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Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community.

The contemporary theoretical discourse between essentialists and social constructionists resonates in the context of the rapidly developing field of lesbian history. Traditional conceptions of lesbianism and lesbian life as biologically governed, historical constants have been challenged formidably by the more sophisticated argument that particular social conditions provided the framework for the emergence of the twentieth-century lesbian as a social entity. In their lengthy and detailed study of the Buffalo lesbian community during the period from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis offer an interpretation of working-class lesbian history that is clearly situated in the social constructionist tradition.

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold is the product of fourteen years of collaborative research. The authors have carefully and deliberately employed an ethnographic approach to investigate the development and evolution of the culture and identity of the working-class lesbians whose social life centered on bars and house patties in the urban environment of mid twentieth-century Buffalo, New York. Utilizing oral histories collected from 45 women whom they refer to as "narrators," they describe the contrast between the isolation, secrecy, and fragmentation that characterized lesbian culture in the 1930s, and the subsequent establishment, beginning in the 1940s, of an extensive working-class communal social life centered in a network of bars and eventually organized around the butch-fem image.

Kennedy and Davis discern major changes in the Buffalo lesbian community during the 1950s. The growing presence of street-wise "tough bar lesbians" who dressed in working-class male attire and frequented the bars on a daily basis represented a significant step in the emergence of a culture of lesbian resistance to the homophobia and oppression of the McCarthy era. Empowered by the community-building experiences of the '40s, these women defied earlier norms that had stressed discretion concerning sexual preference and prudence regarding interactions with new acquaintances. Rather than conceal their homosexual identities and live double lives, they expanded their public presence and frequently responded with physical violence to conflict within the community or with the wider society. In addition to exhibiting this assertive posture, they defined a very specific butch-fem behavioral code that encompassed dress, mannerisms, distinctive sexual habits, and a characteristic practice of serial monogamy.

The 1950s also saw the desegregation of Buffalo's lesbian bars and the creation of interracial social relations among a small segment of the community, although an earlier tradition of house parties remained strong within the black lesbian subculture. Paradoxically, class divisions also crystallized at this time, as upwardly mobile women, both black and white, sought to distance themselves from the publicly defiant posture of the tough bar lesbians in deference to the middle-class standards of dress and social behavior associated with employment in white-collar positions.

The early 1960s witnessed the demise of the bars that had formed the core of Buffalo's working-class lesbian social life in the previous decade. Nevertheless, Kennedy and Davis contend that the butch-fem bar culture of the 50s significantly influenced the subsequent course of lesbian history. They conclude that the aggressive stance adopted by the participants in that culture provided a pre-political heritage of resistance from which the later, more consciously organized movement for gay liberation could draw. While the tactics of resistance employed by the tough bar lesbians were spontaneous and personal rather than analytical and strategic, their efforts to validate lesbian life contributed importantly to the development of late twentieth-century lesbian and gay politics.

The contention that working-class lesbian culture was proactive rather than reactive vis a vis heterosexual society locates Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold in the category of revisionist lesbian history, and in the broader context of the current reexamination of the balance between women's public and private activities in the past. The authors offer several other revisionist claims as well. They challenge stereotypical images of lesbians as isolated individuals rejected by their families, emphasizing both the experiences of community building in response to the need for a setting for the development of intimate relationships, and the examples of family support reported by their narrators. They also question existing interpretations of butch-fem culture as a replication of male and female working-class roles and relationships, and they explicitly contest feminist and lesbian feminist ideological critiques that denounce the culture as a reification of gender hierarchy as it exists in heterosexual patriarchal society. Finally Kenndy and Davis suggest that while the pre-1960s working-class lesbian community was not self-consciously feminist, butch-fem roles represented a kind of proto-feminism as they incorporated both claims of male privilege for women and the ability to live as feminine women without men.

This is an ambitious and thoughtful study of a complex topic. The authors have listened attentively to the voices of their narrators. They have worked diligently to interpret the data provided by the latter's recollections through the lens of historical perspective. They have focused their research on the public and personal lives of a group whose experiences have rarely been examined historically, despite the fact that working-class women have constituted a substantial segment of the twentieth-century lesbian community. Thus Kennedy and Davis have augmented our knowledge of working-class women's history at the same time as they have raised interesting questions about the degree to which one group of women in this category have shaped their own history.

The book's strengths are balanced by several less positive features. The authors maintain that the combination of a small, self-conscious, accommodationist homophile movement with the larger, more confrontational group of tough bar lesbians generated the movement for gay liberation in the 1960s. Yet they offer little substantive evidence to support either this thesis or the corollary claim that the influence of the civil rights, women's liberation, and antiwar movements was limited to the role of catalyst for the actions of existing forces within the homosexual community.

Stylistic problems also mar the volume's presentation. At times it reads more like pure ethnography than like social history. Lengthy passages quoted from the extensive interviews conducted by the authors could have been abbreviated with no damage to the final product. In the same vein, repetitious descriptions, particularly in the first few chapters, occasionally obscure the authors' more interesting analytical interpretative points. The use of personal pronouns, ("It is our guess that . . ." p. 153); occasional unsupported generalizations ("Most butches were mimics who had mastered the subtleties of masculine nonverbal communication," p. 157); and a historical statements (". . . we do not intend to cast suspicion on fems and valorize butches as being more serious lesbians," p. 386), seem disconcerting in a work of social historical scholarship. In sum, a tighter organizational structure and some judicious editing would have produced a smoother, more polished analysis.

Nevertheless, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold contributes new data and an interesting perspective to the expanding body of knowledge in the area of lesbian history. Further studies of urban working-class lesbian communities should generate additional evidence regarding the historical significance of the Buffalo experience.

Linda W. Rosenzweig Chatham College
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Rosenzweig, Linda W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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