Sheila Jeffries is giving a talk on Butch/Femme. She describes it as:
"Lesbian feminists in the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 1980s did not generally define themselves as any kind of butch or any kind of femme. They saw butch/femme roleplaying as an imitation of the male dominant/female subordinate roles of heterosexuality, a form of the eroticising of inequality. In the 1980s, during the so-called feminist 'sex wars', butch/femme roleplaying was promoted by some 'pro-sex' lesbians and justified as true, essential lesbianism that puritanical, anti-sex feminists had mistakenly criticised. Today there are different understandings of butch and femme in the lesbian community. Some lesbians use the word 'butch' as if it signifies a form of real or gold star lesbianism, or even an equivalent to the word lesbian. There is not such enthusiasm for the term 'femme' but some lesbians do embrace the term, or say they contain within themselves bits of both butch and femme. These lesbians defend the terms, saying they do not necessarily imply any kind of roleplaying of inequality. I will argue that the terms cannot be used positively because they derive their meaning from male supremacy in which butch equals male power and femme equals female subordination. Each term has no meaning without the other. They are each part of a relationship, a relationship of power."
I think she is right, but the idea of butch/femme seems to be becoming more common amongst young lesbians.
For me, there is more to say about butch/femme than that it's reproducing patterns of patriarchal heterosexual relationships. If you read, for example, Joan Nestlé, she's interesting and thought-provoking on how US lesbians in the mid-20th century used dress and body language to signify their sexuality. She criticises the feminist tendency of slating b/f role play. JN is older than me, when I came out in London in the seventies I quickly became part of a lesbian feminist community where I didn't see any "real'" b/f relationships, but we certainly used to talk about who was more of a butch or more femme-y, kind of a joke but also, I think, part of the way we defined ourselves as other, different from heterosexual women. It didn't have anything to do with who had more power in a couple, or who put shelves up!
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