What Is A Butch? Part 1: The Problem With Masculinity

October 28, 2009 at 7:18 AM (Uncategorized) (, )

As someone who seeks butches for dating, I have some insight into the issues surrounding the term “butch.” Having sought dates primarily through the Internet, I have worked to compose many a description that was meant to convey what I think is encompassed by the word “butch,” and I know something about what it is to describe butches. I have experienced the irritation of suffering through what I saw as clear self-misidentification as butch. All that is to say is, I know the importance of the question: What is a butch?

A simple response might be: A masculine woman.

But what is masculinity? My expensive Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of The English Language tells me that masculine is:

1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men.
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.

…and the rest discuss grammatical uses of the term.

Hopefully, the problem here is obvious: We have a word we want to apply to women, yet it is defined wholly in terms of men. On the face of it, it may not seem such a big deal to refer to one group of people with a term that derives its meaning from a different group of people; however, when we consider the fact that the patriarchy does it’s damnedest to define women and men in opposition to one another, to perpetuate the charade that there are certain natural, universal, terribly significant differences between the two groups that justify women’s oppression, and in the process arbitrarily builds and re-builds grab bags of human characteristics called “masculinity” and “femininity” to further these causes, it becomes obvious that the concept of masculinity is but another tool of oppression.

When we examine what characteristics are commonly referred to as “masculine,” we find assertiveness, physical strength, bravery, sexual prowess, and many other qualities that are not only obviously possible for any human being, but have in fact been a part of the personality of all sorts of human beings. Some people mistakenly believe that this is what constitutes masculinity: a set of behaviors, looks/styles, and states of mind. The crucial concept that they miss, however, is that masculinity does encompass these things, with the qualification that men (and sometimes boys) are the default, original, natural, rightful, and/or most appropriate owners of these demeanors, looks, and thinking patterns. Thus, the man-centric definition (and popular usage).

The concept of masculinity being primarily about men cannot be separated from the word; it is defined in terms of men. It isn’t an originally neutral term that was hijacked; it is patriarchy-manufactured, -maintained, -stamped and -approved. One cannot use it to affirm certain characteristics in a person without simultaneously affirming the fiction that these characteristics derive from men. Clearly, “masculine” is not an appropriate adjective to use at all, let alone in reference to the bold patriarchy-destroyers that butches are. Such usage would confer the status of wannabe or imitation man on the woman thus described.

Not only does Dismantling The Patriarchy 101 tell us that a key dismantling tactic is the rejection of patriarchal language, it also instructs us as to the importance of defining oppressed groups on their own terms, so, the question remains: What is a butch?



  1. FeistyAmazon said,

    For me, according to your analysis above, but that few Butches these days ascribe to, is that Butch=Amazon, the original defiers of male imposed roles, laws, ability to love women, become Warriors, and live their lives as equals to any man alive…with their own strength, power and courage with many of the positive traits men are often ascribed and women are not….so, for me, I’ve come to the conclusion, heart, body, mind and soul, with much study, ritual, affirmation and teaching of Amazon mysteries, as well as years and years in the Martial Arts, and being out as a Dyke brought out by the Dyke Witches, one who greatly influenced me who was Butch, that modern day Butch=Amazon. It fits and works for me, and I am identified and recognized as such.

    I am a Female Identified Butch, therefore, for me, because my first love and loyalty is to other Dykes and women, and the Goddess in all Her Forms, and Mother Earth, and recognition of the power of Sisterhood together, in ritual and in friendship, I am Amazon. And I am definitely Butch and have been all my life(from tomboy to Butch), and especially since I entered the martial arts at the tender age of 14, at puberty. I set upon Her Path as Her Female Warrior….little did I know at the time…until I came out at 21, with the Dyke Witches, but didn’t figure it all out till some years later…

    This does not preclude those Femmes who also claim an Amazon identity, but for me, first and foremost, those Butches who aren’t male identified, who are strongly Female Identified…they really are truly Amazons in my book..and especially because of all the heat we take for being who and what we are in life. Women who love womyn who won’t be contained by the rules and boxes men would attempt to put us in…we’re wild and free and untamed, like our Amazon sisters before us…..

  2. carolyn said,

    I am a playwright and most of my work is butch-centered… which is to say, rarely produced, and often appropriated by fem actresses. The erasure of the butch is a financial issue for me. I have given it a lot of thought, and, because there are butches who hate the word butch, I have to think hard about “what is butch.” To me, the worst thing of all is to have no language. My first crush was a butch and when I asked her “What is butch?” she told me that no one could answer that question, but “everyone knows it when they see it.” Strategically, that’s awful. She was describing an oppression for which she had no tools for resist. Language is a primary tool. I do say “masculine women” sometimes, and I lean heavily on the dictionary definition with the words “traditionally associated”… because that’s accurate. It describes a fact, and that “traditional association” is the touchstone of butch oppression. Thanks for engaging the issue.

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