(R)evolutionary Etymologies: Femme
et·y·mol·o·gy [et-uh-mol-uh-jee] noun, plural et·y·mol·o·gies. — the study of historical linguistic change, especially as manifested in individual words.
It is still difficult to find a great deal of historical information written by Black womyn about experiencing the world as femme. It’s not easy to separate this fact from a sort of nefarious pseudo-sexism that devalues femininity in general, which exists among lesbians and queer womyn as it does in society at large. Use of the word “femme” probably sprouted from the French word for “woman,” but since femme is a gender, not all femmes are necessarily women. Femmes militantly resist the association of femininity with weakness and lack, and press forward creating entirely new ways and means of being feminine.
Lillian Faderman in the quintessential Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America places the first “intentional” understanding of femme existence as occurring among the urban sexual underground of the 1890’s, where it was common for butches (then called “female inverts”) and femmes to cruise each other at balls and later rent parties. Exposing a queer preference toward masculinity, throughout the early twentieth century there were seven or more words to describe butch lesbians and two to describe femmes (“mamma” and “wife”). Faderman notes that in some regions the word “femme” was interchangeable with the insult “fluff,” as a way to negatively reflect upon what they saw to be the frivolous practice of feminine adornment. Modern lesbian gender roles began to solidify in the 1950’s after the Second World War, but by the rise of the intellectual feminism that typified the 1970’s butch/femme became a highly contested practice. Many lesbian-feminists regarded both gender identities as a patriarchal relic from Cold War America.
Thankfully, femme roles saw a resurgence during the 1980’s. Unlike during the rigid and outwardly dour 1950’s, for the first time “a woman was a butch or a femme simply because she said she was” rather than there being an system for determining lesbian gender that mirrored the measures of state-sponsored gender oppression. Before this time femmes were expected to occupy a “traditional” gendered role and it was uncommon and considered “incestuous” for femmes to love and fuck other femmes. Femmes of the 1980’s questioned the assumptions and taboos that were commonplace at the time and widened the scope of queer(ed) femininity.
Fast forward to the present and we find femmes all over the world working towards (and beyond) visibility. Still, a quick glance of the cultural institutions that we value leave out the needs of femmes of color and femmes in general. I believe that chief among the specific needs of femmes is for queer masculinities and femininities to work together to end sexism and femmephobia. Often I see what I call the “femme island” effect, where issues unique or more prevalent for queer(ed) femininities are less likely to be taken up as central issues for all LGBT/queer people. Some issues that stay on “femme island” include sexual street harassment, harmful beauty standards, and sexist assumptions about the role of femmes in queer community.
For instance, while signing up as a volunteer for a widely know conference for butches and queer masculinities, I inquired about whether there was any collaboration between this gathering and the Femme of Color Symposium (which occurred on the same days in the same hotel). After a long confused silence from the volunteer recruiter, they asked if the Femme of Color Symposium was “a burlesque troop” and referred me to the performance coordinator. Can’t beat sexism and bureaucracy.
I am more interested in an understanding of femme that stresses resistance to sexist/ patriarchal power dynamics such as this one from What is Femme Anyway? by Bossy Femme: “Femme is defiance. Femme ignores the male gaze & tells patriarchy to fuck off. Femme is a refusal of the pressure to be thinner, whiter, pimple-free, wrinkle-free, smaller, quieter. Femme says that we’ll take the short skirts but you can keep the catcalls to yourself.” Femmes of the present day are defining their existence much like Gee, one of the contributors to the September/October 2011 edition of the zine Cosmoqueer, who writes “femme is wearing glittery brass knuckles.”
From our beginnings as one half of a butch/femme team that served to preserve our way of living and loving for decades, to an autonomous identity rooted in transgressive femininity, every step of the way creating femme has been a labor of love and honor. As femme cultural worker Leah Lakshmi Piepzna- Samarasinha writes in her essay “Never Be Hungry Again” in Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, “Femme is about honor,” honoring the sacrifices that are made by femininities every day, the femme cultural warriors who precede us, and the femmes who compose our beloved community.
- Cyrée Jarelle Johnson
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson is a Black Femme dyke writer, scholar, zinester, and poet. Cyrée Jarelle is committed to relocating Femme culture from margin to center using writing, non-formal education and communal publication. Ze remains a crippled Jersey Grrl abroad; in hir swollen feet ze is a wanderer, but hir heart is in the foodcourt at the Woodbridge Mall.