A Brief History Of The Word "Femme"

Photographed by Beth sacca.
A few weeks ago, I was shopping at Buffalo Exchange when I came across a bright pink t-shirt. Normally, I wouldn't have bothered to pick it up. While I love a pop of colour in my mostly black wardrobe, pink tends to wash out my ghost-white skin. But it wasn't the colour that caught my eye, it was the word scrawled across the chest: "Femme."
As a lesbian who enjoys makeup, dresses, crop tops, and curling my hair (even though it's such a hassle), I'm basically the definition of a femme. So this shirt felt tailor-made for me. But at the same time, I was a little irritated thinking about other people wearing it. Namely, straight women. Because, among the LGBTQ+ community, femme is a descriptor that can feel as inherent to someone's identity as lesbian, bisexual, or genderqueer. So to see the word emblazoned across a shirt that was first sold at a mainstream store like Madewell and then eventually found its way to Buffalo Exchange was a little jarring. How many straight women have worn the shirt completely oblivious of the queer history it invokes?
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Femmes have been part of queer history since at least the late 1940s and early 1950s, when lesbian and bisexual women (specifically working-class women) coined a term to describe the relationships they were forming: butch-femme. "Butch-femme relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic statements...filled with a deeply lesbian language of stance, dress, gesture, loving, courage, and autonomy," Joan Nestle, founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, wrote in her essay Butch-Femme Relationships and Sexual Courage in the 1950’s. While many argued against butch-femme relationships at the time (and sometimes still do) as being attempts to mimic heterosexual relationships, Nestle claimed that butch-femme couples terrified other lesbians because they were unwilling to hide. Unlike closeted lesbians who could pass for straight, butch-femme couples made queer women visible. "In the 1950s this courage to feel comfortable with arousing another woman became a political act," she wrote.

Femininity for femme lesbians wasn't just a look, it was statement that they wouldn't bend to anyone else's expectations.

Butch-femme couples continued to be outliers in the LGBTQ+ community in the 1970s and 80s, when lesbian feminists at the time were favouring an androgynous look free of gender expectations, writes Amy Goodloe, a former professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colorado. Just as they defied expectations from straight society, butch-femme couples at the time ignored the "rules" of lesbian culture, which claimed that you couldn't be a feminist and be in a butch-femme relationship. (The snobby way lesbian feminists looked down on butch-femme couples was perfectly illustrated in If These Walls Could Talk 2). So femininity for the femme lesbians in these types of relationships wasn't just a look, it was statement that they wouldn't bend to anyone else's expectations.
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Later, butch and femme identities started to exist separately, and butch-femme pairings no longer felt like a given (femme women sometimes date each other and so do butch women). While it may have felt that femmes were defined by their butches in the past, "femme" is now a term that many queer people relate to regardless of the relationships they're in. Yet, it's still a distinctly queer word. "Femmes. We live in different places. We’re different ages. We have different gender identities. Some of us are people of colour, some of us are white...The only thing we have in common is that we’re queer," Cecelia wrote for Autostraddle in 2016. Of course, the meaning has shifted a little. Some of the people who describe their femme experiences in Autostraddle's roundtable are trans women, some are non-binary, and some are bisexual. And that pisses some lesbians off. Certain groups of lesbians aren't too happy that the word has spread to include other gender identities and sexualities (including gay men). But there's no arguing that a vast number of queer and gender non-conforming people now identify as femme.
So should we be too concerned that straight women sometimes identify with the word, too? When "femme" lines the aisles of Forever21 and Urban Outfitters accompanied by words like "fierce," I totally understand how it can seem like a girl power-kind of feminist slogan open for any woman or feminine-identified person to claim. But many queer people feel that straight women have co-opted "femme," and not only on t-shirts. As with any other form of cultural appropriation, it's a problem because there are power dynamics at play: When straight women declare themselves femme they dilute the word's connection with queer history. We've seen it happen before. The rallying cry "yaaas" seems to have started with a gay man. But now, most people probably attribute it to Broad City's Ilana Glazer.
Plus, straight people have denied and ignored our rights and our humanity for so long (remember when we couldn't get married or feel safe on the streets?), that the very least they could do is leave our words alone. Maybe the straight women who choose to purchase that bright pink femme shirt are making a similar statement of resistance as were the femme lesbians of the 1950s. Maybe they need a simple and bold way to state their defiance. But as much as I feel that "sharing is caring," I wish they would find another word.
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