Having been educated into radical feminist analysis by a group of incredible Australian lesbian feminists who collectively have a very clear view that the butch/femme hierarchy in the lesbian community as one that is unhealthy to lesbian relations, it surprised me to discover, both online and in real life, a push to incorporate butch/femme ideologies into lesbian feminist practice and theory. The push seems to be from a strong concern that women classified as ‘butch’ are a class of women who are specially oppressed under male supremacy and that they are being transitioned out of existence.
So what is ‘butch’? There seems to me to be two different definitions of what constitutes a ‘butch’ woman within some rad fem circles. One definition is that a ‘butch’ woman is a woman who has never engaged in behaviours that are considered feminine; ie wearing a dress, or being fucked by a man. According to the women who use this definition, ‘butch’ is not relational to ‘femme’. A ‘butch’ woman theoretically exists outside of male supremacy and ‘butch’ women prefer to socialise with and have relationships with other ‘butch’ women. However, in practice, ‘butch’ is relational to women classified as not-‘butch’, that is, women who do engage in behaviour that is considered feminine. ‘Femmes’ become necessary in order for ‘butches’ to differentiate themselves from, and hold themselves above.
I find this definition of ‘butch’ problematic for many reasons. Firstly, there is no such thing as a woman (or man) who has never engaged in behaviours considered feminine. Under this definition, no woman on earth is ‘butch’, as no woman can exist without engaging in behaviours falsely categorised as feminine. Pretty certain that every butch woman has cried at some point in their life, or held another being tenderly etc. Universal human behaviour has been falsely split into masculinity and femininity. To paraphrase Mary Daly, a person who has been socialised into masculinity is a person who has lost half of themselves. As feminists we seek to destroy the hierarchical gendered categorisation of human behaviour so that behaviours classified as feminine are not devalued or lesser than… but part of normal human behaviour, not relational to gender.
If the radical feminist idea of gender is that it is universal human characteristics that have been falsely categorised and placed into a hierarchy of masculine over feminine is true, then a practice which seeks to eradicate behaviours that are perceived by society to be feminine would potentially render a woman masculinised, therefore a woman who has lost half of herself, not a true woman in the sense of free from male supremacist thought and action. Though in theory these women claim to exist outside of relation to women they see as conforming to femininity, I often notice self-labelled ‘butch’ women talking about ‘other’ women in a disparaging and very superior manner. To me, it seems obvious that these women see ‘butch’ as better than other women who are not perceived as ‘butch’ essentially keeping the false categories and hierarchy firmly in place.
The second definition of ‘butch’ is in relation to ‘femme’ within the context of lesbian relationships and the wider lesbian community. These feminists believe that gender is damaging only within a heterosexual/heterorelational context. They put forward the notion that gender is not only safe within the lesbian community, but necessary, and an intrinsic part of every lesbian relationship. From a brief discussion with a proponent of gender role playing/identity within lesbian relationships it seems like a very convoluted way of tacking gender onto lesbians with little rhyme or reason.
From what I could gather, the butch/femme thing in this definition is largely about appearance. A woman who wears a dress is ‘femme’, a woman in pants/short hair is ‘butch’. I don’t really understand how categorising women into gendered identities because of clothing choices is in anyway meaningful or necessary for lesbians seeking liberation. Also, surely any relationship forged upon, and beholden to, the aesthetic appearance of the women involved is an incredibly shallow way of relating.
It seems that within this community a lot of attention is paid to ‘loving the butch’ and women classified into ‘femme’ will often exclaim about how much they love ‘butches’. I find this quite disconcerting as it reads like the worship of the cult of masculinity, which is surely something that we, as lesbian feminists, are trying to escape. And this again shows up the hierarchy involved as it is less often that I see ‘butch’ women exclaiming about how much they love ‘femmes’. When this occurs, I find it disturbing for similar reasons. We should not be worshipping the cult of femininity either, as it is a building block upon which women’s oppression is founded.
As I was writing this article, a young woman wrote the following post in a feminist facebook group. I feel like this exemplifies the problems caused by engaging with gender, even within the lesbian community.
i had a run-in with a lesbian who was butch/”trans” … and very condescending and abusive towards feminine women. she liked to walk around with a strap-on under her pants, admitting she liked to feel “above” women because of it, and practically used it as a weapon against her girlfriend. i also recently got out of a relationship with another butch who was very abusive in a similar way. i was bullied by her for my previous experiences with men, but she had the same experiences as me. i felt like i was shamed for being feminine as well.
what the hell is this? self-hate? they both seemed to kiss their male friends’ asses too, all while blatantly emotionally abusing their female friends. i love butches, don’t get me wrong, but i’m a little apprehensive now. both of these women said they were feminists, albeit the first one subscribing to queer/trans BS. the one with the strap-on dealio actually graduated with a women’s studies degree (tho that doesn’t account for much), but she was also involved with radical politics so i don’t know how the hell she thought this shit was ok. she loved BDSM and literally beating the shit out of women, especially drunk women who found themselves at her place. i had to take a woman she was sleeping with home once, who was way too drunk, who she tied up and did God knows what else to. after that i refused to be anywhere near the abuser. my ex, though, seemed more put off by feminine images or “beauty”, whereas the first one seemed put off by body or sex.
i feel a little traumatized from what i’ve been through with these two. to make matters worse, they lived together at one point and the strap-on chick liked to hit on me and touch me without my consent. i was scared to defend myself because of her anger and passive aggressive attitude, so to not cause any trouble i just kept my mouth shut and asked my girlfriend to say something to her. considering my past experiences with men and how they guilted me, shamed me, buillied me into shit i didn’t wanna do, i kinda attributed that to this person because she was so aggressive and obsessed with her strap-on or whatever. but my ex didn’t care to do anything to make her stop touching me. she would literally say “i don’t want to mess up my living arrangement”. so you’re practically offering me to your friend?!
I want lesbian feminism to be a safe place for lesbians, like the young woman above, who have been harmed by gender within the lesbian community. We need to be providing young lesbians with the tools to be able to sort through the damage that queer and pomo ideas have had on lesbianism. The idea of ‘butch’ will not protect women from transitioning, but a vibrant, healthy, loving and diverse lesbian community will. There are as many genders as there are people which renders gender completely meaningless to lesbians, feminists and women in general. As lesbian feminists we want to make gender meaningless to the world and we will start with our communities. True sisterhood is loving women, without recourse to ‘butch’ and ‘femme’. Not ‘butch’, not ‘femme’: WE ARE WOMEN!!!