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Butch-Femme Relations  
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Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness

The first book by a lesbian author with a lesbian heroine who could be identified explicitly as butch appeared in 1928 with the publication of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. Unlike Hall's contemporaries Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather, who depicted their personal relationships only obliquely, Hall wished to write about lesbianism openly although she was aware that her own lesbian relationships would be held up to public scrutiny.

Hall's work is not only the best-selling lesbian novel of all time, but it also surely presents the most famous image of a butch lesbian in the protagonist, Stephen Gordon, a wealthy Englishwoman who is rejected by her family because of her lesbianism. Born "a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby," Stephen is easily identified as butch, marked by "the curious suggestion of strength in her movements, the long line of her limbs--she was tall for her age--and the pose of her head on her over-broad shoulders."

Although it was at first banned as obscene, Hall's book about Stephen Gordon's coming of age as a lesbian has gone on to influence countless readers, both homosexual and heterosexual. For decades, Hall's handsome, heroine served as a model for butches to emulate.

The Well might seem dated to modern readers because of its insistence that "real" lesbians are born and not a product of their cultural influences, yet we must not forget the tremendous impact this book has had on countless readers for over half a century as the best-known account by a lesbian about lesbian life. It certainly has influenced many readers to understand butch-femme relationships, as depicted by Stephen and her lover, Mary, as the typical form for lesbian unions.

The 1950s

In the 1950s, as lesbian historian Lillian Faderman points out, butch-femme roles became even stricter than they had been in previous decades. A heterogenderal pattern for relationships seemed the only conceivable model to many gay men and women of this period.

Given the predominance of butch-femme roles and the often unquestioning assumption that all lesbians were butches or femmes, it is hardly surprising that much of the literature of this period dwells on the importance of butch-femme relationships. Hundreds of cheap paperbacks with sensational titles were produced in the 1950s and 1960s for both heterosexual and homosexual readers.

The Lesbian Pulp Novels of the 1950s and 1960s

Ann Bannon's Beebo Brinker books, which were reissued by Naiad Press in the early 1980s, are some of the most perceptive accounts of the difficulties facing lesbians in this period. In Women in the Shadows (1959), Beebo Brinker (1962), and other novels, Bannon depicts a world in which butch-femme relationships are essential, yet often can lead to conflict.

Even Beebo Brinker, the handsome, self-assured butch who first appears in the novel bearing the same name, cannot remain unaffected by the society around her that considers butch women to be unattractive and unnatural. Unable to fit into typical "feminine" jobs, Beebo ends up working as an elevator operator for ten years because it is one of the few positions that will allow her to wear pants. Even Laura, Beebo's lover, is "ashamed to go anywhere out of Greenwich Village with her . . . Beebo, nearly six feet of her, with her hair cropped short and her strange clothes and her gruff voice."

The butch lesbian, whether Stephen Gordon or Beebo Brinker, is an eternal exile from heterosexual society, which is one of the reasons she is such a recurring figure in lesbian literature; she represents not only her alienation, but also the alienation of the entire lesbian community from heterosexual norms.

Like Beebo and Stephen, Christopher Hamilton in Randy Salem's novel Chris (1959), is a butch lesbian who fails to blend into heterosexual society: "Lean and firm, built like a young boy, she did not look like a thirty-year-old woman. She was all things beautiful, graceful and desirable."

But whereas Beebo is unsuccessful at her career, Chris is highly successful as a marine biologist and deep-sea diver. Although Chris's life is certainly not free of anxiety (she has a drinking problem and a beautiful but cold girlfriend), she is still portrayed as a heroine with whom the audience can identify, particularly when she gives up her demanding and deceitful girlfriend in order to follow her own career aspirations. For a lesbian audience, Chris, like Beebo, is portrayed as a potentially desirable role model, explaining some of the allure early pulp novels had for lesbian readers.

Compared with the very evident butch-femme roles of Bannon's or Salem's books, the butch-femme relationships in Valerie Taylor's lesbian pulp novels of the 1960s are typically less apparent.

For instance, in Taylor's novel A World Without Men (1963), the main lesbian characters, the lovers Erika and Kate, fit into butch and femme roles, respectively, yet their roles are not nearly so clearly demarcated as are the roles of Beebo and Laura. Although she is "a girl who looked like a boy," Erika still is more responsible for domestic chores than is Kate. And both women are horrified by the blatant butch-femme roles of a couple they pass.

Whether in Bannon's or Taylor's books or the hundreds of other lesbian pulp novels that were produced in the 1950s and early 1960s, butch and femme roles were explored in myriad ways, yet only rarely were they questioned; most writers simply assumed that they were the "natural" way to divide the lesbian community.

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