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Female masculinity refers to a range of masculine-inflected identities and identifications. Debates over the status and meaning of female masculinity and the bodies and selves to whom the terms may be ascribed emerge in the context of analyses of sex, gender, and sexuality.
Social and cultural history has documented the lives of individual women who defied the gendered conventions of their times, adopted masculine clothing and/or engaged in gendered non-conformist behavior in Anglo-American and European contexts from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Rigorous scholarly approaches to archival material have tended to challenge trans-historical claims of stable forms of female masculinity across time. Assumed relations of equivalence and translatability between and across culturally specific practices relating to female masculinity have also appeared suspect.
Key to the development of innovative conceptual trajectories on female masculinity in interdisciplinary academic gender studies are critical readings and sociocultural analyses of Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928). In a pioneering essay, anthropologist Esther Newton (2000 ) notes that Hall’s novel constitutes a central reference for paradigmatic imaginings of female masculinity in the twentieth century, and the ground for the entrenchment and popularization of a relation between female masculinity and lesbianism.
In a groundbreaking study, Halberstam (1998) challenges psychoanalytic readings and proposes instead that unhinging the relation between masculinity and men may yield important insights into the social and cultural production of masculinity. This theoretical move reveals a spectrum of female masculine-inflected subject positions that historically have included the Androgyne, the Tribade and the Female Husband and that in mid- to late twentieth-century Anglo-American contexts comprise soft butch, butch, stone butch and transbutch identities, the youthful exuberance of tomboys and the parodic performances of drag kings (Halberstam 1998). In urban lesbian of color gender-non-conformist communities in the USA, ”stud” and ”aggressive” are terms which currently refer to masculine identifications which may or may not be coextensive with a lesbian identity.
Building on Rubin’s (1992: 467) classic definition of butch as ”a category of lesbian gender that is constituted through the deployment and manipulation of masculine gender codes and symbols,” Halberstam (1998) aligns her spectrum of gender identifications of female masculinities firmly with lesbianism.
In relation to the future of female masculinity studies, queer theory and critical race studies perspectives should be noted. They hold great potential, as they can trouble academic and popular associations between female masculinity and lesbianism analytically, leading to an understanding of transgender queer and female ”nonlesbian” (Carter 2005) masculinities. A sustained consideration of the ways in which imaginings, practices and experiences of female masculinity are mediated by class, race and, crucially, racism is long overdue, as is an analysis that addresses the ways in which aesthetic, social and cultural categories may function ethnographically. This confirms the importance of investigating the complexities of social taxonomies of female virility and masculine experience, their contexts and meanings in everyday life.
- Carter, J. (2005) On mother-love: history, queer theory, and nonlesbian identity. Journal of the History of Sexuality 14 (1/2): 107—38.
- Halberstam, (1998) Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, and London.
- Newton, E. (2000) Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, and London.
- Rubin, G. (1992) Of catamites and kings: reflections on butch, gender, and boundaries. In Nestle, J. (ed.), The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. Alyson Publications, Boston, MA.