Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview
Save to active project



Donna Penn

“Homosexual” describes both gay men and lesbians, but that usage may be deceptive for historians seeking to understand the emergence of homosexual identities. By the mid-twentieth century, most historians have argued that homosexuality becomes defined by the choice of sexual partner, replacing an older definition of homosexuality as gender disorder - the condition of the man, often effeminate in demeanor, who wanted to take the “woman’s part” in sex. In this essay Donna Penn suggests that lesbianism, more than male homosexuality, has been persistently defined in reference to gender. In “expert” opinion, popular culture, and lesbian subcultures alike, the “masculine” woman or the “butch” has been a crucial signifier of lesbianism.

Penn begins with a brief commentary on two historical models of homosexuality. Women’s historians have rejected sexual activity as the defining characteristic of lesbianism, instead emphasizing the significance of women’s emotional relationships and life choices (for example, not marrying, living with other women). Historians of homosexuality, by contrast, have relied more heavily on sexual behavior, especially choice of sexual partner, in defining homosexual practice and the emergence of homosexual identities.

Penn argues that we must consider both sexuality and gender as they shape the social construction of lesbianism. In medical and popular discourses, the representation of lesbianism focused on the lesbian’s refusal of heterosexual marriage and motherhood, her defiant social and sexual autonomy - that is, experts described the “pathology” of lesbianism not as a problem of abnormal sexuality, but of disordered gender. Lesbians themselves disagreed about proper gender roles and practiced butch/femme roles to varying degrees, but the “mannish” woman, or the butch, declareda difference that others could observe; the butch was thus crucial to the formation of lesbian subcultures and to the emergence of lesbian identities.


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Gender and American History since 1890


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 308

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?