus on “butchness” when addressing issues of lesbian identity. The equally important role of femme women in the construction of lesbian identity is ignored, often because of 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.” What Nestle suggests, however, is that the femme role is just as threatening to the institution of heterosexuality because of the way it co-opts the conventional female role in order to signal desire for other women, which of course runs counter the very purpose behind the social construction of femininity. What the femme role makes perhaps even clearer than the butch is the performative nature of all roles, which makes it possible for a biological female to “play at” being a woman by exaggerating what the culture has defined as “womaness.” Thus, Nestle’s work recovers a very different understanding of butch-femme roles in earlier lesbian communities, one with which subsequent scholars of the period have had to contend.

Elizabeth Wilson’s article, “Forbidden Love” (1983) takes an approach similar to Nestle’s two essays, although she is writing about lesbian history in England and does not indicate familiarity with Nestle’s work on American lesbian communities. She is also somewhat more concerned with tracing the general history of attitudes towards role-playing rather than with analyzing the meaning of the roles themselves. In England, as in America, butch-femme role playing was considered a predominantly working class activity in the forties and fifties, as the middle classes attempted to build relationships on egalitarian terms and in ways that would enable them to “blend in” with 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, Wilson argues that 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 by lesbian-feminism, even though lesbians were still defined by the dominant culture as women who wanted to be men, who aspired to “maleness” and were therefore sexual deviants 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.

The research of Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy work towards similar ends as Nestle and Wilson, although they narrow their focus considerably by concentrating only on the working-class lesbian community of Buffalo, New York in the forties and fifties, and using oral history as their primary resource. As a result, their work explores the meaning of butch and femme roles to those who lived them in much more depth and detail, and offers a variety of perspectives on the cultural function of these roles. In their article “Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community: Buffalo, New York: 1940-1960” (1986), Davis and Kennedy examine the ways that highly defined role playing offered lesbians a means of resistance and survival in an otherwise hostile 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 a powerful way of resisting heterosexist ideology by revealing that the dominant gender hierarchy is built on socially constructed gender roles rather than on innate sex-distinct behavior.

In a later article specifically addressing butch identity, entitled “‘They was no one to mess with’: The Construction of the Butch Role in the Lesbian Community of the 1940’s and 1950’s” (1992), Davis and Kennedy examine the ways in which the visibility of the butch role 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. The irony of the butch identity, as they note, is that it became necessary for these women to adopt a masculine role in order to validate who they were as women, since this role was the only means available in the culture to signal their desire for other women. The butch role, then, can hardly be considered an imitation of the heterosexual male role, since it has nothing invested in the structures of domination this role is designed to maintain. Instead, butch women not only challenge the socially constructed nature of heterosexual roles, they also point to the possibility of different ways of “being” masculine, ways that men interested in equality might do well to take note of.

Another recent attempt at explaining the cultural significance of butch-femme roles in the fifties and sixties comes from Lillian Faderman, whose understanding of role-playing is similar to that expressed in her earlier work, discussed above. In her more recent book, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (1991), Faderman provides a 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. Unlike Nestle, Wilson, and Davis and Kennedy, however, Faderman shares the assumption of middle-class lesbian-feminism that butch-femme roles are imitations of heterosexuality, adopted by lesbians who unquestioningly accept the dominant construction of sexuality as polarized and hierarchical. She does not pass judgement on these women, though, as many feminists have done, but instead simply ignores the possibility of agency in lesbian constructions of their own identity, as well as the potential that lesbian role playing has for challenging the ideology she assumes they passively accept.

Butches and Femmes in the 70’s and 80’s

A more difficult area of study for scholars of lesbian identity is the recent past, primarily because of the impact of lesbian-feminism in the seventies, which argued against all role playing and in favor of dissolving gender distinctions through androgyny. Because of the power of this brand of feminist discourse, most academics have shied away from addressing the continuing existence of butch-femme role playing in the seventies and eighties, largely because acknowledging this existence means that the feminist campaign against role playing has not been entirely successful. If such behavior continues to exist despite its “deconstruction” by feminism as oppressive and uneccessary, then the unsettling possibility remains that roles may indeed serve a purpose which has yet to be considered — which may, in fact, undermine the feminist critique of roles.

It is not surprising, then, that few academics have come forward to discuss the significance of role playing in the past decade, nor is it surprising that those who do often choose to work in pairs. As early as 1981, Amber Hollibaugh and Cherrie Moraga conducted a courageous conversation about butch-femme role playing, which was later transcribed into written form as “What We’re Rollin’ Around in Bed With: Sexual Silences in Feminism.” 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 surround role playing as much as gender.

Speaking from personal experience, Hollibaugh and Moraga consider 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 the overly idealistic goal of absolute equality in bed, which means that lesbians essentially traded one form of oppression for another. In making “outlaws” 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 a 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 an exchange of power positions between partners, which, once again, reveals role playing as a way of challenging heterosexuality’s inflexibility regarding roles — if the roles are interchangeable, especially between two women, then they can not have anything to do with biological sex.

Part of the risk Hollibaugh and Moraga take in their dialogue is in using their own personal experience to explain the continuing importance of butch-femme roles, but this is also what lends their analysis a level of credibility that middle-class lesbian-feminism cannot claim. While Joan Nestle uses her personal experience to analyze butch-femme roles in the fifties and sixties, Hollibaugh and Moraga speak of the present, and they do so by abandoning the formal academic discourse in which they have been trained and speaking instead in a more “comfortable” dialect. Nevertheless, both are respected scholars within the feminist community, which allows them to maintain a degree of authority even while positioning themselves in opposition to this community’s opinion of role playing.

Esther Newton and Shirley Walton make a similar move in their co-written piece, “The Misunderstanding: Toward a More Precise Sexual Vocabulary” (1984). In this essay, Newton and Walton examine the way labels and sexual identities frequently both shape and limit the way we interact with others sexually, particularly when these labels and identities go unexamined. For example, the lesbian butch identity is usually understood to be constructed along the lines of the “male” role, which is to say that butches are usually expected to initiate and maintain a somewhat “dominant” position during sexual encounters, but such a construction depends on the assumption that “maleness” somehow inherently contains these traits. While this may, in fact, be true, since maleness is a social construct that has been artificially attached to biological men, the freedom to play with this construct that butch-femme lesbians enjoy nevertheless does not extend to heterosexual men, who are frequently expected to behave in stereotypically “male” sexual roles.

Newton and Walton’s main point, then, is to problematize the way all sexual identities are constructed and utilized, and to argue for a more precise use of the terms used to discuss these identities. The reason for their insistence on this point, and what makes their move similar to that of Hollibaugh and Moraga, is that this essay arose out of a sexual encounter between Newton and Walton which failed because of their own misunderstanding of the meaning of sexual identities. In other words, in order to argue their case about the importance of understanding the sexual significance of roles such as butch and femme, Newton and Walton appeal to their personal experience, which, though risky in some ways, nonetheless insulates them from the criticism of feminists who cannot speak from this position.

C. Butch-Femme Roles as the Subversion of All Gender Categories

The scholars in the previous section, most of whom were writing in the early eighties, responded to the feminist critique of butch-femme roles by pointing to the historical ways such roles have challenged the institution of heterosexuality. Building on this largely historical work, lesbian scholars in the late eighties and early nineties have begun to apply postmodern theory to their analysis of lesbian role playing, in order to reveal the potential of butch-femme roles to disrupt and subvert the very notion of gender categories. While, to some extent, this type of analysis was present in the work of several earlier scholars, the methodology and critical vocabulary made available by postmodern theory opens up new possibilities for critique and analysis — for example, theorists can now speak of butch-femme roles as a disruption of phallocentrism.

Among the first lesbian academics to use this approach are Sue-Ellen Case and Teresa de Lauretis, both of whom employ (and revise) postmodern theory to call attention to the performative nature of butch-femme role playing. In her article, “Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic” (1988), Sue-Ellen Case argues that lesbian role playing offers women the kind of agency necessary to resist the dominant construction of femininity. This agency is made possible because the “butch-femme couple inhabit the subject position together” (295), and are thus in a position to critique the ideology of sexual difference (which depends on the object status of “woman”). Case continues that

butch-femme roles are not split subjects, suffering the torments of dominant ideology. They are coupled ones that do not impale themselves on the poles of sexual difference or metaphysical values, but constantly seduce the sign system, through flirtation and inconstancy into the light fondle of artifice, replacing the Lacanian slash with the lesbian bar. (295) The artifice of butch-femme role playing is its insistence on roles as roles, as a masquerade which, in its excess of “genderedness,” unmasks the performative nature of roles which have their origin in social constructions rather than nature. As a result, these roles lend agency and self-determination to the historically passive subject, providing her with at least two options for gender identification and with the aid of camp, an irony that allows her perception to be constructed from outside ideology, with a gender role that makes her appear as if she is inside it. (301)

Teresa de Lauretis also claims that butch-femme role playing lends agency to women, but she does so by the slightly different route of deconstructing the phallocentric bias inherent in dominant constructions of homosexuality. In “Sexual Indifference and Lesbian Representation” (1988), 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 phallocentric thinking suggests, sexual attraction is presumed to depend on innate difference — with the male as that which desires the “otherness” of the female — then it makes no sense to speak of female homosexuality, unless a masculine desire (and thus male role) is ascribed to women who desire other women. But this, de Lauretis argues, is hommo-sexuality, because of the privileged status of “male” in the construction of gender and sexuality, whereas a homosexuality that does not define itself in terms of difference 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 lesbian 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 body of a biological woman. Thus, de Lauretis argues that the performative nature of “butchness” operates as 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).

Like Case and de Lauretis, Gayle Rubin also wishes to demonstrate the ways in which butch-femme role playing destabilize dominant conceptions of gender categories, and she does so in “Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries” (1992) by focusing on the multi-layered construction of the butch role. 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, 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 choice to use such a category, then, becomes a way of appropriating the tools of the dominant sexual system to serve very different, and subversive, ends: the signalling of desire not across the lines of sexual difference but within the context of sexual sameness, which thus disrupts any attempt at linking sex and gender.

Using the same theoretical framework of lesbian role playing as subversive, Judith Butler makes a compelling argument, in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” (1991), against the dominant construction of lesbian sexuality as imitative of or derivative from heterosexuality, but she also suggests that the opposite is not exactly true either — that neither is lesbianism wholly unique and independent from heterosexuality. Rather, Butler raises the possibility of a third understanding of lesbian sexual roles, as at once both imitative and subversive. She asks:

Is it not possible that lesbian sexuality is a process that reinscribes the power domains that it resists, that it is constituted in part from the very heterosexual matrix that it seeks to displace, and that its specificity is to be established not outside or beyond that reinscription or reiteration, but in the very modality and effects of that reinscription? In other words, the negative constructions of lesbianism as a fake or bad copy can be occupied and reworked to call into question the claims of heterosexual priority. In a sense … lesbian sexuality can be understood to redeploy its ‘derivativeness’ in the service of displacing hegemonic heterosexual norms. (310)


Butler’s project, then, is to deconstruct the ways in which heterosexuality constitutes itself as the originary or “true” expression of sexuality in order to subordinate all other expressions of sexuality as, at best, inferior imitations, and she goes about this task by exposing heterosexuality as “an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization” (314). All gender, then is an imitation, a kind of impersonation and approximation, so that “the imitative parody of ‘heterosexuality’ — when and where it occurs in gay cultures — is always and only an imitation of an imitation, a copy of a copy, for which there is no original”(314). It therefore makes no sense to speak of butch-femme roles as in some way replicating heterosexuality, since such a statement depends on an assumption of priority that no system of gender roles can accurately claim. The effect of Butler’s work is that it becomes impossible, in light of her argument, to speak of the existence of an”inner sex or essence or psychic gender core” — which is of course the claim that compulsory heterosexuality has a vested interest in making , but it can only do so, ironically, by institutionalizing the performance of gender roles which in turn produce only the illusion of an essential identity.

Using the framework that Butler has thus provided, Clare Whatling offers a re-reading of Joan Nestle’s work in order to illustrate that Nestle’s understanding of butch-femme roles in fact lays the groundwork for what becomes Butler’s theory about role playing as subversive imitation. In her article, “Reading Awry: Joan Nestle and the Recontextualization of Heterosexuality” (1992), Whatling explains that Nestle’s emphasis on the way that butch-femme roles challenge heterosexual roles leads to an understanding of roles as imitative, but not in the “straight” sense — rather as a kind of Irigarayan mimesis, “existing independently and even ironically in relation to those forms in which it is, however, still defined” (215). In a way then, we can see in Whatling’s text the beginnings of a new way of re-reading lesbian sexuality and identity, using the theoretical frameworks provided scholars such as Bulter, Case, and de Lauretis to re-evaluate in particular the politics of butch and femme.


Given the rather hopeful note on which the previous section ends, it would seem that butch-femme role playing has finally recovered from the devastating blows long dealt such behavior by the dominant culture, and more recently by a certain brand of lesbian-feminist theory. But there is at least one voice that is not quite so hopeful. According to Judith Roof, in a chapter entitled “Polymorphous Diversity” (1991), cultural configurations of lesbian sexuality, and especially butch-femme roles, are much more “complex, contradictory, and diverse” than recent academic work admits. 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. This is, in effect, the argument made by those scholars discussed above who see butch-femme role playing as mere replication of heterosexuality.

Roof goes on to note, however, that 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). The work of those scholars who view butch-femme role playing as challenging and even subversive of gender categories employs this same strategy of analysis, but unlike Roof, these scholars seem comfortable assuming that the deconstruction of gender categories alone is sufficient in the work towards redefining lesbian identity politics. On the contrary, Roof argues, 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. Thus, in contrast to theorists such as Butler, Case, and de Lauretis, 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).