Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1
Halberstam takes as a subject the concept of a “masculinity” that is distinct and separate from people born male, comparing it to the long tradition of studying “male femininity” from the Greek kinaidos through early modern molly houses and up to the present. When first written in 1998, similar histories had not been written for women. [Note: I think this is overstating the lack a little bit.] Yet there have been many modes of lesbianism that involved the evocation or claiming of “masculinity.”
Halberstam takes a quick survey through the many different modes and images belonging to the category “woman”. There is a long tradition of associating lesbianism with female masculinity, and female masculinity with ugliness. This linkage is used as a specter to keep women in line. What happens when this association is turned on its head, and female masculinity becomes a site of desire?
In the 20th century, the demand for female emancipation was repeatedly tied to female masculinity, either in positive or negative ways. “Great women” have repeatedly been claimed to be masculine in essence. This association is inherently misogynistic. It created the image that a successful or powerful woman was always inherently masculine, and a masculine woman was -- at least latently -- homosexual. Where did this leave feminine women? Still at the bottom and considered not worthy of higher things.
Forces hostile to both feminists and to masculine women set them up as being in conflict -- a conflict that is unnecessary but continues to this day. In popular media, the image of the masculine woman -- the tomboy, the butch -- has swung wildly in visibility and interpretation. Butch identity crosses between the genders: both and neither. [Note: this book was written at a time when non-binary gender had not become a significant part of the conversation yet.]
Halberstam points out the popular preoccupation with male femininity, but the near absence of discussion about female masculinity. As context for writing this book, H states “I was a masculine girl, and I am a masculine woman.” That identity was the inspiring force in writing this study. (The remaining preface covers similar territory to the updated one.)
Chapter 1: An Introduction to Female Masculinity: Masculinity without Men
What is “masculinity”? This isn’t an easy question if the answer is not simply “the expression of maleness.” Female masculinity provides a lens on how masculinity is defined. Female masculinity must be framed as second class in order for male masculinity to be defined as “the real thing.” This chapter is a catalog of myths and fantasies about masculinity, as well as alternate forms of both male and female masculinity.
H points out how female masculinity has been ignored, both by culture and academia. Masculinity is defined by power and privilege, but also in terms of class, race, sexuality, and gender. You can’t understand masculinity until it is separated from the white male middle-class body.
The tomboy is viewed as an “extended childhood performance of female masculinity.” She is considered both common and unproblematic, compared to gender cross-identification in boys, which provokes strong reactions. But can you actually measure relative tolerance this way?
The tomboy is considered to be expressing a “natural” desire for male freedom and independence. She is only punished if female identification is actively rejected, or if the “phase” doesn’t end as expected at pubescence. Can the identity of tomboy be considered “tolerated” if one is required to leave it behind and embrace femininity? With no adult models of female masculinity, tomboyism can be framed as a rejection of adulthood, rather than a rejection of femininity. The increasing visibility of lesbian communities made it more possible for girls to envision maintaining masculinity past puberty.
Halberstam looks at the genre of “tomboy movies” in chapter 6 and the inadequacy of available gender categories for discussing them. The traditional tomboy narrative offers no way to retain masculinity and yet become a fully realized adult. It offers no approved forms of desire and so suppresses desire entirely. H’s goal is to identify existing taxonomies that recognize and offer that approval to female masculinity.
[Note: This book can only be properly understood if the reader fully internalizes the distinction between male/female and masculine/feminine. That the latter are artificial social constructs arbitrarily attached to the former.]
Female masculinity is a productive topic for study because it is scorned by both heterosexist positions and by feminist ones. [Note: Feminism is, of course, not a monolith, and one must consider that H was responding to the dominant feminist discourse of the time the book was written.] In contrast to the somewhat ritual function of male femininity, female masculinity is viewed as maladjusted and a longing to be something impossible. But there is not only a single version of female masculinity, nor does it exist to subvert or oppose masculine power, but to create new categories that are indifferent to male masculinity.
This chapter spends some time discussing the book’s methodology. It explores the relatively new (at the time) field of masculinity studies, which has largely ignored masculine women. H considers other studies of masculinity flawed if they assume that masculinity equals men.
In the section titled “the bathroom problem”, the text’s date of writing is most apparent in asking why the available gender categories have not been expanded beyond the binary. H considers how even given the flexible standards for gender presentation, few people are not easily readable as male or female, so “unreadable” people are viewed as deviant or forced into the binary. The “policing” of binary bathrooms (sometimes literally) shows how this institution forces category analysis. Masculine or androgynous women are particular targets of bathroom policing. Whereas gender-ambiguous people using a men’s bathroom are rarely challenged.
For those whose identity crosses sex/gender categories, the idea of “passing” as one or the other is not an acceptable strategy. [Note: given the focus of the book, the “bathroom problem” discussion revolves around the masculine cis woman rather than the trans woman.] The bathroom problem contradicts the assertion that masculine women are tolerated and even praised, while feminine men are despised. Rather, it suggests that femaleness is harder to achieve and more narrowly defined than maleness.
In media, female masculinity is protected from suspicion so long as heterosexuality is unambiguous. When combined with lesbian desire, it becomes less acceptable. Because of this enhanced effect, Halberstam focuses primarily on queer female masculinity rather than heterosexual female masculinity. Another destabilizing context is the varieties of gender specifically associated with minority cultures.
There is a long discussion of artistic (semi) nude photography that challenges gender expectations. The chapter ends with a summary of what the book will cover: 19th century examples, the early 20th century “invert”, the “stone butch” archetype, the border between “lesbian butchness and transsexual maleness”, cinematic representations, and drag kings. [Note: my summary will focus primarily on the historic sections.]
The existence of masculine women throughout the ages challenges assumptions about the nature of masculinity and why the connection between men and masculinity has remained so secure. While some hold that the phenomenon of the “virile woman” is recent, and tied to feminism, or as a sign of the loosening of gender conformity, these positions overlook the history of masculine women. [Note: H says, “a character who has challenged gender systems for at least two centuries”, but of course it’s been happening much longer than that.]
Queer historians have tended either to pursue untheoretical historic surveys, or to theorize ahistorical models. [Note: let me unpack that -- there’s a tendency either to collect up “catalogs” of some particular queer identity without understanding those instances within the larger historic framework, or to focus on creating a theoretical historic framework that carefully sidesteps the messy historic realities that would contradict it.] This results in seeing either ahistoric universals or discrete identities bound to a specific historical moment.
To counter this, H looks at two examples of female masculinity from the 19th century to show how masculine women played a large part in constructing modern masculinity. Further, one can’t simply assume these earlier examples of female masculinity represent early forms of lesbianism. That erases their specific existence as well as erasing other early forms of same-sex desire. It turns them into sexual deviance rather than gender variance.
Halberstam puts forth two propositions:
1. Women have made their own unique contributions to what we call modern masculinity which go unnoticed in gender scholarship.
2. Female masculinity is actually multiple masculinities that proliferate as we examine them.
Having a small number of categories forces diverse behaviors and identities into a single concept, erasing the variety and distinctions that are most interesting. Related to this, in the next chapter Halberstam will re-visit the rigidly binary categories of Havelock Ellis and other sexologists. [Note: H describes the data discussed here as “the few examples of same-sex desire between women in the 19th century that are readily available to us.” But either “same-sex desire” or “readily available to us” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in this claim. Even at the original publication date of this book, there should have been a lot more examples easily available for consideration.] Rather than seeing all 19th century examples of same-sex desire as “lesbians”, what do we gain by looking individually at tommies, tribades, female husbands, fricatrices, and inverts?
H associates the same forces that gave rise to modern masculinity with other upheavals such as the transition from affiliation marriages to romantic marriages, the development of the women’s rights movement, the social upheavals of WWI, and the rise of sexological models. [Note: but many of these have clear roots much earlier than the 19th century. So again I think the picture will be distorted by viewing that date as some sort of firewall.]
Many historians focus on the parallel development of concepts of masculinity with nations, class, or male patterns of sociality, and see female masculinity as a counter-irritant to that, rather than a contributor.
Examples are given of how “manliness” was constructed as a white middle-class ideal, responding to challenges from its opposites. H frames lesbian historians as classifying 19th and early 20th century desire as either an asexual romantic friendship or a sexual butch-femme dynamic. But there is an acknowledgement that it probably worked via many other models of same-sex desire. Contemporary lesbians, H asserts, have a hard time shedding present forms and identities to understand other modes in earlier times.
There is a focus on labels that a late 18th/early 19th century “mannish woman” who desired other women might have been called/identified as: a hermaphrodite, tribade, or female husband. A Foucaultian framing (which H points out is more relevant to men than women) asserts that “lesbian” applies only to a form of desire produced in the mid to late 20th century, within the context of feminism and homosexual identity. If so, then “lesbian” cannot be used to cover all same-sex desire through the ages. Some historians have abstracted “lesbian” as a more general label, but H argues this erases the more specific connotations of many other terms. Further, those more specific terms might encompass gender expressions that do not include desire for women.
[Note: This is a valid objection, except that the point about “gender expressions that do not include desire for women” can be applied to the term “lesbian” just as much as any other term under consideration if you go back far enough. If we exclude any word that has ever had a contradictory or more specific meaning from being used as an umbrella term, then we’re forced into inventing an umbrella term that has no pre-existing denotative meaning at all. One thing that keeps poking at me in discussions of historic terminology for gender and sexuality categories is that, given the inevitable need to use words to talk about people and practices, why do some words get scrutinized so heavily while others get a free pass? In this book, as in many similar studies, there is a great deal of scrutiny given to when, where, how, and why it is appropriate or inappropriate to use the word “lesbian”, especially on the basis that it is anachronistic when used as an umbrella term, while similarly anachronistic umbrella terms like “homosexual” or “same-sex desire” are treated as neutral? The special scrutiny on “lesbian” is even more curious when you realize it is objected to both for being too narrow in meaning and for being too general.]
“Tommy” is one such term that could include uses that did not imply same-sex desire. Tracing “tommy” from implying loose sexual behavior--women outside of the marriage economy--to becoming synonymous with inversion or lesbian shows how not all identity strands fall within a “lesbian history.”
Within these various gender identities, Halberstam focuses on two specific close readings of female masculinity rather than a general history of pre-20th century same-sex desire. These examples represent two categories of embodied female masculinity: tribade and female husband.
H discuses the dynamic of how some view historical models as being replaced/superceded with little overlap or contradiction, whereas others (referencing Sedgwick) argue for destabilizing what we think we understand homosexuality to be today. If we acknowledge multiple models of contemporary female masculinity, not all of which align with lesbianism, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that potential in the past?
Halberstam reviews the context of scholarship and theory around queer/lesbian/gender history. There are debates over the definition and usefulness of the label “lesbian”. Some historians H asserts, like Terry Castle, “seek only to find what they think they already know.” Trumbach’s “2 genders, 3 bodies” theory, downplays the sexual component of cross-gender identities. The macro-clitoral hermaphrodite was never more than a theoretical construct. And there are debates on the relevance of sexual desire within same-sex relationships. Vicinus critiques the energy spent on pitting romantic friendship against butch-femme models based on relative availability of evidence for sex. But at the same time, “proof” of sexual activity should not be dismissed as relevant when it does occur.
The masculine woman is inevitably visible while the “apparitional” lesbian (using Terry Castle’s term) is so because she can be denied. Yet the desires and sexual acts enjoyed by different categories of same-sex couples may be different, so are even sex acts really a unifying feature for a common category (that may or may not be usefully labeled “lesbian”)? One could reasonably view “lesbian” as a sexual identity and masculine woman as a gender identity, with all possible combinations thereof. Yet another gender category, the androgyne, is distinct from the masculine woman.
There is an entire history to be told of solidly heterosexual masculine women, though it’s outside the scope of this book. [Note: this is an interesting point--and interesting that H considers it outside the scope of the book. The existence of heterosexual female masculinity is, to some extent, what provides cover for the establishment of cultures of homosexual female masculinity.] As an example of heterosexual female masculinity, the “cowgirl” whose physical activities argue against conventional femininity and embrace the image of a “natural” active presentation that partakes of masculinity by contrast. There’s also the contradiction of the female athlete who draws homophobic suspicion and therefore feels pressure to perform conventional femininity to “prove” her non-deviance.
This section of the chapter looks specifically at the conceptual category of the “hermaphrodite tribade”--the woman who was supposed to be drawn to same-sex sexual activity and to be able to please a female partner by virtue of having a larger-than-typical clitoris. [Note: this is far from a standard definition of “tribade”. The word was used in a variety of both general and specific ways across the centuries. And the preoccupation with macro-clitoral sex emerged only in specific eras.] The act of giving sexual pleasure through rubbing vulvas was seen as masculine due to its similarity to m/f sexual positions and actions, regardless of actual anatomy.
Around the 17-18th centuries, the idea of a physiological third sex emerged to “explain” same-sex behavior. See Laqueur for the historic development of this concept. In the earlier one-sex model, a hermaphrodite is a transitional state between two ends of a single sexual continuum, whereas in the two-sex model, she is a “monstrous” woman. But in either model, the hermaphrodite’s relations with women doesn’t fit neatly into a concept of “same-sex” desire, given that the hermaphrodite stands outside the sexual category of “woman.” This model identifies the body as the site of desire for women. The “discovery” of the clitoris helped drive the two-sex model because it shifted the identification of a penis-analogue from an inverted womb to an entirely separate organ. The clitoris became identified with non-reproductive sex and raised anxieties about the ability to penetrate without an artificial instrument. As such, it became inextricably linked to same-sex desire. In linguistic origin, the tribade was a female penetrator (of either women or men) not specifically a participant in f/f sex. [Note: I’d argue against calling this “linguistic” origin, because the etymology of the word simply indicates rubbing, not penetration. I think H is referring to the context of use within the Roman sexual system, where the functional roles of penetrator/penetrated were more salient than the sex partner’s gender.]
But if the tribade is not a (modern definition) lesbian, she is part of the history of masculinizing certain female seuxal practices. It is curious that, despite its popularity among (modern) lesbians, tribadism as a sexual act has not become part of the pop culture iconography of lesbianism.
As the 19th century example of tribadism, Halberstam explores the court case of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie versus Dame Cumming-Gordon, in which two Scottish schoolteachers were accused of having a sexual relationship (involving tribadism) by a student, and sued the student’s grandmother/guardian for slander. One significant feature of the teachers’ defense boiled down to “we understand that these activities are done in less civilized cultures (the student was biracial with an Indian mother) but it is unacceptable to propose that they would be practiced by proper British women.” That is, not that it was impossible, but that it was unthinkable.
The Female Husband
The second archetype Halberstam explores via a specific biography is the “female husband” in the person of Anne Lister. [Note: I don’t see Lister as being at all typical of the category of female husband, which normally refers to someone who is consistently read as male. So I’m a bit confused by this conjunction of example and label.] Lister’s diaries show some of the diversity of sexual activity between women and how certain activities were linked to female masculinity -- that Lister did not view all forms of f/f sex as part of the same experience and identity.
Halberstam begins by challenging historians’ easy acceptance of Lister as representing lesbian identity and desire. Lister’s experience is one of unequal desire, distinct sexual and gender roles, and a rejection of sexual sameness -- in contrast to the usual image of romantic friendship. Lister’s diaries -- with the key passages written in code -- become a metaphor for the obscuring of alternative sexual identities. [Note: in several places, Halberstam seems fixated on enforcing a narrowly specific understanding of the category “lesbian” in order to set it up as not overlapping the masculine identities under discussion.]
Lister explicitly contrasts her “natural” desire with “sapphic artifices that create distance,” by which circumlocution we are to understand the use of a dildo, as opposed to Lister’s preferred tribadism. Lister consistently framed her desire in terms of seeking a wife, understanding herself as a husband. H argues for the use of the term “female husband” despite the absence of cross-dressing, because she (Lister) thinks of herself using that word. Lister’s place as a masculine woman gives her a woman’s access to other women without the social consequences of being a seducing man. Lister revels in performing a male sexual role better than men, as when she digitally penetrates her married lover Marianne and appears to have been the first to break her hymen, demonstrating the sexual insignificance of Marianne’s marriage. Lister sees herself, not as a substitute man, but as surpassing men in her masculine sexual prowess. Lister is regularly commented on as appearing masculine in dress and even (apparently) being mistaken for a man, despite always wearing skirts. This creates a conflict for Marianne who is embarrassed by Lister’s presentation while also being aroused by it.
Lister’s wealth and social status protected her from most of the social consequences of her obvious masculinity, but she ran into limitations on that protection and experienced snubs and insults directly related to her masculinity. Lister’s differing relationships with various women explore the variety of sexual possibilities, along with her observations on other women’s relationships. Her relationship with Isabelle Norcliffe and her interactions with another masculine woman named Miss Pickford illustrate gender roles between women. Lister rebuffs Pickford, and ultimately rejects Isabelle, due to their own masculinity. She is overtly drawn to feminine women and pursues them at length, as with Mrs. Barlow in Paris. Lister sometimes fantasizes about the convenience (or inconvenience) of a penis, but sticks to tribadism and manual stimulation in bed. She refuses to let her lovers stimulate her in turn, saying it would “womanize” her. This isn’t “same” sex activity, but two distinct sexual roles. [Note: or should we make a distinction between “same-sex” and “same-gender” activity?]
All this may shed light on how Lister understands the “sapphic regard” that she rejects. [Note: this sheds an interesting light on the perception that the term “sapphic” was viewed as an upper class marker in the 19th century (I’m failing to remember who discussed that). Was Lister’s perception of “sapphic” as meaning dildo-based sex a general understanding? And if so, was it class based? Or is this Lister’s idiosyncratic labels? Or did the shift to a class marker happen later?]
Mrs. Barlow seems to expect f/f sex to be mutual, given her attempts to initiate reciprocal stimulation of Lister. [Note: Halberstam rejects this interpretation, suggesting that Barlow is simply naive about the understood rules and roles for f/f sex. But this strikes me as H being a bit fixated on her theory of roles. The simpler explanation--supported by other examples from the era--is that one popular experience of f/f sex was mutual and not role-based, and that Barlow was familiar with that version and enjoyed it.]
Halberstam engages with Castle’s claim that Lister is “proof” of lesbian sexuality existing before the sexologists labeled it, but H suggests that Castle ignores the gendered aspect of Lister’s sexuality. Lister did not simply adopt masculine habits as a “make do” but from an inherent identity. In this context, H argues against the concept of an abstract “lesbian desire” apart from specific modes and roles in which it manifests.
[Note: Halberstam, in turn, discusses gender-similar relationships (romantic friendships) as assumed to be “asexual”. While I agree with H that Lister’s sexuality is clearly based on the performance of a form of masculinity, the book often seems to reject the possibility of a pre-modern non-gender-contrasting f/f sexuality existing alongside the gender-contrasting form. H proclaims, “Although turn-of-the-century sexologists would later try to classify all lesbian activity as inversion, in the early nineteenth century, it is obvious, sexual activity between women flourished in spaces where the masculine woman trespassed on male sexual privilege and created not ‘a female world of love and ritual’ [quoting Smith-Rosenberg] but an exciting sexual landscape dominated by the female husband and the tribade.” It’s hard not to read this as rejecting the possibility that there was also an exciting sexual landscape within that “female world of love and ritual” known as romantic friendship. There’s a sense of territoriality going on in this book where exploration of the specific history of f/f desire in the context of female masculinity seems to require the negation of parallel experiences of f/f desire between two feminine women.]
This chapter tackles John Radclyffe Hall and the sexologists’ “invert” as the next archetype. Hall was part of a subculture of “inverts” and their “wives” at a time when sexological theories were becoming familiar to the public. Despite the sexologists’ attempts to identify a unified theory of inversion, there were different models of female masculinity prevalent in same-sex circles. Female inversion (usually accompanied by homosexuality) was the model applied to women similar to Anne Lister: ones with a masculine identification and performance, who desired non-masculine women.
Kraft-Ebbing identified four types of lesbian: 1) non-masculine women who were receptive to the attention of masculine inverts; 2) cross-dressers; 3) “fully-developed” inverts who dressed in a masculine style and took a masculine role; and 4) “degenerate” homosexuals who lived fully male lives. [Note: notice that this typology has no place for the non-masculine woman involved in a relationship with another non-masculine woman.] Kraft-Ebbing did not view these types as a continuum but as fixed and distinct identities.
Havelock Ellis built on this taxonomy and emphasized the distinction between masculine and feminine inverts. [Note: Just to be clear when we talk about “inverts” here, we’re always talking about women.] Feminine inverts were rejected or “leftover” women who turned to homosexuality due to not having access to healthy heterosexual relationships. They were social rather than sexual deviants. Whereas masculine inverts had a congenital masculinity.
Underlying all this is the drive to enforce binary systems of gender difference. [Note: as well as reducing all desire to heterosexual or pseudo-heterosexual relationships.] Female masculinity was viewed as derivative or imitative of male masculinity, rather than a separate identity. This approach continued under Freud.
One problem is that an outside observer will never notice the complexities of identity due to not being familiar with the vernacular, the hierarchies, the codes, or the less visible aspects of sexual practice. Ellis attempted a liberal and tolerant approach to female inversion, but tripped on inherent contradictions. He both considered it congenital and thought it flourished in homosocial environments, such as schools and convents. He sees an attraction to masculinity as natural, due to societal misogyny and gender hierarchies, thus he views successful and powerful women in history as “having masculine traits” without understanding this is because success and power are coded as masculine. Intellect is also coded as masculine. But if a woman with these traits has no social access to positive expression, Ellis asserts, she may turn her abilities to criminality. Despite being unable to consistently correlate female inversion with physical traits, Ellis reaches to find physical signs interpretable as characteristic. This theory was sustainable only because he glossed over counter-examples (such as the entire category of feminine inverts).
When physical signs fail, Ellis relies on early “boyish” behavior: tomboyism. His prototype is strikingly similar to John Radclyffe Hall’s biography.
Various case studies are discussed in their complexity and contradictoriness, especially expressions of being neither feminine woman nor man but something else. The concept of inversion combined gender variants and sexual preference into a single package, based on heteronormative and binary imperatives. But when later lesbian feminists rejected the model of inversion, they also rejected female masculinity as the central model of the lesbian, replacing it with the androgynous “woman-identified woman”. [Note: Halberstam’s underlying theme here is that none of these prototypes are wrong, but that we should reject the idea of a single central prototype for lesbianism. Some day it would be fun to feed these ideas through some of the category structures studied in cognitive linguistics.]
Radclyffe Hall’s fiction recapitulated her own experience of being a masculine woman, desiring women, and trying to find a modus vivendi. Her stories and social circles were filled with mostly upper and middle class women, often with inherited wealth, many of whom were artists. Sexologists tried to collapse their lives into a single model, but a detailed examination of their lives restores complexity. (Lower-class women’s lives are harder to study in this era, but many stories of “passing women” in the military and male professions suggest some approaches.)
The rise of the idea of the female invert came in the same era as the rise of a women’s movement and challenges to the system of gendered labor, driven in part by large numbers of unmarried women. [Note: but demographics like this have always been cyclic. It is hazardous to treat this as a unique social context.] Some date the shift from “invert” to “transsexual” to the point when gender reassignment surgery became practical, but the existence of individuals who desired transition predates that. The transgender model of inversion may, in part, have been a social way to contain women’s desire for equality, but it was also an individual identity. And not all masculine inverts had the same desires regarding “being a man” versus “being masculine”. This era also entailed a separation of the concepts of inversion versus homosexuality: what one was versus what one desired. [Note: but see previous comments regarding cyclicity -- these two concepts had sometimes been recognized as separate in earlier eras.]
Sexual and gender identities do not suddenly appear, they emerge from gradual social shifts. WWI offered scope for women who desired to engage in masculine professions, behavior, and roles. In the 1920s there were many masculine women who functionally “changed sex” and lived as men, marrying women, but it isn’t accurate to categorize them either as lesbians or as “pre-transsexual”. Wealth eased the way for such women as Una Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall, and others in her circle. Such women were often content to live masculine lives without rejecting female identity. Hal’s letters explore her own take on the question. She saw inversion as defined by whom one desires, not by a “mannish” life. She thought most people were bisexual but some, like herself, desired only the same sex. But this contradicts other opinions of hers on record, where she considers her same-sex desire to be channeled through an essential masculinity.
One must beware of how biographers read their own theories of gender into Hall’s life. Hall’s masculine performance contrasted with an expressed disdain for “passing women” as deceptive and masquerading for gain, in contrast to Hall’s “innate” masculinity. [Note: yet another argument against some sort of “natural category” of masculine women, when masculine women themselves see multiple mutually exclusive subcategories.] Hall wanted the possibility of same-sex marriage for inverts, but thought that marrying in male disguise was a type of fraud.
There is a discussion of social/racial prejudice among various prominent masculine women, noting that marginal identity is no guarantee of social solidarity. Hall was both anti-Semitic and a fascist, deriving largely from her class alignment.
There is a discussion of Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness as an exploration of the female invert from within. Hall’s character Steven Gordon represents an archetype, one that can’t easily be classified as either lesbian or transgender.
Chapter 4: Lesbian Masculinity: Even Stone Butches Get the Blues
This chapter opens by comparing expressions by Anne Lister and (the fictional) Stephen Gordon about needing always to be the “active” partner in sex, to the archetype of the “stone butch” in the 1950s. But Halberstam is wary of connecting these dots to construct a trans-historical “stone butch” role, while tracing this motif through various historical understandings of embodiment. The theme of this chapter is the equation of masculine untouchability with dysfunction and melancholy. H disputes this framing (i.e., the dysfunctional one) as well and sees the “stone butch” as demanding differential emotional accountability from different roles. It shows how some sexual roles are dismissed as “inauthentic” while others are privileged as “real” to the point where they are not seen as “roles” at all.
While modern academia has produced insights about queer identities and communities, it has avoided addressing the way specific sexual practices and meanings fit into that picture, including apparent logical contradictions between political theory and sexual practice. There are popular assumptions about characteristic sexual practices of political or sexual identities, but these images have little to do with practice. The failure to address the specifics of sex--like the failure to address race within queer communities--passively allows for the projection of a “universal experience” that follows socially dominant paradigms. The sexuality of marginalized queers is both made invisible and made hypervisible in its Otherness. The default has shifted in different eras providing a temporal “other” as well to the contemporary “invisible” default.
Discussions of sex in queer communities have tended to focus on individual acts rather than identities. [Note: where have we heard the framing of “acts versus identities before? *cough* Foucault.] There is a bit of discussion of gender theory and what “gender as a social construction” does and does not mean.
Although Halberstam sees a distinction between lesbianism and female masculinity, masculinity has often been used as the defining feature of lesbian stereotypes. This is embraced in the modern lesbian community in the form of category “butch”. But within this category, butches have many different relationships to masculinity, from performative style to dysphoric to passing. Some parts of the lesbian community view butches as embarrassingly gender-normative, but H rejects the option of excluding butch from the category “lesbian” in order to save that category for “woman-identified woman.” [Note: and yet in other parts of the book H appears to do just that, claiming for example that Anne Lister shouldn’t be classified as “lesbian”.]
[Note: I’m getting a sense that Halberstam may be using the catchphrase “woman-identified woman” in a different way that I’ve always understood it. H seems to be using it to contrast with masculinity, i.e., that the “woman-identified” part means “identifying as a feminine woman”? But the point of the “woman-identified woman” manifesto, presented in 1970 by the Radicalesbians as part of the Lavender Menace protest, had to do with women whose primary emotional connections and relationships were with women, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. So I don’t quite get the contrast suggested between “butch” and “woman-identified woman” unless one is taking the position that butch isn’t part of the category “woman”.]
An exploration of all the varieties of personal expression and experience make category boundaries impossible, while allowing thematic connections. The rejection of butch-femme by some in the 1970s resulted in limiting acceptable gender expression for lesbians in both directions, in favor of an androgynous ideal. That had the result of rendering lesbian identity less visible. When cultural expressions of lesbian sexuality are brought into the picture, the “lesbian-feminist ideal” becomes a form of cultural imperialism. [Cf. “white feminism]
There is a detailed discussion of the definition and performance of “stone butch” as an identity and practice. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues doesn’t necessarily depict “stone” as a positive option, rather as a closing off, a hardening, in response to abuse or vulnerability, where the “right woman” can allow the stone butch to open up. This feeds into the cultural model of stone as dysfunction. (Feinberg’s novel isn’t any more sympathetic to lesbian-feminist than to the stone butch, so this shouldn’t be taken as authorial judgment.) This culture clash is explored further in the chapter through both fiction and sociological studies of the 1970s and 1980s.
Chapter 5: Transgender Butch: Butch/FTM Border Wards and the Masculine Continuum
[Note: This chapter is more about modern social politics so while it’s fascinating history, it isn’t LHMP history except in relevance to handling the butch/trans intersection for contemporary readers.]
Halberstam emphasizes the continuities and overlaps in various experiences of cross-gender identity. [Note: H uses terminology and makes distinctions that were “best practice” in the 1990s but may be deprecated today. In my summary here I’ll tend to follow H’s vocabulary even when usages has shifted, as when H uses “female-to-male” or uses “transsexual” in contexts where “transgender” is preferred today. H does use “transgender” but equates it with “gender-queer”. So for example when H discusses the concept “transgender butch”, a better translation into current terms might be “gender-queer butch” or perhaps “non-binary butch”. The shifting nature of the terminology landscape makes it impossible for me to both clearly present the discussion in the book and follow current norms of reference, because modifying H’s terminology might distort the intended meaning.] In particular, H looks at the potential impact of a visible/accepted transsexual (the book’s terminology) population on how younger people develop an understanding of their own identity. The medicalization of transsexuality has moved gender variance from the context of homosexuality to the context of gender identity.
[Note: this is something clearly relevant to creating historical fiction, because just as homosexual/heterosexual didn’t exist in many past eras as conceptual categories, the idea of trans identity is a cultural construct and has not always been available. And yet as writers of historical fiction, we are writing for an audience that takes those concepts for granted. As authors, we will necessarily be finding the balance between historic accuracy and modern reception.]
Medicalization also shifted the possible choices for expressing gender identity. The growing visibility and awareness of trans men has other sociopolitical consequences than an awareness of personal possibilities. It creates fault lines around access to male privilege as well as around how the performative gender of butchness is viewed. This has created a “strange struggle between FTM and lesbian butches who accuse each other of gender normativity.” [Note: I’ve quoted the book directly to emphasize that this is Halberstam’s characterization and not my interpretation. This is where H’s dual status as a formerly self-identifying butch lesbian and currently self-identifying trans man may provide a unique platform for considering this topic.]
Halberstam uses the term “transgender butch” to identify a key experience/identity within this context. H discuses various conceptual conflicts in how trans men and butch women characterize each other. These “border wars,” as H call it, treat masculinity as a limited resource to be fought over, or as a set of fixed and agreed-on protocols. If, instead, masculinity is divorced from maleness (though related to it at the same time) these conflicts become unnecessary.
What H does in this chapter is to explore the model of masculinity that is contested within this conflict. Within queer studies, transsexuality is a popular lens for examining gender theory, but this theorizing is too often done from the outside. H discusses their own 1994 article on trans topics, focusing on representations in media of gender-ambiguous butch-like characters. The article provoked some negative reactions from trans men’s groups and inspired H to reflect on assumptions about the continuity and overlap between the categories of butch women and trans men. The ways in which the article failed in its intent, and the ways in which it was critiqued by transsexuals pointed out the different value framings brought to the topic of masculinity that prioritized different experiences.
Is gender constructed or essential? Is it performed or experienced? Halberstam’s answer is “all of the above” and to embrace the spaces between. Is the stone butch a “pre-operative transsexual” in an arrested stage of a transformation narrative? Or is the stone butch a locus on the gender map that represents an independent stable identity?
The broader discussion, bringing in a wide variety of personal experiences and identities, argues against trying to build monolithic modes of “doing butch/transgender right.”
There is a survey though history of conflict between some feminist, lesbian, and transgender positions that revolve around themes of gender-loyalty, gender privilege, and “ownership” of historic narratives and persons.
Identifying as a butch lesbian can be a transitional stage for a trans man, even though most butches don’t have transgender leanings and not all trans men go though that experience. But the examples feed into narratives from both sides that destabilize the understanding of butch identity as independent and valid.
The rest of this chapter is full of interesting material but we’ve gone well past the relevance to pre-20th century history. It’s definitely worth reading, though.
Chapter 6: Looking Butch: A Rough Guide to Butches on Film
This chapter looks at the history of butch women in film. While of tangential relevance to the Project, there are a few interesting intersections. In particular, the presence of butch images in film can work to create homoerotic possibilities in ways that femme images do not. Any (femme) woman interacting with a butch woman on the screen can be read as potentially lesbian, while that same femme woman, on her own, carries no such associations, and whereas a lone butch woman is easily read as lesbian. [Note: this recapitulates a motif found throughout history, in which only the active/masculine partner is considered a lesbian/tribade, while her female partner is viewed as a “normal woman” who is simply willing to accept her in place of a man.] The butch makes lesbian identity legible at the cost of reinforcing the myth that lesbians can’t be feminine.
There is an extensive discussion of the effect of the Hayes Code, the more recent emphasis on looking for “positive representation”, and the use of butch imagery separate from lesbian implications. The chapter continues with an extensive taxonomy of butch representation in film.
Chapter 7: Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance
This chapter discusses the social and historic context of drag king performances. In a modern context, there is a contrast between male impersonation versus the more parodic and humorous drag king style. Male impersonation has a long history on stage (going back to the 17th century and “trouser roles”) but those earlier traditions have much in common with drag kings in that the intent was often to highlight the female body doing the performance. Male impersonators were popular around the turn of the 20th century but faded from view around the same time as the Hayes Code. There was some continuing tradition in lesbian bars, but drag king performance didn’t really make a comeback until later in the century.
There is an extensive discussion of cultural differences between drag king and drag queen traditions, particularly revolving around the equation of femaleness with performance and maleness with “naturalness”. This changes the dynamic of how to “perform maleness.” There’s a typology of drag king performance genres.
Chapter 8: Raging Bull (Dyke): New Masculinities
This chapter summarizes the general themes and includes some personal anecdotes from the author, especially revolving around gender in sports.