- From Butch-Femme to Female Masculinities: Elizabeth Kennedy and LGBT Anthropology
In the sometimes contentious space between feminist theory and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) studies in anthropology, one of the key leaders bridging that space has been Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy. A founding mother in the field of feminist and LGBT anthropology, her leadership and research has encouraged many, many other feminist and queer scholars across disciplinary boundaries. One of her works, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993), coauthored with Madeline D. Davis, brought to life the butch-femme community, both white and black, in Buffalo, New York, from the mid-1930s to early 1960s. Working against the prevailing view that butch-femme was a lesser version of lesbian identity, Kennedy and Davis brought a renewed appreciation for butch-femme life through oral histories that revealed an intense passion and way of life far exceeding any simple enactment of gender dualism.
In this article, I focus on Boots of Leather in order to revisit some of the foundational concepts developed in the book, and to explore how these concepts advanced feminist and queer theorizing. I make two points in this regard. First, Boots of Leather returns the butch-femme pairing unapologetically to feminist discourse, recouping it as a proud marker of lesbian identity rather than an unreflective imitation of heterosexuality. Second, Kennedy and Davis’s discussion of butch-femme in Boots of Leather offers a strong challenge to the fixity of gender boundaries by showing how butches and femmes reflect and yet transform gender meanings. These insights make Boots of Leather a key text that opens up the exploration of female masculinities in feminist and queer studies.
To better understand the contributions of Kennedy’s work in Boots of Leather, I first briefly situate it within the historical context of lesbian feminism. [End Page 92] In the 1970s, as lesbian feminism came into its own, it seemed to turn away from those butches and femmes who had been at the heart of many lesbian networks and communities in the United States in the preceding decades. Writers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in their classic work Lesbian/Woman (1972) hailed the new lesbian first and foremost as a woman. The feminist critique of patriarchal oppression at that time required that all vestiges of men’s control, authority, desires, and claims on women be erased, even by those lesbians who were more comfortable enacting masculinity. For Martin and Lyon, their book was a call for lesbians to be proud of their womanhood, to take power as women, and to stop being “an adjunct or appendage to a man” (12). Their reservations about butch-femme roles stemmed from their view that these roles maintained the gender hierarchy because they reinforced women’s inferior status. Martin and Lyon were adamant that no woman should accept or be placed in an inferior position. They encouraged women to assert their equality to men, a status that could not be achieved, they felt, if a woman “plays the traditional male chauvinist butch role” (81).
The 1970s became the era of the new lesbian. In white lesbian communities, the new lesbian was an androgynous woman who was neither too feminine nor too masculine, who loved women like herself, and who wanted to create new ways of living in the world as a lesbian. The dominant ideology of the decade was lesbian feminism, although by no means were all lesbians of the time ardent or active as feminists.1 By the end of the 1970s, lesbian feminism came under attack for its perceived failures: for its separatism from men, its ideological privileging of white middle-class women’s perspectives and issues, and its rejection of butch-femme identities.
Women who had identified as butch or femme before the 1970s responded to the loss of butch-femme standing in the community by reclaiming the passion and power of those identities. Writers, such as Joan Nestle (1992), distanced butch-femme identities from accusations of heterosexual imitation. The generation of androgynous, “women-loving,” egalitarian lesbians who came out in the 1970s, however, did not find butch-femme identities meaningful as a...