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Butch-Femme Relations  
page: 1  2  3  

Creating a Lesbian Past

Although most of the lesbian pulp writers focused on contemporary lesbian experiences, other writers sought to create a lesbian past. The necessity of narrating a lesbian past is an important issue in Isabel Miller's novel, Patience and Sarah, first published as A Place for Us in 1969, a text that examines the lives of two lesbians in early nineteenth-century New England. Along with The Well of Loneliness, Miller's novel is one of the literary works most frequently cited by lesbian readers for its prominent butch-femme couple.

Sarah, a young woman who wears men's clothing, cuts her hair short, performs tasks commonly associated with males, travels around the countryside masquerading as a man, and complacently announces that she is "Pa's boy," falls in love with Patience, who engages in more traditionally feminine activities, such as needlework, and has a more stereotypical female appearance.

When faced with the hostile reactions of others toward their relationship, Patience and Sarah set out for rural New York to begin a farm. As in many lesbian novels, a butch-femme relationship is portrayed very positively. Patience and Sarah, rather than merely mimicking male-female roles, however, actively seek to create their own identities. For them, their relationship offers an escape from the often stultifying traditional roles available to heterosexual farm women in the early 1800s.

In addition, this novel attempts to build up a lesbian history of "what might have been," an activity that is particularly important for the lesbian novelist, given the scarcity of materials available about lesbians in the past.

The Reaction of the Feminist Movement

Unlike Patience and Sarah and the many other lesbian novels and short stories that discussed butch-femme relationships as a central experience in lesbian life, many literary works written by lesbians in the late 1960s and early 1970s turned away or even rejected completely the butch-femme couple.

Instead, lesbian writers, influenced by the feminist movement, sought to escape the widespread assumption that all lesbians were either butch or femme. Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown is only the best known of many literary texts that focus on lesbians who give little attention to which lesbians identify as butch, femme, or neither.

Renewed Interest in Butch-Femme Relationships

After the rejection of butch-femme roles by many lesbians in the 1970s, there was a renewed interest in such roles in the 1980s, an interest reflected in the literature of the period. Authors tried to portray butch-femme roles in ways that were affirming, rather than negative.

For example, in her fiction Lee Lynch portrays butch-femme relationships as enjoyable and exuberant. In books such as The Swashbuckler (1985), Old Dyke Tales (1984), and Toothpick House (1983), Lynch frequently focuses on butch-femme roles and relationships in working-class communities. She has a special fondness for depicting the struggles that working-class butch lesbians confront.

For instance, Annie Heaphy, the main character of Toothpick House, who drives a cab, must struggle with how to combine her socioeconomic background with her developing interest in the feminist movement, where her butch attitude and class background at first make her feel unaccepted.

In The Swashbuckler, Frenchy prides herself on the fact that she walks like a butch and considers herself a bulldyke, yet she must confront the daily reality of dressing in her "straight clothes" for her weekly work as a cashier at a grocery store.

Like the literary work of many lesbian writers, Lynch's novels and short stories try to grapple with how lesbians manage to bring the different parts of their lives together as they strive to survive in both heterosexual and homosexual environments.

Pat Suncircle's short story "Mariam" (1981), like Lynch's fiction, explores the problems confronting butch women who do not blend into heterosexual society. In this story, Mariam is a black woman who is "enfolded in butch like a bat inside its wings and upside down." Despite the stares and double-takes that people give her, Mariam retains her leather vest and coat, cowboy boots, and swaggering walk, even when her friend Phoebe, a much less obvious butch, becomes uncomfortable.

Phoebe slowly learns that Mariam, rather than someone to be embarrassed by, is someone to admire and respect for her "graceful, proud lumberjack" walk and her unbending pride in her own identity. As Phoebe realizes, loving Mariam "is to be unable to lie."

Mariam, like Stephen Gordon, is unwilling to give up her self-image in order to find acceptance in the heterosexual world. It is exactly this refusal that establishes her as a heroine for other lesbians.


For well over half a century, lesbian writers have included butch and femme roles in their own personal lives or have struggled to write about such roles in a way that insightfully explores the complexities of such multifaceted identities. By writing about these roles and by proclaiming them as viable alternatives for women, lesbian writers have made an invaluable contribution in showing readers that butch-femme relationships were not the "warped, perverted" relationships that mainstream heterosexual society proclaimed them to be.

Sherrie A. Inness

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

Although sometimes coded as romantic friendship, both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction, including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.

social sciences >> Overview:  Butch-Femme

Butch-femme identities are controversial and difficult to define with precision, but both roles subvert prescribed gender and sexual expectations; ultimately, the butch-femme dynamic is a unique way of living and loving.

literature >> Overview:  Cross-Dressing

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Ardill, Susan, and Sue O'Sullivan. "Butch/Femme Obsessions." Feminist Review 34 (Spring 1990): 79-85.

Case, Sue-Ellen. "Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic." Discourse 11 (Winter 1988-1989): 55-73.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

_____. "The Return of Butch and Femme: A Phenomenon in Lesbian Sexuality of the 1980s and 1990s." Journal of the History of Sexuality 2 (1992): 578-596.

"Femme and Butch: A Readers' Forum." Lesbian Ethics 2 (Fall 1986): 86-104.

Hollibaugh, Amber, and Cherríe Moraga. "What We're Rollin Around in Bed With: Sexual Silences in Feminism." Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson, eds. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983. 394-405.

Jeffreys, Sheila. "Butch & Femme: Now and Then." Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History 1840-1985. Lesbian History Group, ed. London: Women's Press, 1989. 158-187.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Loulan, JoAnn. The Lesbian Erotic Dance: Butch, Femme, Androgyny, and Other Rhythms. San Francisco: Spinsters, 1990.

Nestle, Joan. "The Fem Question." Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Carole S. Vance, ed. Boston: Routledge, 1984. 232-241.

_____, ed. The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Boston: Alyson, 1992.

Rubin, Gayle. "Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries." The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Joan Nestle, ed. Boston: Alyson, 1992. 466-482.


    Citation Information
    Author: Inness, Sherrie A.  
    Entry Title: Butch-Femme Relations  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 6, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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