Many tributes during Women’s History Month rightfully celebrate women who broke the proscribed mold for their gender in their time. Most times, the mold that we think of for a woman who is behaving properly boils down to being more decorative than effective; appearing, more than doing. However, this norm did not apply universally to all women. It is useful to remember that the cult of domesticity, and the expectation of effortless beauty, have both benefited and oppressed women, depending on who and where they were.
For example, the white, suburban women who are the subject of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique gained social status in their roles as wives and mothers, but they recognized that they were oppressed by that limited status, since it gained them none of the actual, institutional power that was reserved for men. However, women of color and queer/trans women were simultaneously shut out from even the limited social status that wife- and motherhood gave wealthy white women, and relegated to a position even further removed from power. There was no social space for being a wife and mother as an out lesbian living with another woman; hence, there was no way to both be a lesbian and to gain the highest status available to women at the time, even though that status itself was a repressive one.
Similarly, white, upper-class women have historically been encouraged to bear many children and stay home raising them, no matter what else they personally may have wanted to do. In contrast, women of color and queer/trans women have faced obstacles to bearing and raising their own children that are as different as the women in those marginalized groups are. As a result, things associated with the “traditionally feminine” roles can be a source of limitation for some women, while being profoundly empowering for others. Embracing the roles once denied to people like you by choosing to bear and parent your own children, or to perform your femininity visibly, can be every bit as radical as refusing to do either might be for someone else.
Image: Plynn Gutnam via MTV.com
Lesléa Newman is a Jewish femme lesbian, and an author who celebrates lesbian women who embrace the “traditional” femininity that both the straight and gay worlds have often denied them. Her perspective celebrating femme helped to end a time when the lesbian community had aggressively embraced androgyny in presentation and behavior, part of a backlash against the “straight-seeming” butch/femme identities that had been omnipresent before about 1970.
Newman's book The Femme Mystique is a collage of work by and about femme lesbians, full of the joys of being girly. Her Pillow Talk series crackles with the erotic energy of sex between women, including butch/femme partners. These works help to debunk the community wisdom of the 1970s and '80s that rejected butch/femme as “politically incorrect”. However, her work also helps find the flexible and the good in what were, in the 1950s and '60s, extremely rigid and exclusive butch/femme roles which, to be honest, did often constrain queer women who had no interest in presenting as either one. In contrast, Newman’s work celebrates performing traditional femininity as a choice, without arguing that doing so is a necessity.
Image: Cover of Newman's Heather has Two Mommies via Amazon
Most famously, Newman published Heather Has Two Mommies in 1989, the first children’s book to positively portray a loving family headed by lesbian parents. While raising children in a two-parent household is, at first glance, one of the most traditionally feminine things a woman can do in American culture, the frequent controversy over Heather Has Two Mommies demonstrates how challenging it can be to do just that, if you’re a lesbian. As a matter of fact, a gay identity alone used to be sufficient grounds for American courts to deny parents custody of their own children.
Newman’s work seems to celebrate assimilation into the culture of “traditional femininity”. However, by doing so, it actually highlights how subversive it is for women from a marginalized group to claim for themselves the behavior usually reserved for white, straight, cisgender, upper-class women, and to demand respect for these choices.