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Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The…

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (edition 1994)

by Elizabeth Kennedy

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330249,700 (3.94)5
Title:Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community
Authors:Elizabeth Kennedy
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (1994), Paperback, 464 pages
Collections:Butch-Femme, Your library
Tags:queer, femme, butch, gender, non-fiction, b-f fb group banner

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Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Kennedy


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In Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis aim “to explore how the culture of resistance that developed in working-class, lesbian bars and house parties contributed to shaping twentieth-century gay and lesbian consciousness and politics. [Their] approach is that of ethno-history: a combination of the methodology of ethnography – the intensive study of the culture and identity of a single community – with history – the analysis of the forces that shaped how that community changed over time, using as [their] primary sources oral histories of Buffalo lesbians” (pg. 2). Kennedy and Davis draw extensively upon the work of George Chauncey, Michael Frisch, Ruth Meyerowitz, Elaine Tyler May, Esther Newton, and others in contextualizing their oral histories.

Discussing the importance of geography on Buffalo’s lesbian community, Kennedy and Davis write, “Bars… and public house parties were central to twentieth-century lesbian resistance. By finding ways to socialize together, individuals ended the crushing isolation of lesbian oppression and created the possibility for group consciousness and activity. In addition, by forming community in a public setting outside of the protected and restricted boundaries of their own living rooms, lesbians also began the struggle for public recognition and acceptance” (pg. 29). They continue, “the nature of lesbian oppression was such that as lesbians and gays came together to end their isolation and build a public community they also increased their visibility and therefore the risks of exposure. Lesbians had two basic strategies for handling this situation: one, separation of their lesbian social life from other aspects of their life; and second, avoidance of conflict when confronted about being lesbian” (pg. 55).

Kennedy and Davis write of the upwardly mobile, “Although no homophile organizations formed in Buffalo, we think that this more upwardly mobile community throws light on the conditions that gave rise to and shaped the homophile organizations in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia. The Buffalo evidence suggests that the lesbian homophile organizations grew out of a working-class lesbian tradition – women who were conscious of lesbians as a group, from socializing in the bars – rather than a middle-class tradition of isolated individuals and couples” (pg. 138). They spend considerable time on differences in between black and white communities and between the working-class and upwardly mobile, writing, “Just as in racial desegregation, the 1950s lesbian community cannot be accurately described as either one or several. The tension between unity and division was built into the culture and characterizes this period of prepolitical resistance” (pg. 145). Further, “Because Buffalo was a working-class city, the rough and tough lesbians – Black and white – were a strong force and their contribution was most apparent. Of the women who, alongside men, founded the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, and brought gay liberation to Buffalo, the largest constituency were rough and tough lesbians” (pg. 150). Further, “In cities such as Buffalo, members of the bar community formed political organizations at about the same time as the Stonewall Rebellion that became active in the gay liberation movement. In fact visibility, standing up for one’s rights, and ending the double life were core issues for both the tough lesbians and gay liberation, though they approached them differently. The prepolitical tactics of the tough lesbians were immediate, spontaneous, and personal. They lacked gay liberation’s long-term analysis of and strategy for ending the oppression of gays and lesbians in America and changing the world” (pg. 186).

Much of the second half of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold examines the butch-fem dichotomy. Kennedy and Davis write, “The key to understanding the butch-fem erotic system is to grasp that it both imitates and transforms heterosexual patterns. The obvious similarity between butch-fem and male-female eroticism was that they were both based on gender polarity: In lesbian culture, masculine and feminine imagery identified the objects of desire; aggressiveness and passivity were crucial to the erotic dynamic” (pg. 192). They continue, “Lesbian identity based on gender inversion and that based on the choice of sexual partner were shaped by lesbians in the context of resisting the limitations imposed by a hostile society” (pg. 324). Further, “The specific date of the transition from a definition of homosexual identity based in gender inversion to the contemporary one based on object choice is difficult to ascertain. Rather, the idea that a homosexual was someone who was attracted to a person of the ‘same sex’ became slowly and unevenly incorporated into medicine, popular culture, and gay and lesbian culture” (pg. 325).

Kennedy and Davis conclude, “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold traces the roots of gay and lesbian liberation to the resistance culture of working-class lesbians. Butch-fem roles coalesced an entire culture into the prepolitical, but none the less active, struggle against gay and lesbian oppression. Working-class lesbians had a key role in shaping their history, transforming their social life, sexual expression, relationships, and identity. Together these changes created the consciousness of kind necessary for the boldness that was to characterize gay liberation” (pg. 372). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Oct 22, 2018 |
This was an interesting book, and overall I'd suggest it to anyone interested in mid-twentieth-century lesbian history.

However, it suffered from simultaneously overgeneralizing and overspecificity. I have not read widely in this field, so my complaints may be about the nature of sociology and oral history rather than about this book in particular; they should thus be taken with a grain of salt by people more widely read in the area. The authors do not hesitate to use the sample of women they speak with (a couple dozen, though the exact number isn't mentioned anywhere I recall), all of whom were active in the lesbian community in Buffalo, New York in the 1940s and 1950s, to draw conclusions about all lesbians of the era; however, they also assume that any conclusions they draw are limited *only* to lesbians (describing "serial monogamy" as a uniquely lesbian relationship structure, for instance, which heterosexuals do not deliberately engage in). This struck me as odd. Also irritating to my scientific mindset was the apparent vacuum in which each narrator existed -- they describe the same bars at the same time, but it's unclear how any narrator related to any other. I understand the desire to maintain anonymity, but I wish there could have been a way to indicate that X dated Y and Z without divulging identifying information about any of them.

Nitpicks about methodology aside, however, this was really interesting as a snapshot of a place and time. Skip the intro if you aren't of a social-science bent, however, which is the authors theorizing and contextualizing, and start with Chapter Two when the women who lived through the era get to start talking about it. ( )
3 vote lorax | Dec 7, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Kennedyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Davis, Madeline D.main authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140235507, Paperback)

"Soars on the plain yet eloquent voices of the women...A necessary and overdue addition to the archives of lesbian and gay history."—The Boston Globe. Chronicles working-class lesbians in Buffalo, New York from the 1930s through the 60s.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:18 -0400)

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