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Butch-Femme Relations  
 
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It is impossible to understand twentieth-century lesbian literature without recognizing the significance of butch-femme relationships, both in reality and in literature, throughout the century. Whether we think of the great modernist writer Gertrude Stein and her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, or Willa Cather's years with Isabelle McClung and then her forty years with Edith Lewis, or Radclyffe Hall's relationship with Lady Una Troubridge, we find authors who have, to one extent or another, used butch-femme relationships as a way to configure their lives.

Thus, their complex understandings of butch and femme roles need to be untangled in order to understand their lives as well as their literary works. Moreover, since butch-femme identities have played a prominent role in lesbian experience throughout this century, no lesbian writer should be studied without considering how she has been influenced by such roles.

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Defining "Butch" and "Femme"

First of all, it is necessary to define what "butch" and "femme" mean, which is a complex task since many possible interpretations exist, and it is difficult to find consensus; as Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis comment in their recent study, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993), "all language for talking about butches and fems is inadequate."

A simple definition is that butch and femme lesbians adopt roles that have been traditionally associated with men and women, with butches assuming masculine identities and femmes assuming feminine ones. For instance, a butch might wear men's clothing and be sexually aggressive, whereas a femme would adopt feminine clothing and be sexually passive.

We must recognize the limitations of such a definition, however, since it fails to take into account the many changes in butch-femme roles that have occurred in the last century, particularly in the 1980s when lesbian sexual radicals altered butch-femme roles dramatically.

The Historical Perspective

Despite changes, however, butch-femme roles have had a prominent place in the lesbian community for over fifty years. Their popularity has risen and fallen in different periods. For instance, during the 1940s and 1950s, butch and femme roles were accepted by a large number of lesbians as a model for lesbian unions. By the 1970s, butch-femme roles had fallen out of favor and were widely perceived by lesbian feminists as oppressive.

Through their writing, many lesbian authors have sought to understand the historical changes in butch-femme relationships. For those interested in more information about the historical changes in butch-femme roles, there is excellent historical material by scholars such as Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, Lillian Faderman, and Joan Nestle.

The Nineteenth Century

Relationships that appear to be based on male-female roles have not been limited to the twentieth century, of course. Reflecting on the nineteenth century, we have only to think of Marie Corelli, the English author, and Bertha Vyver; or Alice French, the American writer, and Jane Crawford; or Rosa Bonheur, the French artist, and Nathalie Micas--all women couples in which one woman adopted the more feminine role while the other adopted the more masculine.

We must be cautious about categorizing such relationships as "butch-femme," however, since they are situated in a different historical period, where our terminology may have only limited application.

Although it is inappropriate to say that butch-femme roles existed in the early nineteenth century, we can state with more assurance that recognizable butch-femme roles have been around since at least the 1890s when, as historian Lillian Faderman points out, women dressed in tuxedos would attend homosexual balls in order to waltz with more conventional-appearing feminine women.

Further, in this historical period sexologists, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, began to stress that the female "invert," as they named the lesbian, was typically masculine but often had relationships with feminine women.

The Earlier Twentieth Century

It was not until the 1920s, however, that an urban, working-class lesbian culture appeared in which butch and femme roles were clearly evident. In the 1920s as well, butch and femme roles began to appear with increasing frequency in literature.

Sometimes, these roles were used in books and stories by heterosexual writers as signs of everything that was "abnormal" and "unhealthy" about lesbianism. One of the most memorable of such works is D. H. Lawrence's story "The Fox" (1920). In this story, two women, Banford and March, try to earn a livelihood from a small farm. Although Lawrence never explicitly identifies their relationship as lesbian, it is almost impossible to avoid the assumption.

Banford's and March's farm is remarkably unsuccessful; even their chickens are sterile, reflecting what Lawrence perceived as the sterility of such a relationship. Only after Banford, who plays the "man about the place," is killed by a falling tree, is March "saved" in order to start a relationship with a wandering soldier who has stopped by the farm.

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