My Butch Career, a memoir by Esther Newton

I was absolutely delighted to read My Butch Career, a memoir by Esther Newton. I had never heard of Newton before but I saw a recommendation for this book and was intrigued. Esther Newton is an American lesbian born in 1940 who came out before Stonewall and was a part of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement. She led a fascinating life and she is very skilled as a writer. There are many things that delighted me about this book, most notably these three: the fact that she wrote about all the social movements that interest me as a lesbian feminist, and how they personally affected her throughout her life; the fact that she wrote explicitly about her sexual feelings and some of her sexual experiences; and the fact that she wrote descriptions of her past that bring the reader right into the action—she wrote as if she has a photographic memory and can still capture every detail, both physical, emotional, and sensory, of the important scenes of her life. It was an intimate and moving read, and I found myself relating to her and appreciating very much what she shared.

One of the first things Newton wrote was a description of what ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ mean to her, and as regular readers know, this is a favourite topic of mine. In order to explain what femmes are, she compared them to Baby Houseman, the heroine of the film Dirty Dancing. I was resistant to this at first because why would you use a straight character to explain what a lesbian is? But after fully comprehending what she was explaining, I found this was an absolutely wonderful description. Newton thinks of a femme as a woman who is “gutsy and determined,” who will pursue the lover of her choice despite it being socially unacceptable. She understands that a femme has femininity but is anything but a doormat, and is actually quite subversive despite having a conventional appearance.

This leads me into telling you my favourite part of the book, which is pretty near the beginning, when Newton describes the first time she had sex with a woman. It happened when Newton was a young adult in college and she was attempting to dress feminine and blend in, and yet a femme woman spotted her and saw right through her disguise—saw that she was a dyke and that she was the masculine type. The femme was “gutsy and determined” just like Baby, and pursued what she wanted immediately. The tale of seduction was breathtaking and I read over it multiple times before moving on with the book. Today while writing this review I discovered that Esther Newton has recorded herself reading this passage and put it on her website—go listen to it!

I’ve always considered gender nonconforming women to be my heroes, but the way that Newton describes the femmes of the past makes me realize I should be in just as much awe of them. When I try to imagine being a feminine-looking college girl in the 1950s and having to spot butches, who were sometimes in feminine disguise as they didn’t feel free to express themselves properly, and make the first move on them, in an extremely homophobic environment and under pressure to marry a man, I think it would be extremely difficult and nearly impossible. After reading the story of Newton’s seduction by a young femme who knew what she wanted and went for it, I feel extremely grateful for every femme who’s ever done that.

I was thrilled to find out that Newton was a lesbian feminist during the second wave of feminism—what a time to be alive! I loved the way she described her emerging feminist consciousness:

“I was watching the Miss America pageant on television when suddenly from the balcony a banner appeared with two words: “Women’s Liberation.” I don’t recall seeing footage of the protests outside the hall, or the picture of the woman marked up like cuts of beef, or the crowning of a live sheep as Miss America. What I remember is my astonishment that women were protesting womanhood. There were other women out there, even women with long hair, feminine women, who were fed up with being good girls. As I saw it, they were joining me. I was no longer alone with my anger.” p132-133

It was beautiful to hear about Newton’s transformation from insecure girl to confident adult thanks in large part to the women’s movement.

Later, Newton got somewhat involved in the lesbian s/m movement that emerged after lesbian feminism had enforced a politically correct sexuality on the lesbian community. Regular readers of this blog know that I oppose the sex-positive movement on the grounds that it’s more positive toward abuse than sex. However, Newton is mature and reasonable and doesn’t demonize any group, not like the overly dramatic queer activists of today—she learned from and respected both movements and used what she learned from them to accept herself and express herself more fully. Come to think of it, I’ve actually done the same thing myself—after diving into a (purely historical, as the movements have already ended) study of the lesbian feminist movement and the “sex-pozzie” movement, I’ve also retained those lessons that I value and rejected those ideas that I thought were erroneous, and assimilated all I’ve learned into my conception of myself.

Before Newton accepted herself as a lesbian, she had a lot of relationships with men, and this was shocking for me to read. I had a moment of wondering if she is actually bisexual, but after finishing the book, I understand that she is truly lesbian, but pre-Stonewall life was so anti-gay that she feared getting kicked out of school and fired from her job if anyone thought she was gay. She felt she had to date men in order to survive. This was an important lesson for me, as a lesbian who came of age right around the time when same-sex marriage was legalized in my country, where GSAs are common in high schools, and where gays and lesbians can usually be out at work with no negative repercussions. Esther Newton is one of the people who changed things so that I can live the safe life I live, and I’m extremely grateful for her.

Newton succeeded in becoming an academic, after much struggle. I was moved by reading about how she struggled with sexism and homophobia on top of the usual setbacks and frustrations that occur when a young person embarks upon a career, and how she pushed herself through the pain and succeeded despite it all. She studied gay topics in anthropology when no one else was doing so and become a pioneer of gay and lesbian studies.

Newton is definitely a lesbian hero, and her story will inspire any lesbian, particularly those who struggle with being a non-conforming woman in a sexist society. Please read this book! Read it for the important lesson in lesbian history, for the gorgeous and sexy writing, and to celebrate one of our important lesbian pioneers.