“The Mythic Mannish Lesbian:
Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman”
I hate games! I hate role-playing! It's so ludicrous that certain lesbians, who despise men, become the exact replicas of them!
—Anonymous interview in the Gay Report, ed. Karla Jay and Allan Young
Thinking, acting, or looking like a man contradicts lesbian feminism's first principle: The lesbian is a “woman-identified woman.” 1 What to do, then, with that figure referred to, in various times and circumstances, as the “mannish lesbian,” the “true invert,” the “bull dagger,” or the “butch”? You see her in old photographs or paintings with legs solidly planted, wearing a top hat and a man's jacket, staring defiantly out of the frame, her hair slicked back or clipped over her ears; or you meet her on the street in t-shirt and boots, squiring a brassily elegant woman.
Out of sight, out of mind! “Butch and femme are gone,” declares one lesbian author, with more hope than truth. 2 And what about those old photographs? Was the mannish lesbian a myth created by “the [male] pornographic mind” 3 or by male sexologists intent on labeling nineteenthcentury feminists as deviant? Maybe the old photographs portray a few misguided souls—or perhaps those “premovement” women thought men's neckties were pretty and practical.
In the nineteenth century and before, individual women passed as men by dressing and acting like them for a variety of economic, sexual, and adventure-seeking reasons. Many of these women were from the working class. 4 Public, partial cross-dressing among bourgeois women was a late-