Femininity, Butch, and Feminism – 2

Part 2.  Finding and Forging Alliances

Bremerton, WA:  So what do you do when your community implodes?  What happens when every effort to return beloved spaces back to sanity fails?  What happens when you find you cannot control any part of your surroundings, and you’re left with the agony of unquelled frustration?  You move.  You turn inward, to save yourself as best you can.  Your salvation becomes your entire identity, and others either validate it … or they undermine your very being.  So it seems.  I became vegetarian in the very early 80s, and would continue to be so, until my health undeniably began to fail a decade later.  Much in my life changed in that decade, though never my commitment to the community of women, or my belief that Lesbianism held the potential for a deeper feminism.  I just hadn’t found that space.  Vegetarianism had messed me up terribly.  I was moodily unstable, paralyzed with panic attacks, and these were exacerbated by a very hostile work environment.  I’ve wondered, when people have chided me for leaving Lesbians behind, would you have wished me on a sister?

The Midwest:  I was still in an uneasy truce between my body’s nutritional needs and my political compassions when I became interested in local foods and joined a farm group on-line.  I had mentioned vegetarianism positively, and another member gently pointed me toward the work of Weston Price.  I read until all hours of the night, and into the next days, alternately fascinated with his findings and appalled at his cruelty toward those he considered misshapen, defective; he was most assuredly condemning of fat people, as well.  I hated hated him; I found his research to be invaluable.

Still searching for a politics that fit, and which would allow for the inclusion of fat activism and an unwavering belief in the potential for Lesbianism to shape femalehood positively, I found the writings of deep ecologist Derrick Jensen, and his sometimes-publicist, Lierre Keith.  Lierre wrote The Vegetarian Myth.  It was in defending Lierre from those applauding the cayenne-laced ‘pie’ attack in March of 2010 that I came to meet, in print, another author named Bev Jo.  And it was through further correspondence with Bev Jo that I came to understand an entirely different conceptualization of ‘Butch.’

Imagine a girlchild, growing up aware enough of herself to never take on the role, the trappings of femininity.  To never succumb to the demand to be remade a girl, or woman, in the unlevel gaze of the surrounding patriarchy.  Into this hierarchy she is born, but never conforms, never capitulates, never succumbs.  She is Butch.  Butch is how we females can be, would be, without the overwriting of patriarchy upon our souls and bodies and minds.  It takes tremendous courage to defy the patriarchal pressure to show sex-role conformity.  Acknowledging this courage does not diminish the fact that other females do succumb for varied reasons, including logical and honorable reasons, including sheer survival.  Acknowledging the special resilience and determination required to maintain one’s identity as Butch does not lessen the value of other females; it only serves to point out that some are incredibly brave, and that bravery has value for all of us — that courage is inspiration for all of us.  She may shine, the courageous Butch, and it doesn’t diminish our braveries in other areas; we can honor hers.

So what do we do?  Societally, we mock her as masculine, as an imitation of men, plural, rather than a vibrant demonstration of woman, singular.  Of woman, untainted.  We ascribe to her all the characteristics considered male, for if she isn’t demonstrably female, she must be male.  Within feminism, we have still never managed to carve out serious space that might be androgyny — that might be heteropatriarchally role-free.  And it is this failure of feminism that concerns me.  We have never made ourselves address what really is ‘femininity.’

I started to read dictionary definitions, and the sociology and psychology literature on “gender identity,” which is where ‘femininity’ resides in the view of the dominant culture.  It was terribly depressing.  Take this, for example, published in the Encyclopedia of Sociology, Revised Edition:

Burke and Tully’s (1977) work found that children with cross-sex identities (boys who thought of themselves in ways similar to the way most girls thought of themselves and vice versa) were more likely than children with gender-appropriate identities: 1) to have engaged in gender-inappropriate behavior, 2) to have been warned about engaging in gender-inappropriate behavior, and 3) to have been called names like “tomboy,” “sissy” or “homo.” Not surprisingly, boys and girls with cross-sex gender identities were more likely to have low self-esteem.  (http://wat2146.ucr.edu/Papers/00b.pdf)

In Cordelia Fine’s  A Mind of Its Own, a book on brains and bias, she offers studies that show that “gender non-conforming” women often have their work sabotaged by their conformist cohorts.  (Page 192; Norton:  2006.)

In the last decade or so, our culture has allowed the sexologists of Jeffreys’ writings (see Unpacking Queer Politics, 2003) to create the definitions by which too many of us live.  Sex, now renamed gender, has become something we play with, take on or leave off, or change daily like the equally-trivial socks or underwear, without regard to the overarching hierarchy on which sex, renamed gender, is established.  Too often within feminism, it is the sacred thing of which we do not speak, still giving credence to the sexology view, since we are in no grand way fighting it.  Porn, violence against women, other misogynies?  Sure we fight back.  But asking ourselves about what femininity means, pondering the widespread acceptance of our culturally-appropriate female role (in appearance:  shaving legs and armpits, wearing make-up, coloring and curling and otherwise coifing our hair, and wearing crippling footwear and fragile fabrics in styles to enhance — or just show — curves and skin; in behaviors:  carefully considering male feelings foremost, deference, passivity, unshakeable friendliness, helping others, easily hurt, weaker) — these questions are disallowed.  Even within feminism.  These are labeled divisive, and we are urged not to go here!

Now I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the self-righteous, with those who are certain they have the entire picture.  And I don’t particularly care where they are on the hierarchy; to claim to have a better picture due to firsthand experience is logical, but to claim to own the whole view is foolish.  Yes, women are encouraged to hem and haw, to make tentative assertions rather than certain, assured statements.  And yet for anything but a person’s own experience, I often find these statements overdone.  What if others have a different but ultimately useful view?  What if others become silenced by this overstatement?  Those more-marginalized, by race or class or other oppressions, are less likely to speak across the assurance of those they perceive as more-elite, as oppressors, true.  But it’s also likely when people aren’t all that far apart on the hierarchy.  What I’m searching for is a gentler feminism that begins from a position of care, whose demands begin from there, from an expectation that we are in this together.

And since so many of us have never fully examined our own beliefs — or have even allowed the sexologists of Jeffreys’ writings to frame our view — the discussion of femininity becomes convoluted — and sensitive and contradictory.  The majority idea seems to be that Butches are aggressive, masculine and dominant, and therefore should be cast in the role duality as privileged.  Bev makes the case quite well that the privilege belongs to those who are more-conforming, and since women’s patriarchally-proper role is to be the feminine offsetting the masculine of sex duality, it is Femmes who fare better, culturally.  While femininity insures the low to his higher, the frivolous to his importance, it is also the rewarded way of being, in relation to his ability to reward.

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