Femininity, Butch, and Feminism – 1

Part 1.  Lesbian Feminism in the 70s and 80s

Spokane, WA:  When I was 13, I watched a talk show on television featuring a panel of Lesbians.  The women were varied in appearance; all were articulate and self-confident, reasonable and interesting.  With the experience of decades, I now understand that these shows exist within a scripted framework to either positively or negatively — in the extreme — offer up the panel and its identity to the audience.  Challenges and contradictions hide behind the glow of approval, or become the focus, proof of wrongness, in the case of disapproval.  But this was an excellent representation in many aspects, especially race as I recall, and for 1969 or ’70 it was phenomenal.  And I absorbed it all with the utter fascination of a very young teen who had lived her early years in an economically-impoverished, multicultural neighborhood.  So when my mother came home from shopping, I explained all I had seen and heard to her as we put away the groceries.  My enthusiasm made her uncomfortable, but, I reasoned, she hadn’t seen the show.  What could her experiences with Lesbians have been, anyway?  She must simply be uneducated, I decided.

As she kicked me out of her house, six years later, I learned her understanding of Lesbianism.  She had worked with a couple in an office setting, a very feminine woman and a very masculine woman, and apparently they fought all the time.  Since her first husband had raped her (perfectly legal) and had beaten her (fortunately not legal), and she had remarried twice more, she was capable of avoiding group-blame based on the actions of a few.  That generosity did not extend to Lesbians.  She wrote me a cold good-bye note shortly afterward that included a warning on how I would surely become a middle-aged Lesbian hunting young girls if I stayed on my chosen path.  To her credit, she saw it as a choice; sadly, I could never communicate adequately to convince her how wonderful a choice it was.  Goddess knows — and very much to her horror — I tried!

Pullman, WA:  The Lesbian world was truly wonderful.  Before the fateful eviction, I had just completed my freshman year of college in a town with another college across the state line a few miles distant:  two state schools with their usual complement of Lesbians, all so very close!  There were sports rivalries between the institutions, followed by completely amicable parties, some of which I was allowed to attend.  I continued absorbing the culture, and its histories, and its norms.

In the mid-70s, in the area where I lived, Lesbians had adopted a certain dress and specific symbols for identification.  But it was much more than a style, it was a defiant stand against the prescriptions of heterosexual womanhood.  We were dykes then.  We dressed in that neutral zone, comfortable and easily mobile, tomboyish, athletic — whether we really were or not.  Rings, necklaces, and the occasional earrings were, if anything, symbolic — the labrys, star and crescent (via the Greek Diana), interlocking women’s symbols, and the occasional lambda were icons I was carefully taught to recognize as Lesbian, or Lesbian-inclusive.

Seattle, WA:  Without money, education became an impossible dream; I moved to the largest city in the state.  Carolyn Heilbrun’s Toward a Recognition of Androgyny was published, and the concept of androgyny batted about, and yet there was something uncomfortable in it.  Didn’t disavowing the feminine also serve to marginalize women?  We could be who we were, daring to defy, but expecting this of all females seemed particularly demanding, anti-choice, even misogynistic.  On one hand, what was fair?  And on the other, how would we truly value females without succumbing to reverence for man-made artificiality?  How could we tell the difference?  And, despite our concern for equity, why did it seem that non-Lesbian women weren’t even trying?  Overlaying this daring, tangled, honorable Lesbian uncertainty were the concepts of butch and femme.  These were framed as old-fashioned roles played out by Lesbians who did not understand themselves separately from the heterosexual world; they were unfortunate caricatures of a past that feminism helped us all to transcend.

The large company where I worked held annual dress-up days.  They called it Western Days, and held a company-wide ‘western’ cookout in one of the large parking lots adjacent to the main four-story structure.  Some of us used it as an opportunity to make political statements.  The sharp and funny temporary worker in the personnel department who came costumed as a Southern belle was summarily let go (she was Black).  I showed up to work attired in varied costumes over those many summer events, but the most memorable was the year another company Lesbian and I came as caricatures of heterosexuality, as ‘Butch and (f)Emmy.’  We found a top hat, beard, pocket watch and coat-tailed suit jacket for my friend, and I wore a ragged dress, bonnet, bruises, and baby-doll stuffed apron, and walked with my head down several steps behind her, barefoot, of course.  (It’s eerie how perfectly the greens and browns of conventional eye shadow mimic bruises.)  The executive secretaries, primarily women in their 40s and 50s and all notably heterosexual, roared with laughter as we entered the gathering space.  All others seemed bewildered.  We one-lined to anyone who persisted in questioning us that we were parodying heterosexuals’ roles, not ours.

It was true enough, compared with hets.  But the egalitarianism, the comfortable levelness between women within Lesbianism, while true in some senses, was terribly incomplete.  Not only did Lesbianism not always address its white members’ racism, its more-elite members’ classism and its fat oppression, the claim to a status levelness between simply-dykey women would be challenged, too — but from pressure outside the movement rather than from within.  Our distance from heterosexual norms was a pendulum swing, not a lasting change.

By the early 1980s, a variety of backlashes had quieted the initial deep feminisms of the dyke community I knew and loved.  Teresa Trull had released an album with her heavily made-up face on its cover, the advent of the lipstick lesbian for some of us.  And the already-uneasy alliance with gay men was further strained by their demand that Lesbians accept and defend their subculture’s sadomasochism and pornography.  True to the pattern Sheila Jeffreys explains so well in her books, patriarchy’s sexologists came in and remade the overt Lesbian image to better mesh with the boys’ world.  The community meetings and open discussion groups, from those associated with local colleges right down to open raps at the Lesbian Resource Center, became recruitment zones for the new malequeer agenda.  The femininity question was evaded, as was exploitation, and the guidelines simplified:  if it led to orgasm, it was righteous.  The masculinist hedonism of the 60s, transcended by feminism through the early 80s, returned with a vengeance as the potential of feminism was — and has continued to be — co-opted by the fun-first factions.  Read Sheila Jeffreys (try The Spinster and Her Enemies, 1986, for an excellent starting point, from 1800 to 1930); this is our history over and again.

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