Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Wayne Koestenbaum

Committee Members

Nancy K. Miller

Steven Kruger

Subject Categories

Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Film and Media Studies | History of Gender | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies | United States History | Women's History


transmasculinity; butch; butch/femme; female masculinity; feminist theory; Critical Race Theory; transgender studies; disability studies; film studies; butch/femme; transatlantic modernisms; blues; film noir; silent film; Cather, Willa; Stein, Gertrude; Moore, Marianne; Rainey, Gertrude "Ma"; Smith, Bessie; Baker, Josephine; Bow, Clara; Bacall, Lauren; Emerson, Hope; LGBT studies; lesbian and gay history, women’s history


Butch Between the Wars is a pre-history of “butch,” a twentieth-century masculine style that became an identity category for lesbians in the 1940s and ’50s. Between the two world wars and in the early postwar period, women used the energy of butch to create literature, music, and character on film. Butch-styled artists expressed a muscular orientation to the world, one with close associations to lower and working class black and white masculinities. Those who were recognizably lesbian and those with less clearly defined sexualities challenged the idea that strength, authority, and independence are qualities “naturally” bound to the male body. Historical events provided the conditions for these earlier butch styles.

The nine artists in this dissertation discovered their artistic exuberance in what I call “butch exceptionalism,” a grandiosity based in masculine monumentality. Because butch-styled women broke with feminine propriety in times and places where this was considered blasphemous, they naturally considered themselves to be exceptions. Further, the butch-styled artist often required what I call a “femme witness,” a person of either biological gender who functioned as stage manager, typist, travel coordinator, publicist, and emotional support for the butch in her rise to success. Butch artists held a treasure chest of private feelings that can only be shared safely with carefully chosen intimates.

In Chapter One, “Epic, Amiable, Minuscule: Writing Stone Butch After the Great War,” I explore how Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore developed a stone butch style of writing in response to the First World War. These writers used blockage and absence of emotion to convey the loss and tragedy of the War; simultaneously, they rejected the nineteenth-century Cult of True Womanhood that bound women to the domestic sphere. In Chapter Two, “B.D. Women Sing the Blues (and Dance the Charleston): Rage and Defiance in the Era of the ‘Greats,’” I correct a pervasive tendency to minimize or erase entirely questions of racial difference in discussions on butch. Butch style is a multi-layered response to sexism, racism, and homophobia. I consider how Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Josephine Baker used butch defiance and rage to confront the legacy of slavery and the present reality of Jim Crow. Through butch style, black female musicians and performers found the audacity to “tell it like it is,” and discover through performance a sense of body continuity, what Hortense Spillers calls “being-for-self.” However, all three died in poverty, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith in relative obscurity, which suggests that the very contours of butch style were determined by life-or-death racial, economic, and social factors.

In Chapter Three, “‘Just Put Your Lips Together and Blow’”: Butch Pluck and Gumption in the Films of Clara Bow, Lauren Bacall and Hope Emerson,” I observe how representations of butch style gradually shifted as butch become an identity category. All three performers honed an uncanny ability to hijack the plot of the film by throwing a punch, lighting a match, or eating a giant stack of pancakes. However, silent film star and “It” girl Clara Bow had more license to bend gender and sexuality in the pre-code era, and she received little punishment in the narrative arc of the film for her tomboy behaviors. By the ’40s and ’50’s, butch women were maligned, often used as minor characters and foils for the heterosexual love plot. Lauren Bacall expresses butch toughness through clipped language, precise physical movements (such as catching a matchbook in midair), and stone butch impenetrability. Through her representation of what I call the butch body out of control, Emerson used her size to create an imposing butch presence.