The 1950s butch/femme roles

The butch/femme roles of the 1950s is a subject that fascinates me so I was very excited to read about them in chapter 7 of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. To make it even better, I just finished watching a wonderful documentary Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives recommended by Miep (thank you!) and so I am immersed in lesbian history now! It turns out I actually saw this documentary years ago, but had forgotten. Also, my partner saw it in a theatre full of lesbians back when it was released, and she says this was her most proud moment as a lesbian. That’s because this film is really brave and pro-lesbian, and makes you feel really proud when you watch it. It has interviews with a diverse group of older lesbians who talk about their experiences with coming out, falling in love, going to gay bars, harassment by police and bigots, and of course, butch/femme roles! The film also throws in references to lesbian pulp fiction—there are pulp fiction covers shown on the screen and there are also two live actresses who act out a pulp fiction narrative. They do a fantastic job and there is even a delicious sex scene at the end which was a really lovely finish to a fantastic film! The overall feeling I got from this film is a feeling of pride because the women interviewed were so incredibly brave in the way they lived their lives. All of them faced tons of harassment and hardships for being lesbian but they lived as lesbians anyway and were very awesome and badass about it.

So, getting back to the book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Faderman describes the social situation in the 1950s that contributed to making butch/femme roles so important. The field of medicine and psychiatry was quite enthusiastic about naming homosexuals as being completely unlike normal people and so gays and lesbians were pushed into their own separate world. They created their own subcultures and cultivated a sense of belonging within their own little world. You had to follow the rules in order to belong. There wasn’t much of a gay history or culture to draw from, but they had been taught the image of the lesbian as a “man trapped in a woman’s body.”

The primary place where lesbians could meet was in gay bars, and in the gay bars, butch and femme roles were mandatory. Anyone showing up in the scene had to choose a role or she would not be welcomed. The butches dressed in men’s clothes and acted out the 1950s chivalry such as opening doors and lighting cigarettes for the femme women.

“Yet the roles came to have an important function in the working-class and young lesbian subculture because they operated as a kind of indicator of membership. Only those who understood the roles and the rules attendant upon them really belonged. To many lesbians, the stringently mandated butch/femme dress and role behaviors that seemed to confirm the early sexologists’ descriptions of “the man trapped in a woman’s body” and “the mate of the invert” were a crucial part of who they were only once they discovered the subculture.

When a young woman entered the subculture in the 1950s she was immediately intitiated into the meaning and importance of the roles, since understanding them was the sine qua non of being a lesbian within that group. While some women saw themselves as falling naturally into one role or the other, even those who did not were urged to chose a role by other lesbians, or sometimes their own observations forced them to conclude that a choice was necessary. Being neither butch nor femme was not an option if one wanted to be part of the young or working class lesbian subculture. Those who refused to choose learned quickly that they were unwelcome. In some areas the issue was very emotional. Shirley, who lived in Buffalo, New York, in the years after World War II, remembers being in a working-class bar and admitting to a group of lesbians there that she thought of herself as neither butch nor femme: “They argued with me for a long time and when they couldn’t convince me I had to be one or the other, they threatened to take me outside and beat me up.” Although the issue seldom led to violence, butches and femmes were often adamant about rejecting what they called the “confused” behavior of “kiki” women, those who would not choose a role.”(p 126–127)

The roles of butch and femme resembled the men’s and women’s roles in heterosexual relationships. The 1950s was a period where America was trying to return to the “normalcy” of heterosexual life after the war, and the roles of men and women were clearly defined. The masculine and feminine roles were the only roles that existed at the time, and they made their way into both gay male and lesbian subcultures. Butches and femmes were often separated—butches were friends with other butches, while femmes were friends with other femmes, and the community was not accepting of couples with two butches or two femmes. The whole lesbian subculture was organized around these oppositional roles. Even washroom doors in lesbian bars were marked “butch” and “femme.”

“Perhaps it was not so much that most butches desired to be men. It was rather that for many of them in an era of neat pigeonholes the apparent logic of the connection between sexual object choice and gender identification was overwhelming, and lacking the support of a history that contradicted that connection, they had no encouragement at that time to formulate new conceptions. If they loved women it must be because they were mannish, and vice versa. Therefore, many learned to behave as men were supposed to behave, sometimes with rough machismo, sometimes enacting the most idealized images of male behavior that they saw in their parent society—courting, protecting, lighting cigarettes, opening car doors, holding out chairs. They followed that chivalric behavior, as real men often did not outside of romance magazines and movies. It is not surprising that butch/femme was in its heyday during the 1950s, when not only were the parent-culture roles exaggerated between men and women, but the Hollywood values of dash and romance served to inspire the fancy of the young, especially those who were at a loss about where to turn for their images of self.”(p128)

I believe that butch/femme roles are a reflection of mainstream gender roles and heteronormativity, but there is no agreement on this. I’ve pissed someone off on Facebook before by suggesting that butch/femme is heteronormative and even in Faderman’s book she presents the opposition to this position.

“Several lesbian historians, such as Joan Nestle and Judy Grahn, looking back over the 1950s and ’60s, have suggested that butch and femme roles and relationships were not imitations of heterosexuality, but unique in themselves, based not on the social and sexual models all lesbians grew up with, but rather on natural drives (such as “butch sexuality” and “femme sexuality”) and on lesbian-specific, lesbian-culturally developed behavior. Grahn has argued that butches were not copying males but rather they were saying “here is another way of being a woman,” and that what they learned in the lesbian subculture was to “imitate dykes, not men.” Yet butch/femme style of dress was not much different from working-class male and female style; descriptive terms in relationships were often modeled on heterosexual language, since no other appropriate words existed to convey commitment and responsibility (for example, a butch might call the femme she was living with her “wife”); the role expectations (butches were supposed to control emotions, do the husband-type chores around the house, be the sexual aggressors; femmes were supposed to cook, be softer, more yielding, stand behind a butch as a woman stands behind a man) looked for all the world like heterosexuality.”(p127)

Although I definitely think there is a huge difference between a butch lesbian and a man, I’m not buying the fact that lesbians just created these roles out of thin air when they so precisely mirror the roles of straight men and women. Being a butch woman is certainly a different way of being a woman (and a fantastic way of being a woman, I must add), but it seems like in the 1950s everyone was quite serious about acting out strict roles, rather than just being their natural selves. There is one woman quoted in the book who hadn’t really ever thought of herself as butch or femme, but was forced to dress as one or the other, and one evening actually changed clothes from femme to butch while going from one party to another. You could also be a butch in one relationship and a femme in another. One woman interviewed in the film Forbidden Love talks about being a femme in her first relationship, and then buying men’s clothing and switching to butch right after they broke up. So these roles were not necessarily based on women’s personalities, they were roles that they had to play to fit into their community.

My partner identifies as a butch but she is just being herself—she doesn’t have that sense of strict rules like what was around back then. For her, it’s just that she was always a tomboy and she grew into a masculine woman, so the word “butch” explains her personality. There are fewer women who identify as butch now, and these roles don’t have the importance they once did. If you are reading here and you identify as butch, definitely let me know what this label means to you nowadays—I’m interested in hearing it!

There is some discussion of the concept of “stone butch” in this chapter. The stone butch is a butch who will make love to her partner but who won’t be touched in return. Even in the documentary I just mentioned here, Forbidden Love, they talked about stone butches. The thing about “being flipped” is really interesting.

“Although the sexual dynamic between a couple who identified as butch and femme could be subtle and complex rather than a simple imitation of heterosexuality, some lesbians considered themselves “stone butches” and observed taboos similar to those that were current among working-class heterosexual males. For example, letting another woman be sexually aggressive with you if you were a stone butch was called being flipped, and it was shameful in many working-class lesbian communities because it meant that a butch had permitted another woman to take power away from her by sexually “femalizing” her, making a “pussy” out of her, in the vernacular. Among black lesbians a butch who allowed herself to be “flipped” was called a pancake. In other circles also a flipped butch was greeted with ridicule if word got out, as it sometimes did if a disgruntled femme wanted to shame a former lover. The taboo against being flipped, which was probably related to the low esteem in which women were held at the time, even made some young butches try to better protect their image by refusing to undress completely when they had sexual relations. One former stone butch recalls, “The derision shown those few butches who had been flipped was enough to prevent many of us, especially those of us who were not yet secure about our sexuality, from letting our partners touch us during lovemaking.” Having to hold on to power by being the only aggressor in a relationship, as some butches felt they must, was a stringent task, not too different from that of the young working-class male who had to maintain total vigilance so that no one ever made him a “punk.”(p128)

It’s amazing how powerful these subject-object relations were in lesbian sex. I can’t imagine making fun of someone because she had allowed her partner to make love to her. Like, that is a fabulous thing and that deserves a high five, not a judgment! One of the great things about lesbian sex is that you don’t have to play a role, you can have a completely unstructured session based on equality and mutual pleasure. This 1950s stuff sounds rather unsatisfying—it’s too rigid and formulaic.

There is a section where Faderman talks about how femmes were not necessarily the ultra-feminine women that might be expected.

“Just by virtue of being lesbians, femmes must have had a certain amount of rebellious courage that was not typical of the 1950s female. They engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage while most of their young female heterosexual counterparts did not dare. They braved the night alone to go out to gay bars to meet butches while straight women had not yet attempted to “take back the night” and wander the streets for their own pleasure and purpose. They often supported themselves as well as their butch partner if their partner was unwilling to compromise her masculine appearance and unable to find a job that would not require donning a skirt. Femmes were attracted to a rebel sexuality, and they let themselves be seen with women who made no attempt to hide their outlaw status at a time when supposedly every woman’s fondest wish was to be a wife and mother and to fit in with the rest of the community.” (p129)

I really, really love this comment about femmes being attracted to rebel sexuality and wanting to be seen with outlaw women!  I’m not sure if I exactly qualify as a “femme” because I am not actually feminine, but I am partnered to a butch and I was attracted to her for this quality. I love butches exactly because they “make no attempt to hide their outlaw status.” I know if I had been around in the 1950s I would have been a femme for sure. When I read Stone Butch Blues, I did not identify with Jess, but I sure wanted to be her girlfriend!

And here’s where it gets into gender identity.

“For them, it was masculine gender identity that was most important in the assumption of a butch role. They saw that men had all the status, and it was not easy to understand how to obtain status, even within one’s small subculture, without emulating those who had it. Women who identified as butch during that era were often uncomfortable with their femaleness because they could not accept the weakness, passivity, and powerlessness that were presented to them as female. As one woman now analyzes her past identification, “Since I refused to be ‘female’ as I understood it, I concluded that I had to be a ‘male.’ Her confusion is understandable, since girls were indoctrinated with the message that only two genders were possible and the sex roles connected to them were fixed and rigid.” (p129)

These 1950s lesbian communities took the stereotype of the sexual invert and turned it into strict rules that had to be followed. I see the same enforcement of strict rules going on now in “queer” communities. You have to follow the party line that “gender identity” is innate, you are not permitted to ask questions without getting slandered as “TERF,” and if you begin to transition and then change your mind, the community will turn its back on you. Instead of constructing identities of “butch” and “femme” there are now a whole array of identities to choose from, but they are still unnecessary, socially constructed identities. This is just more enforcement of group norms, even though the rules are different. I really hate seeing this enforcement of silly rules going on in queer communities. Lesbians are diverse women with all different personalities who should all be welcomed. It shouldn’t matter what type of personality we have, women who love women are lesbians and none of us are doing lesbian wrong. If our community still needs to enforce group rules so that we can have a sense of belonging, I believe it’s because we are still not welcomed in the mainstream world and so we need to construct that sense of belonging in our alternative groups.

I’m so glad that I never bought into the idea that women had to be a certain way or else they weren’t real women, or that lesbians have to act out specific roles. This rigidity of sex roles is just awful. Thanks to FEMINISM for fighting this sort of crap! Women who don’t like passivity and powerlessness are normal women. Women who wear loose, comfortable clothing and love other women are normal too. We should be safe to express our personalities and love our partners without being harassed, persecuted, medicalized, or converted. I do have a sort of fondness for butch and femme roles, if they’re done playfully, but as always, we should not be forced into acting out a stereotype, we should just be ourselves.

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15 thoughts on “The 1950s butch/femme roles

  1. This is really interesting. If the culture you are in determines what are acceptable roles, and your very existence is a challenge to that culture, you either have to mimic what the culture offers or invent the whole thing from scratch.

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  2. I agree..we should be ourselves..and if we choose roles realize they are CHOICE and can be walked away from at anytime. I do not believe inmfrozen rigid roles..that takes our humanity aeay, stultifies and limits us..my preference IS Butch on Butch and always has been. Butch/Femme is still a cultural norm.in Lesbian communities though not as enforced as it was back thennor even when I came out inmthe bat scene in the 1980s…still some Butches have a VERY STRONG aversion to us Butch loving Butches which is sad…and the whole stone phenomena I see as a damaged sexuality where the Butch cannot ever let go and “be vulnerable”. The flipping thing still IS a thing in certain circles and a notch on the belt of the Butch and in some cases the Femme..that flips a Butch. Thank goodness where tge flow between my partner and myself is mutual..we both have our strong dominant sides and our softer more vulnerable sides. I wouldnt make it longterm with a woman I could not be fluid in that way with where I had to CONSTANTLY live out a role fulltime and couldnt be sexually vulnerable or who wouldnt let me make love to her….

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  3. Wow. I don’t know. This strikes me as so sad. You’re in a horribly pigeonholing society, you bust out of the boxes, and … duplicate the boxes. (And then even have people thinking they’re “natural.” Hello? If they were natural you’d have pictures on ancient Egyptian tombs of women dressing in men’s clothes and holding doors for each other. How stupid can you get?)

    It reminds me of something I read years ago about or by Jean Genet and the duplication in French male gay society of all the heterosexist hierarchies and exploitation. Except at the time (1970s?) it was taken as obvious evidence of how manufactured the heterosexist crap was. Not as an indication of “naturalness”!

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  4. Thank you for this piece! Any lesbian who has been a part of a lesbian community is aware of the butch/femme versus others, and it’s colored my life personally. (oops I wrote an essay)

    “Butch/femme are heteronormative” is fine as a critique, but is more often used (in my experience) as horizontal hostility. I would agree that the social climate forced lesbians of that era to adopt “normal-seeming” roles. However, most of these critiques have a huge class stratification issue, with better-educated and more wealthy lesbians “critiquing” the working-class butch/femmes, typically hugely insensitive to the (extremely hard) experiences of the lower classes, and often just ostracizing. So when you say “I believe that butch/femme roles are a reflection of mainstream gender roles and heteronormativity” I don’t disagree. But there is an assumption in that statement that anybody who seems butch/femme must be purposefully (or cluelessly) mimicking gender roles, and that’s why butch/femme lesbians get mad at it. I think this needs more nuance than most people who write about it use. (None of this is a criticism of you or your piece, since I’m pretty sure you agree.)

    “My partner identifies as a butch but she is just being herself” – this quite my experience. There is an assumption by most people, including other lesbians, that butches are butch because they are intentionally trying to make themselves unattractive to men. I’ve definitely known some women who did that, especially ones that got a lot of harassment and abuse. But for me personally, I was always confused by this behavior, didn’t notice or care that men looked at me, and refused to hide or be ashamed of my body. And of course there were the “tomboys” who were accused of trying to copy boys on purpose…for whatever reason. I think it’s important to recognize that, even in a world without gender roles, some people will still have natural personalities that are similar to what we currently call “masculine” and “feminine”. Some butches are just doing what’s comfortable for them. (And for the record, I can assure you being butch fails to drive away men, perhaps reassurance to masculine straight women.)

    But for “butch” as a role, I would use that term for myself, not because of personality but because of social role. I see myself in the lives of the blue collar 50s lesbians, like “Jess”, far more than other groups (I promise I just really like motorcycles). Like FeistyAmazon said above, this is a chosen role that can be walked away from, just a vague social category that explains a bit about who I am in life. And I definitely wasn’t mimicking the butch/femme subculture, which isn’t exist where I grew up, and I was very much sneered at by my lesbian peers.

    I have a lot of thoughts on Stone Butch since I’d arguably fit that category, but I’ll stow them for now. (Maybe I’ll email?)

    “One of the great things about lesbian sex is that you don’t have to play a role” – I try to tell people that lesbian sex isn’t fork-and-spoon, it’s more chopsticks, lol.

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  5. There’s definitely a class issue in regards to criticism of butch/femme roles. Faderman even talks about that in the chapter. At the time, upper class lesbians were not doing butch/femme roles, they were dressing like elegant posh ladies and they thought butches and femmes were tacky and making lesbians look bad. Butch/femme was always a working class subculture.

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  6. The whole stone butch thing blows my mind because you never actually get to have an orgasm?!!! Like, if a man if a sexual aggressor he is aggressively using his dick to take his pleasure or whatever, but the stone butch thing I find hard to understand as a sexuality… Seems like the worst of both worlds tbh.

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  7. When I think of the whole butch/femme scenario of the 50s, I feel fortunate to have come of dyke-age in the 80s. I also have a hard time viewing the dynamic as much more than imitative. Possibly the organic polarization of natural differences is the only other thing that could retrospectively make it make any sense. In defense of our foremothers I will say that in a world and society that so absolutely despised us and made basic survival very difficult, wouldn’t an attempt at the perception (self and other) of ‘normalcy’ in at least some regard not be a mitigation tactic in and of itself? In other words, this might have been played out for us as much as for them. However unlikely it may seem, maybe it actually made things easier; basic things like getting an apartment or signaling to the straight world that you and your gf are not available. Period.

    Also, this is still an honor-based society in the 50s. This means that you get to feel good about yourself when you open doors or have them opened for you – depending on whether your role requires the imparting of “respect” or being its recipient.

    By the time I was able to access dyke culture in my mid/late teens, the 70s had done their work upon butch/femme cultural norms. They still lingered on but were quickly dwindling and had been (or were being) replaced by Allison Bechdel characters which had not yet been penned (http://dykestowatchoutfor.com). I’m guessing the late 60s and early 70s were the beginning of the end of the bar-culture status quo and also the first death knell (though not the fatal blow) of the bars themselves. That’s probably when the kikis finally got to be the necessary critical mass to turn that tide. However, nothing happens in a vacuum. Within the larger cultural context of the abandonment of repressive cultural norms and strict roles of all types, did holding on to this symbol of … what exactly???… make any sense?

    As someone who experiences being butch as a natural outcome of choosing myself first since childhood, the idea of that who I am could be anything other than my default setting seems ludicrous. For some reason when women don’t do things that feel completely wrong (performing availability, subservience, weakness etc.) and instead do the things that feel completely right (have opinions, free will and agency), we get accused of wanting to be men. I’ve been fighting this my whole life. Now for worse, there is a movement afoot comprised of people who have believed the lie that what feels natural to them makes them something other than who they are.

    I got to experience the tail-end of the butch/femme cultural heyday. It only let up because society as a whole let up. It was a microcosm of the larger whole and, however we may romanticize its more charming aspects, reflected a brutal reality. That brutal reality has now donned a new cloak called gender-identity but its malignity remains the same.

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