Butch/Femme Relationships: A Lesbian Way of Loving

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The relationships between butch lesbians and femme lesbians have a long recorded history, with descriptions of what we would identify as butch/femme unions dating back centuries, images appearing in the early twentieth century, and finally these identities being coined as such in the mid-twentieth century.

For many who may be unfamiliar with the complexities of the shared history between these two distinct but nuanced identities, butch/femme relationships may appear an attempt at mimicking heterosexual partnerships. However, a closer look at the women engaged in these partnerships reveals notable differences from heterosexual couples.

Beyond the obvious distinction that the women in butch/femme lesbian relationships are homosexual, the social roles of feminine and masculine players in such relationships are starkly contrasted against heterosexual partnerships. Butch and femme lesbian gender expressions are often misunderstood, and the unique relationships between butch/femme lovers even more so. 

The relationships between butch lesbians and femme lesbians do not make for a perfect parallel to heterosexuality, but rather make for a uniquely lesbian way of loving.

I make the claim that butch/femme partnerships are inherently different from heterosexual ones on the basis that butch lesbians experience female socialization and oppression as gender non-conforming women, which prevents them from filling any social or relational role equivalent to that of men. (In other words, butch lesbians do not benefit from patriarchy.) I also argue that the social roles and behavioral markers exhibited by femme lesbians are notably different from heterosexual and bisexual women. The relationships between butch lesbians and femme lesbians do not make for a perfect parallel to heterosexuality, but rather make for a uniquely lesbian way of loving.

Butch/Femme is a unique way of loving—a style of partnership all its own, independent of heteronormative understandings of romance, love, and marriage.

Historically, butch/femme partnerships have received criticism both from mainstream culture and feminist communities. A heterosexual person observing a femme in such a relationship may wonder why, if a butch lesbian “looks like a man”, she would not choose to partner with a man instead of a woman. This misunderstanding is brought on by expectations that all women find men attractive. In other words, “straight until proven otherwise.”

This phenomenon is referred to as heteronormativity. Heteronormative is defined as “of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality” (Merriam-Webster, 2019). This phenomenon is responsible for “compulsory heterosexuality.” This term was popularized in 1980 by Adrienne Rich in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” It refers to the belief that heterosexuality is the default setting while homosexuality is subversive or deviant.

Compulsory heterosexuality impacts all bisexual and homosexual individuals, because it is an inescapable cultural expectation. However, some have argued it most deeply impacts lesbians, as heteronormativity is a concept created and perpetuated by men to uphold patriarchal institutions. The very existence of lesbian relationships is a threat to patriarchy as it reinforces the notion that women can be self-sufficient and need not rely on men for companionship, pleasure, financial support, or physical protection.

Historically when women distance themselves from men, lesbian or not, they have faced ridicule and even abuse. In her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich criticizes her contemporary Nancy Chodorow for failing to recognize the institutional nature of compulsory heterosexuality: The practical reasons (like witch burnings, male control of law, theology, and science, or economic non-viability within the sexual division of labor) are glossed over. Chodorow’s account barely glances at the constraints and sanctions which, historically, have enforced or ensured the coupling of women with men and obstructed or penalized our coupling or allying in independent groups with other women (Rich, 1980, p. 636). 

It is important to examine compulsory heterosexuality when discussing femme lesbian identity, because femme lesbians, in particular, are impacted by it. This often leads to challenges in coming to terms with homosexuality for femme lesbians.

The common presumption that all lesbians are visibly gender non-conforming further reinforces the misconception that femmes who are attracted to butch women are subliminally attracted to men. This ignores the definition of homosexuality as “the quality or characteristic of being sexually attracted solely to people of one’s own sex” (Oxford Dictionary, 2019). Notice this definition excludes mention of gender presentation. A femme attracted to butch women is simply displaying a preference for a gender identity within the female sex. Therefore, because butch lesbians are of the female sex, the femmes attracted to them are no less lesbian.

Homosexual communities, particularly radical feminist communities of the 1960s, have accused butch/femme partners of trying to replicate heterosexual unions. Levitt and Hiestand note in their work A Quest for Authenticity: Contemporary Butch Gender, that lesbian feminists in the 1960s argued that butch women adopted misogynistic traits of men and that femme women participated in their own disempowerment by choosing to perform femininity (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004, p. 606).

In the 1960s there was a shift away from the once popular, and even obligatory, butch and femme identities toward the then more accepted androgynous style. Butch and femme lesbians adopted androgyny to avoid being ostracized by the radical feminist community (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004, p. 606). However, if the goal of radical feminists in the 1960s was to liberate women from strict gendered roles, they would have been surprised to learn that the androgynous aesthetic felt stifling to butch and femme lesbians.

A study conducted in 2002 on lesbians in a butch/femme separatist community found that 92% of respondents believed lesbian butch or femme gender expression to be innate and central to their sense of identity (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004, p. 606). In her essay “The Femme Question,” as it appears in The Persistent Desire: A Femme Butch Reader (1992), Joan Nestle speaks to the challenge of defining butch and femme lesbian identities in a way that was palatable for radical feminists:

In the 1950s particularly, butch-femme couples were the front-line warriors against sexual bigotry. Because they were so visible, they suffered the brunt of street violence. The irony of social change has made a radical, sexual, political statement of the 1950s appear today a reactionary, nonfeminist experience (Nestle, 1992, p. 138).

To call butch/femme lesbian partnerships a phony replica of heterosexuality or to ascribe problematic heterosexual phenomena (such as the male gaze or forced performance of feminine gender roles) to butch/femme lesbian relationships is to lack an understanding of the complex development of their respective identities, their long histories of rebellion and protest, and the unique way in which they intertwine.

To call butch/femme lesbian partnerships a phony replica of heterosexuality or to ascribe problematic heterosexual phenomena (such as the male gaze or forced performance of feminine gender roles) to butch/femme lesbian relationships is to lack an understanding of the complex development of their respective identities, their long histories of rebellion and protest, and the unique way in which they intertwine.

Femme Lesbian Identity

In order to explore the intricacies of butch/femme relationships, it is important to work upon a foundation of shared language and a mutual understanding of what “butch” and “femme” mean respectively. This is particularly true in the current climate, where the terms have been appropriated by individuals outside of the lesbian community.

“Femme” is a strictly lesbian term with cultural and historical significance to the lesbian community.

“Femme” is a strictly lesbian term with cultural and historical significance to the lesbian community. Its use by heterosexual and bisexual women can confuse the discussion around femme identity making it challenging to collect accurate data on the experiences of this specific population of women. In this article, I use “femme” exclusively to refer to lesbians and not to heterosexual or bisexual women who identify as feminine.

Femme can be used as both a noun and an adjective. Femme can be simply defined as a feminine lesbian. However, femme-identified lesbians (or femmes), interviewed by Levitt, Gerrish, and Hiestand in The Misunderstood Gender: A Model of Modern Femme Identity (2003), argued the identity goes deeper than a performance of femininity and reaches into erotic and relational roles in a partnership (Levitt, Gerrish, & Hiestand, 2003, p. 100).

Femme identity is greater than just an outward presentation. A femme’s physical appearance is representative of that woman’s preferences, informed both by the culture she exists in as well as innate factors.

So if femme is not as simple as performance of femininity, what is a femme? There is no clear definition of a femme in any of the research I came across. This lack of clarity can be attributed to the fact that femmes have had to reconstruct their identities in a postmodern world. Femme identity is now informed by feminist ideologies, and gender norms that are more flexible than they were in the 1940s and 1950s when the identity was first developed (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004, p. 606).

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The most effective way to identify commonalities among femmes is to magnify the voices of femmes as they share their experiences and try to bring clarity to their own identities. As Levitt et al. (2003) noted, “Femme was valued as a uniquely lesbian construct that could only be understood fully within lesbian culture and vernacular” (Levitt et al., 2003, p. 103). This can be challenging from a researcher’s perspective. Little empirical evidence exists on femmes and femme identity. However, we have some research available, as well as voices from essays and letters.

Joan Nestle discusses the importance of gathering femme voices in her anthology Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (1992):…I wanted to edit this book because I am a femme woman, tired of devaluation by myself and others, tired of past and present attacks on the integrity of our desire, tired of the penalties we have had to pay because we look like “women”… Femmes are the Lavender Lace Menace within our community (Nestle, 1992, p. 18).

To help give clarity to understandings of femme identity, especially independent of postmodernist misappropriations of the term, it is valuable to examine the history behind this identity—to shine light upon the accounts of boldness and courage that inspired Nestle to refer to femmes as the Lavender Lace Menace.

The term femme was coined in the mid-twentieth century and was defined as a lesbian gender. In the 1940s, it became more acceptable for women to attend bars and restaurants alone without male escorts. More men were away at war, meaning they were not home to keep lesbians apart. More women took up jobs outside of the home allowing for a previously unattained level of autonomy. As a result, butch/femme identities began their social development in lesbian bar culture and gained visibility (Pasulka, 2015).

Lesbian bars gave lesbians a safe space to begin to develop a culture all their own, away from the influence of heterosexual men. The bars operated within a strict set of social rules and expectations. Leslie Feinberg, a butch lesbian, describes her first visit to a gay bar as a fourteen-year-old: “That’s when I saw women dancing together, butch and femme. I almost started to cry, that’s how much I wanted to believe that it could be possible, that it could happen to me” (Feinberg, 1992, p. 82). Feinberg goes on to describe asking a drag queen if she can really buy a woman a drink or ask her to dance there. The response: “Sure honey, but only the femmes” (Feinberg 1992, p. 82).

Femme lesbians were marked by exaggerated femininity in clothing, hair, and makeup styles. The clear difference between a femme and a traditional gender-conforming heterosexual woman, is that these efforts of attention-seeking—bright lipstick and seductive dress—were performed with the intent of attracting a female suitor, not a male.

Femmes gave “feminine signifiers new meaning” by orienting their femininity towards women instead of men and brought lesbian relationships into the public eye (Levitt, et al., 2003. p. 99). Femmes furthermore validated butch women by choosing them and flaunting their affection in the presence of men who degraded butch women for their gender non-conformity.

Femmes were seen as sources for support and emotional respite within a community under constant threat of violence at the hands of heterosexual men. However, the relationship femmes had to butches in the community was largely different than the one heterosexual women had with heterosexual men. Femmes were not seen as inferior in lesbian communities. Rather than casting femmes in traditional feminine stereotypes of weakness or passivity, their femininity was celebrated as brave and even radical.

Femme lesbian identity solidified in lesbian communities into the 1950s. Femmes gained respect and femme identity was recognized as a valuable lesbian gender within the community. Femmes were seen as sources for support and emotional respite within a community under constant threat of violence at the hands of heterosexual men. However, the relationship femmes had to butches in the community was largely different than the one heterosexual women had with heterosexual men. Femmes were not seen as inferior in lesbian communities. Rather than casting femmes in traditional feminine stereotypes of weakness or passivity, their femininity was celebrated as brave and even radical (Levitt, et al., 2003, p. 99-100).

However, by the 1960s, a shift occurred in feminist analysis that became increasingly critical of femmes. Feminists, wanting to reject societal beauty standards that they felt oppressed women, held that femme identity was harmful to women. Feminists in the 1960s opted instead for more androgynous presentation as a means of rejecting patriarchal beauty standards. Femme identity, once respected for its unique place in the movement, was reframed as anti-feminist and problematic. Feminists were trying to liberate women, however, feminism of that era failed in this respect. As Amy Goodloe points out in her literary review, Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Butch-Femme (2010):

…the dominant form of 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 (Goodloe, 2010).

Many femme lesbians felt undermined and disrespected by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The new, popular presentation of androgyny and rejection of femininity became pervasive enough that although these theories originated outside of the lesbian community, they eventually became popular in lesbian feminism. This placed a great deal of pressure on lesbians who fit femme or butch identities to abandon these feminine and masculine presentations for a more androgynous style. Nestle is quoted in Levitt, et al.’s The Misunderstood Gender: A Model of Femme Identity (2003), saying “We lesbians from the fifties made a mistake in the early seventies; we allowed our lives to be trivialized and reinterpreted by feminists who did not share our culture” (Levitt, et al., 2003, p. 100).

It was not until the 1980s that attitudes began to change again, and femme identity reappeared and regained popularity within the community. However, the identity needed to be rewritten in light of postmodernist culture; the term became more about defining a sense of self and identity than about social necessity (Levitt, et al., 2003, p. 100).

Today, femme lesbians still wrestle with challenges unique to being femme such as invisibility, feeling accepted in the broader gay community, and challenges in coming to terms with their sexuality.

Some say femmes are more likely to suffer from internalized homophobia. This belief contributes to the misconception that femmes are attempting to pass as straight in public, at their jobs, or even in their families. However, in a more recent study conducted by Blair and Hoskin entitled Experiences of Femme Identity: Coming Out, Invisibility, and Femmephobia (2014), participants describe going out of their way to make their sexuality known while remaining true to their femme identity. None of the participants claimed they adopted a femme identity to conceal their lesbianism. In fact, participants were more concerned that their femme identity was a barrier to participation and to full acceptance in LGBT communities (Blair & Hoskin, 2014, p. 236).

We don’t know whether femme identities are as inherent as sexuality or if they are developed relationally to an individual lesbian’s experience. Regardless, femme identity does not appear to be a decision to conform to heteronormative standards or to pass as straight. In a letter to two femme “sisters,” Madeline Davis expresses the following as she wrestles with asserting her own femme identity:

Femmes we are – looking weird but somehow straight. We can pass [as straight], and it is so hard to explain that we can hate our ability to pass. It has been both our allure and our betrayal, because we are dykes – women who are absolutely crazed for women – and how scary we are to our butches and even to ourselves. What do we do with it all? Struggles within struggles within struggles (Nestle, 1992, p. 268).

One thing that nearly all femmes appear to agree upon, is that femme identity is not an attempt to pass, even if passing is a privilege. It is a gift and a burden—a gift to navigate the heterosexual world with more ease, but a burden to wade through incredulous glances and accusatory questions from within their own lesbian communities. Since the harsh criticism of femme identities in the 1960s, femmes have grappled with their place in LGBT and lesbian-specific communities. They are still unpacking what it means to be a feminine lesbian in a postmodernist world.

In Levitt et al.’s The Misunderstood Gender (2003), the femmes interviewed identified the challenges of operationalizing femme as an identity. However they felt it was necessary as a label to assist in identifying patterns that validated their experiences, and helped them to “make sense of themselves within the lesbian community” (Levitt et al., 2003, p. 103). Using the label femme, lesbians who identified as such were able to share experiences with one another that aided them in coming to terms with their sexuality. The research showed that femme lesbians’ experiences with coming out were complicated by their femme identity (Levitt et al., 2003. p. 104). They noted that stereotypes identifying all lesbians as butch or androgynous made it difficult to see themselves in the imagery and narratives about lesbians they had been exposed to. As a result, femmes often became aware of their same-sex attraction later in life.

Once femmes came to terms with their sexuality, they still struggled to assert themselves as valid lesbians in the gay community at large. For example, Blair and Hoskin noted “…many femme-identified individuals (63.7%) described experiences of having had their sexual identity questioned or treated as inauthentic/fraudulent by other members of the queer community, including partners and/or potential partners” (Blair & Hoskin, 2014, p. 237).

Understanding this feeling of invisibility is integral to understanding the femme experience in postmodernist lesbian culture. Without a clearly defined social role such as they had in the 1940s and 1950s, femme identity is called into question on the basis of feminine presentation. The same barriers femmes overcame to acknowledging their own sexuality also inhibit others in the lesbian community from recognizing the sexuality of femmes as valid. Many have bought into the myth that all lesbians are visibly gender non-conforming.

Without a clearly defined social role such as they had in the 1940s and 1950s, femme identity is called into question on the basis of feminine presentation. The same barriers femmes overcame to acknowledging their own sexuality also inhibit others in the lesbian community from recognizing the sexuality of femmes as valid.

Femmes across the board discussed the complexities of reconciling the expectation of androgyny with femme identity, not only due to perceptions about lesbianism from mainstream culture, but also from within the lesbian community. Adopting the label femme, a lesbian-specific term, allowed them to navigate those communities and assert their validity and right to exist there. The label helped them to reconcile their performance of femininity with their understandings of feminism. Femmes asserted that words such as “strength,” “openness,” and “honesty” were critical to their interpretation of femme identity, words not usually associated with heterosexual femininity (Levitt et al., 2003, p. 105).

Inspired by their desire to differentiate femme identity from heterosexual femininity, many women described a process of checking in with themselves and their intentions when performing femininity. Women would ask questions such as “who am I doing this for?” and if the answer was “myself,” or “other women,” they perceived it acceptable (Levitt, et al., 2003, p. 106).

The important element was that they were consciously excluding the male gaze when choosing makeup, revealing clothing, or high heels. This is quintessentially what differentiates femmes from feminine heterosexual and bisexual women. Femmes perform femininity exclusively for themselves and for other women—never for male attention or validation.

Modern femmes take and leave parts of femininity according to what feels empowering. Many modern femmes who strongly identify with radical feminist theories and even feminist critique of compulsory femininity are rewriting the terms and reconstructing femme as a lesbian gender. Many modern femmes may choose not to shave or not to wear makeup as a means of rejecting these beauty standards. The process of self-evaluation viewed through a feminist lens has healed the once contentious relationship between radical feminists and femme lesbians. The terms are no longer mutually exclusive.

Butch Lesbian Identity

Butch-identified lesbians (or butches) also have a clearly defined history within the lesbian community in relation to and independent of femme lesbians. Butch can be defined simply as a masculine lesbian. However, similar to femme identity, the social roles and presentation of butch identity is complex and nuanced, and there is nothing simple about defining the term. Butches are gender non-conforming, meaning they do not present in the ways typically expected of their sex. For butch lesbians this means rejecting the patriarchal expectation to perform femininity in physical and social presentation. In other words, butches do not conform to gender norms placed upon women. Butch women can be identified by characteristics such as masculine haircuts, men’s attire, and even what society identifies as masculine mannerisms. Modern butch women, in rejecting femininity, choose not to wear makeup or to shave their body hair.

Butch identity appeared in language at the same time as femme identity, in the mid twentieth century. Butches played a key role in lesbian communities as protectors. They were often tasked with protecting lesbian spaces, such as bars, from male brutality and police raids (Levitt et al., 2003, p. 99). Butches were often the target of harassment and arrests. Butch women also struggled to hold down jobs in the 1940s and 1950s, making them dependent at times on femmes for financial support.

This contributed to yet another breakdown of the conflation of butch/femme relationships and heterosexuality. While women in heterosexual partnerships relied on their male partners for financial support, making them subject to potential financial abuse and creating an inherent power imbalance in the relationship—man above wife—butch/femme partnerships often placed the masculine partner as reliant upon her feminine partner. This was in part due to the discrimination butch lesbians faced in the workforce. This created yet another stark contrast to masculine/feminine roles in heterosexual partnerships. Recognizing this history is important, because the role of femme is inherently different than the role of the heterosexual wife of the 1950s, and marks butch/femme partnerships as a uniquely lesbian construct.

Despite this recorded history of workplace discrimination against butch lesbians, a common misconception surrounding butch women is that they benefit under patriarchy. It is important to distinguish however, that while butch women may present as masculine, and may even pass as men in certain contexts, they cannot benefit from male privilege as they are not males.

Despite this recorded history of workplace discrimination against butch lesbians, a common misconception surrounding butch women is that they benefit under patriarchy. It is important to distinguish however, that while butch women may present as masculine, and may even pass as men in certain contexts, they cannot benefit from male privilege as they are not males. They still experience misogyny in the form of female socialization and other sex-related oppressions such as restricted access to reproductive health care and sexual abuse.

In fact, in a National Institute of Health report by Lehavot, Molina, and Simoni (2012) entitled Childhood Trauma, Adult Sexual Assault, and Gender Expression among Lesbian and Bisexual Women, the authors found that not only are sexual minority women more likely to experience childhood and adult sexual abuse and assault, but that butch girls were at a higher risk of abuse in childhood than their femme and bisexual peers (Lehavot, Molina, & Simoni, 2012, p. 10).

This could be due to vulnerability among butch girls who feel different from their peers. The study speculated that experiences of childhood sexual abuse may inform butch gender identity as girls attempt to distance themselves from their own trauma and potential for future victimization. The study was unable to determine whether these women began to develop butch gender identity before or after instances of childhood sexual abuse (Lehavot et al., 2012, p. 11). Acknowledging the sex-based oppression of butch women is important in distinguishing their role in lesbian communities as separate from heterosexual males in same-sex partnerships. Observing butch experiences through a feminist lens aids in disproving the myth that butch lesbians benefit from patriarchy.

Butch women are not men, did not grow up benefiting from male socialization, and therefore possess inherent differences from heterosexual men that are intrinsic to butch identity.

A primary distinction between men and butch women is that while men have been raised to feel that it is not only acceptable, but normal to wear masculine hairstyles, men’s clothing, and to display masculine mannerisms, butch women are actively rejecting their socialization in order to obtain a level of comfort in their own skin. Gender conforming men are meeting social norms, while butch women are deconstructing them. In this way heteronormativity affects butch lesbians as well. As gender non-conformity is so closely linked to lesbianism, the pressure to conform to gender norms for women is interrelated with lesbophobia. Butch lesbians, unable to avoid attention, are often the face of the lesbian movement and the most likely to receive harassment.

 

Gender non-conforming women experience oppression for daring to reject carefully cultivated societal expectations of femininity imposed on women. This oppression is deeply rooted in misogyny when both men and women experience it. Men who choose to perform femininity are oppressed for associating themselves with women as a class. Women who reject femininity are oppressed for challenging expectations placed upon women as a class.

This oppression has historically has been experienced by means of institutionalized police harassment and brutality. One stud recalls an interaction with a police officer:

I’ve had the police walk up to me and say, “Get out of the car.” I’m drivin’. They say, “Get out of the car,” and I get out. And they say, “What kind of shoes you got on? You got on men’s shoes?” And I say, “No, I got on women’s shoes.” I got on some basket-weave women’s shoes. And he say, “Well, you damn lucky.” ‘Cause everything else I had on were men’s—shirt, pants. At that time, when they pick you up, if you didn’t have two garments that belong to a woman, you could go to jail… and the same things with a man… They call it male impersonation or female impersonation and they’d take you downtown. It would really just be an inconvenience… It would give them the opportunity to whack the shit out of you (Davis & Lapovsky Kennedy, 1992, p. 69).

Stories such as these were not uncommon in lesbian communities. Because of the violence often faced by butch women, butchness became synonymous with toughness. Butches in lesbian bar culture, or “bar dykes” were given the specific role of protector (Davis & Lapovsky Kennedy, 1992, p. 70). They were often leaders in the community and earned their role because they could protect themselves and their friends from the hostility of police and homophobic men. The atmosphere was so hostile to lesbians that the ability to defend femmes became an integral part of the structuring of roles in butch/femme relationships.

A femme named Annie noted this phenomenon saying, “You went like into a straight bar, especially with the butches, and they had strength; they was no one to mess with. Some guy would start a fight with them, or call them ‘queer’ or ‘lezzie’ or whatever, then they’d… Too bad for the guy. He’d better be strong” (Davis & Lapovsky Kennedy, 1992, p. 70). Butch women provided much needed protection in an increasingly tempestuous environment for lesbians in the 1950s, and their femme counterparts provided emotional relief and comfort.

Leslie Feinberg  describes this relational dynamic in Letter to a Fifties Femme from a Stone Butch (1992) in this intimate moment with her femme partner following a painful experience of abuse in jail following a bar raid.

You ran a bath for me with sweet-smelling bubbles. You always laid out a fresh pair of white BVDs and a t-shirt for me and left me alone to wash off the first layer of shame. I remember, it was always the same. I would put on the briefs, and then I’d just get the t-shirt over my head and you would find some reason to come into the bathroom, to get something or put something away. In a glance you would memorize the wounds on my body like a road map – the gashes, bruises, cigarette burns” (Nestle, 1994, p. 105).

he social roles that developed within the lesbian community for butches and femmes were impacted by personal preference and interests, but they were also largely impacted by the struggles shared by all lesbians. Femmes needed protection and butches needed attention and care after protecting them. The relationships that developed in this climate were out of necessity and bound by mutual pain and by love.

Lesbians were geared for struggle in the 1940s and 1950s. The social roles that developed within the lesbian community for butches and femmes were impacted by personal preference and interests, but they were also largely impacted by the struggles shared by all lesbians. Femmes needed protection and butches needed attention and care after protecting them. The relationships that developed in this climate were out of necessity and bound by mutual pain and by love.

The 1960s brought broader acceptance of lesbian women and relationships. However, butch lesbians, just like their femme counterparts, would trade oppression at the hands of men for a new kind of oppression at the hands of feminists.

As attitudes changed within feminist communities of the 1960s and femmes were being harshly criticized, butch women were also criticized within some radical feminist discourse for their adoption of masculine qualities in their partnerships with femmes. Butch/femme dynamics were deemed problematic in radical feminist communities. Nestle noted:

Everyone has taken a turn at denigrating the butch-femme couple—from the sexologist at the turn of the century who spoke about the predatory female masculine invert and the child-woman who most easily fell her victim, to the early homophile activists of the fifties who pleaded with these “obvious” women to tone down their style of self-presentation, to the lesbian-feminists of the seventies who cried “traitor” into the faces of the few butch-femme couples who did cross over into the new world of cultural feminism (Nestle, 1992, p. 14).

For those unable to recognize sex, rather than gender presentation, as the source of oppression for women, butch women may appear to benefit from patriarchy. History shows, however, that butch lesbians have experienced systematic and institutionalized oppression at the hands of men. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s drew assumptions about butch lesbians and their relationships with their femmes that were largely uninformed by an understanding of the culture. Butch women were accused of upholding the standards of patriarchy that they had fought to dismantle, often risking their own safety to do so (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004, p. 606).

For those unable to recognize sex, rather than gender presentation, as the source of oppression for women, butch women may appear to benefit from patriarchy. History shows, however, that butch lesbians have experienced systematic and institutionalized oppression at the hands of men.

However, the new critical approach to understanding gender gave new language and insight for butch women trying to comprehend their own gender non-conformity. The narrative shifted from an understanding of femininity as inherent to womanhood (with butch women presenting a deviation) to an interpretation of femininity as a patriarchal construct, designed to oppress women. When butch women chose not to shave their body hair or wear makeup (thus existing naturally), they were rewriting the terms and conditions of womanhood. Because of this breakdown of femininity as performance rather than a series of traits inherent to females, feminists noted that women in their natural state were considered gender non-conforming, while men existing in their natural state were conforming to the prescribed gender norms. Feminists challenged this by excluding certain feminine elements from their presentation. As a result, some presentational elements common among butches became the norm within the community.

One was not a woman because of what she wore, but because of her biological reality and the sex-based oppression she experienced as a result. So while butch women were pressured to move more towards androgyny to avoid being ostracized from the lesbian feminist community, some gender non-conformity became normalized, allowing for butch women to navigate the heterosexual world with less stigma.

Taking a critical view of gender is controversial in the current political climate, but is necessary when discussing experiences of butch lesbians and the development of their identities.

Jeffreys notes in her book Gender Hurts (2014), that “the idea of ‘gender identity’ relies on stereotypes for its meaning and is in direct conflict with the understanding in CEDAW that such stereotypes are profoundly harmful to women” (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 4). Similar to femmes, butches consider their presentation an innate part of their identity. Rather than the common misconception that butch women are attempting to appropriate maleness by presenting in a masculine way, butches claim that masculinity is not owned by men. The understanding of the concept of gender as a separate entity from sex was adopted by feminists in the 1960s. It was meant to identify the socially constructed behavior attributed to biological sex (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 4).

This separation of gender and sex is a framework upon which to understand butch identity. While butch women acknowledged their biological sex as female, their innate characteristics and personalities did not fit neatly into the gender norms ascribed to women.

The concept of gender abolitionism sought to dispel these gender norms, allowing gender non-conforming women to navigate masculinity free from patriarchal expectations of sex. These expectations, which applied femininity to women and masculinity to men, were suffocating to individuals who feel more comfortable presenting outside of these roles (Jeffreys, 2014, p. 2).

Research on butch women has provided some understanding that butch identity may have some innate qualities from a biological standpoint as well. Butch women, when compared to their femme counterparts, have more masculine body types as defined by higher waist-to-hip ratios. On average they were also less likely to desire to give birth than femmes and were found to possess higher levels of testosterone than femmes (Levitt & Hiestand, 2004, p. 606). It can be challenging to parse out how much of butch identity is innate and how much is socially constructed. However, it could be argued that because butch women are not socialized to present as masculine, and in fact, there is social pressure to present as feminine, that cultural influence is less likely to play a role. This offers further evidence that butch women are not mimicking men in their presentation, but rather fulfilling an innate desire to adopt a masculine presentation.

Butch/Femme Partnerships: A Conclusion

Butch and femme lesbian relationships developed organically in the 1950s and 1960s as a response to struggle. Butch women were the protectors, femmes were healers; both were fighters. Together they persisted in the face of violence and persecution from one enemy, and doubt and mischaracterization from another. This paper explored the intricacies of these relationships and contrasted them against mainstream heterosexual partnerships.

Both identities present evidence that they are innate. In the face of criticism, these identities persisted. Butches continued to exist in light of accusations that masculine presentation removed them from womanhood. Femmes continued to exist despite criticism that they were active participants in their own oppression or that they weren’t lesbians at all. These identities which came into definition in the 1940s and 1950s, still exist in our postmodernist world—somewhat redefined, but still distinctly rooted in lesbian history. This history is often ignored, but as Joan Nestle said, “…a women’s history that has no place for femme-butch women will find itself impoverished” (Nestle, 1992, p. 19).

Butch/femme relationships hold a valuable place in women’s liberation movements. They rewrote the terms and conditions of womanhood, and rewrote masculine and feminine social roles. In butch/femme partnerships, masculine and feminine could find equal footing that heterosexual partners could not achieve in light of male privilege under patriarchy. Butch/femme partners paved the way for lesbians to come by creating the first safe spaces for them to explore their sexualities and to find one another in lesbian bars. While butch and femme lesbians have faced harsh criticism, to ignore their impact and gifts to the lesbian community would be a disservice.

Butch/femme relationships hold a valuable place in women’s liberation movements. They rewrote the terms and conditions of womanhood, and rewrote masculine and feminine social roles. In butch/femme partnerships, masculine and feminine could find equal footing that heterosexual partners could not achieve in light of male privilege under patriarchy. Butch/femme partners paved the way for lesbians to come by creating the first safe spaces for them to explore their sexualities and to find one another in lesbian bars. While butch and femme lesbians have faced harsh criticism, to ignore their impact and gifts to the lesbian community would be a disservice.

It can be a challenge to define these identities. They are best understood among the women who experience them. One must actively challenge socially constructed notions of gender and sexuality to fully grasp the nuance of these individual identities and their relationship to one another.

In researching this topic, I found it a challenge to find empirical data, especially on femmes. Our lack of understanding has not stopped these identities from persisting, however. The women who hold this identity close have given us invaluable insight through their own descriptions of themselves and their journeys in interviews, letters, and essays.

“Flamboyance and fortitude, femme and butch – not poses, not stereotypes, but a dance between two different kinds of women, one beckoning the other into a full blaze of color, the other strengthening the fragility behind the exuberance. We who love this way are poetry and history, action and theory, flesh and spirit.”

While more research on butch identity exists, the challenge came in challenging modern interpretations of gender. This was necessary in order to understand the experiences of butch women and to bring light to their unique challenges. These challenges are what set them apart from men and what exclude them from male privilege. Together, butch and femme women deconstruct and reconstruct gender. They create something new.

Nestle said:

Flamboyance and fortitude, femme and butch – not poses, not stereotypes, but a dance between two different kinds of women, one beckoning the other into a full blaze of color, the other strengthening the fragility behind the exuberance. We who love this way are poetry and history, action and theory, flesh and spirit (Nestle, 1992, p. 14).

Butch and femme lesbian couples are more than their stereotypes and are not cheap mockeries of straight couples. Rather, they were uniquely constructed in the face of struggle, both women—butch and femme—finding empowerment in their gender expression and in their rebellious, radical love.