“My Butch Career: A Memoir” by Esther Newton— A Life of Struggle

Newton, Esther. “My Butch Career: A Memoir”, Duke University Press, 2019.

A Life of Struggle

Amos Lassen

It does not happen often that I read a book that is filled with passages that remind me of similar events in my life. Esther Newton’s “My Butch Career” which is already a Lambda Literary nominee is such a book. I laughed, I cried, I thought heavily as I read and I am determined to meet Esther one day to discover that she is really my true sister or brother or whatever.

Esther Newton had a difficult childhood. She shares that she “became an anti-girl, a girl refusenik, caught between genders,” and that her “child body was a strong and capable instrument stuffed into the word ‘girl.’” Later, in early adulthood, when she was on her way to becoming a trailblazing figure in gay and lesbian studies, she “had already chosen higher education over the strongest passion in my life, my love for women, because the two seemed incompatible.”

She has quite a story to tell and I loved reading how she came to terms with the new identity that she chose as she struggled to be an academic at the same time that she searched for love. This was happening at a time of intense homophobic persecution; a time when acceptance was a rarity even in the academic community by people who knew better. To reach that point in her life. Newton went through dramas and conflicts and even sexual molestations and attempts to live what was thought to be a “normal” (whatever that means) life.

She was denied tenure at Queens College and at SUNY Purchase despite having written a highly influential book. Some of the important periods of her life include her father Saul’s strong masculinity and its influence on her, her introduction to middle-class gay life, and her love affairs (“including one with a well-known abstract painter and another with a French academic she met on a spur of the moment trip to Mexico and with whom she traveled throughout France and Switzerland”). By the time she was finally able to achieve personal and scholarly stability. This was “in the company of the first politicized generation of out lesbian and gay scholars with whom she helped create gender and sexuality studies.” I remember reading her “Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America” and being blown away by it. I had already left this country and was pursuing academic status in Israel where we were preparing to launch the first academic gay and lesbian studies program in 1980. I know that this book would somehow need to find its way into the curriculum.

I see Esther Newton as one of our first gender outlaws and her story is such an important look at the road to becoming a gay academic and how recently this happened. Here was Newton at a time when transgressing from one’s assumed gender was thought of as heresy and what an important story for those who will soon face this.

Newton shares how she developed her butch identity and that she prefers the words “dyke” and “butch” to lesbian. She also tells of the difficult time she had as an anthropology graduate student and professor because of her sexuality (and here is a place to weep openly as I did). 

Newton’s mother was unmarried when she was born, and it was a long time before Esther learned who her biological father was. The man who played the role of father in her life was a domineering yet charming leftist and  former Communist who achieved prominence in psychology. He had three other wives after he left her mother. Esther is part Jewish and identifies as  a secular Jew. She loved the Jewish and leftist feel of New York City, and was miserable when her mother moved to Palo Alto, California.

Newton went through years of anguish trying to work out her sexuality. While at the University of Chicago she was told that she had to wear skirts to be accepted as serious anthropologist. She did not realize that writing her dissertation on drag queens would restrict her choices for employment and, in fact, it led to her becoming involvedd in LGBT studies and in the gay liberation movement. Today, she strongly supports butch/femme identification. 

Newton says early on in her book that “Young people do not see being butch as ‘transgressive,’ but lesbians challenge the gender hierarchy just as much, or more, by staying women. I am opposed to pressure being put on masculine girls and women to ‘go all the way’ by transitioning.” I read quite an alarming rebuttal to this which showed me the person who wrote it, did so not really knowing what she was talking about and had misunderstood Newton.  

I especially love that Newton did not hide the personal from us and she shared the mistakes she had made in life as well as how her personality developed. She shares her failed relationships as well. By doing so, we never question her honesty—she is, at times, brutally honest.   After years of struggle, personally and professionally Newton finds a community in an evolved culture and “helps to create the academic study of gender and sexuality. This book is simultaneously a memoir and an exemplar of this important field.” Today at 78 years old, Newton re-examines her milieu and shares her story with us all and I feel great pride in having read what she has written. Esther Newton, although she might not like this title as a gender defying secular Jew, has become my Queen Esther.

 

“Esther Newton, one of the pioneers of gay and lesbian studies, is formerly Term Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and Professor of Anthropology at Purchase College, State University of New York. She is the author of several books, including Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas and Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town, both also published by Duke University Press, as well as the groundbreaking Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America.”

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