2 min

The real history of butch & femme

Underneath the bouffant hair-dos and lacquered fingernails of post-war secretaries and school teachers lay a steamy lesbian social network.

According to Karen Duder, a lecturer in history and sociology at the

University Of Victoria, from the 1940s to the ’60s, middle-class lesbians held hidden dyke-only house parties in the suburbs of Toronto.

“Quite a bit is known about lesbian bar culture during that period,” says Duder, “however no one has really looked at clerical workers, nurses, school teachers and other lower middle-class women who, because of wanting to maintain respectability, did not associate with bar culture. Instead they socialized in large, secret house parties in the suburbs.”

Duder collected oral histories from lesbians across Canada reminiscing about these parties as a part of her PhD thesis.

“Most of the women who went to the parties were not out at all,” says Duder, “they were in jobs that they would lose if it became known that they were lesbians.”

Because of the constant fear of losing their livelihoods the parties

thrived in a closed environment of total secrecy. “These were totally lesbian gatherings. The women would park their vehicles some blocks away and come in quietly. Any same-sex gathering in that era was subject to scrutiny and they were worried about police raids.”

Although many of these “respectable” dykes visited the bars, Duder found that they considered themselves separate from bar culture because of classism and class boundaries. “Some used the term ‘rough’ or ‘pretty scruffy’ to describe the bar scene, another told me that ‘the dredges of society used to hang around there.'”

Another difference between party girls and bar dykes was that butch and femme was not as important at the house parties.

“A lot of the women that I spoke to referred to being ‘butch-y’ or ‘sort of femme’ – but they didn’t fully hold these identities,” says Duder. “For example, none of the women wore men’s clothes, just tailored women’s suits.

“One of the reasons for this is that to be obviously butch or femme was to be out. These women did dress slightly differently for the parties [more butch or femme] – but on the street they were afraid of being picked up by police or seen by employers who would fire them.”

Because of the clandestine nature of these women’s social lives, it was difficult for lesbians to find each other. “Women would meet, subtly clue into each other’s sexuality and then get invited into this social world.”

The confidentiality surrounding the milieu continues to make it difficult to uncover this important part of lesbian history. “Their social world was so quiet that there is no written material on it,” says Duder. “It didn’t even feature in the tabloid newspapers of the time. I have had to rely entirely on interviews.”

Duder presented her ground-breaking research in a lecture called Bar Women And House Parties: ‘Respectable’ And ‘Rough’ Lesbians In Canada 1940-65, at The Future Of The Queer Past, the largest international queer history conference ever, held earlier this month at the University Of Chicago.