Manly (Masculine) Woman

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Manly (Masculine) Woman

Masculine or manly women are female-bodied individuals who possess qualities that are perceived to be masculine. These women are masculine in appearance, have masculine interests, prefer the company of men, and/or perform masculine tasks or jobs. Most generically masculine or manly women do not conform to feminine stereotypes. Social concepts of masculine women and effeminate men rely on the binary gender system that directly ties gender (masculinity and femininity) to sex (maleness and femaleness). In this system where activities, styles, bodies, behaviors, and even objects are all definitively gendered, females and males who exhibit characteristics of the opposite gender are seen as at best, gender variant and at worst, gender deviant. Because she is seen as a deviation from the feminine standard, the figure of the masculine (manly) woman helps to uphold the moralizing "normalcy" of traditional femininity, which itself confirms contemporary heterosexuality as the natural, default sexual orientation (McGann 1999).

Yet, the qualities that masculine women possess—confidence, assertiveness, independence, and daring—are not scientifically or biologically male attributes. Rather, these qualities are constructed as being masculine even though they are commonly found in women. Feminist initiatives have encouraged these values in women and girls. The term "female empowerment" refers to the transformation of power relations between men and women and advocates a redefinition of femininity that would expand traditional concepts of femininity and femaleness.

The observation and identification of a woman as "masculine" or "manly" is highly dependent on race and class. For instance, women of color and working-class women may be seen as more "masculine"—strong, independent, and/or self-reliant—because of the challenges and struggles particular to their racial and socioeconomic reality. The racialized division of labor in many Western countries allocates work that requires manual labor for women of color and working-class women. These women may also be identified in masculine terms because they do not reflect white female beauty standards that, aside from "whiteness," require money and leisure time to attain. For that matter, women of color are often seen as being more masculine simply because of racist stereotypes. Historical discrepancy in the treatment of women's sexuality according to class status also accounts for various embodiments and understandings of femininity that result in some women seeming more "masculine" than others (i.e., women of color are stereotyped as being more sexually aggressive, or "masculine," than white women). Middle- and upper-class women may be afforded more or less range of acceptable behavior when it comes to gender. In the first sense, money, privilege, and whiteness can excuse the "eccentricity" of gender variance (as was the case with English author Radclyffe Hall [1886–1943]). On the other hand, affluent women may have "more to lose" when it comes to defiant or deviant gender expression.


While masculine women have existed throughout history in reality and the cultural imaginary (in folklore or religion, for instance), several historical moments are marked by a greater attention to masculine women. Moments of global and sometimes national conflict, such as the Crusades or the World Wars, have encouraged as well as bemoaned the rise of women to positions of increased power or to the masculine, public sphere (such as the job force). The figure of Rosie the Riveter, created in the United States during World War II to promote women's work in munitions factories, represents a masculine woman celebrated in a patriotic, if paternalistic, vein. As a cultural icon, Rosie the Riveter later became a feminist symbol that embodied woman's strength, capability, and ambition.

Another important historical manifestation of the masculine woman is the "passing woman"—any woman who lived part or all of her life as a man. The term is usually used in an historical sense to describe women who passed as men to secure better wages, seek adventure, or fight in wars in the nineteenth century. Famous passing women include Jeanne Bonnet (1849–1876, leader and liberator of a San Francisco gang of former prostitutes), Deborah Sampson (1760–1827, a soldier in the Revolutionary War), Murray Hall (d. 1901, a prominent New York City politician), Lucy Ann Lobdell (b. 1829, hunter, minister, and author), Babe Bean (1869–1936, writer), Mountain Charley (1812–1879, stage coach driver), Billy Tipton (1914–1989, jazz pianist and saxophonist), and the legend of Joan English, who was said to have reigned as Pope John VIII in medieval times.

The formation of butch-femme identities in the twentieth century represents one of the earliest public lesbian cultures and, as such, has served a pivotal role in the solidification of the masculine (manly) woman in popular consciousness. While passing women were usually seen as curiosities rather than as social threats, sexology's pathologizing definitions of female inversion made the "mannish woman" a visibly deviant typology that was to be feared, demonized, and discriminated against throughout the twentieth century. However, in 1950s lesbian subculture, butch or masculine women came to define a celebrated and eroticized lesbian style characterized in part by physical strength, chivalry, emotional reserve, and sexual expertise.

Despite repressive efforts by lesbian feminists in the 1970s, butches continue to operate socially as the "face of lesbianism," or in Esther Newton's terms, as a "magical sign of lesbianism" (2000), with the unfortunate side effect of obscuring the experience of more feminine lesbians. As Judith Halberstam observes in her recuperative work on "female masculinity," turf wars that began in the 1990s between butches and transgender female-to-males have become a political preoccupation for lesbian communities that likewise push the concerns of femmes to the margin. Despite such discussions within queer circles, mainstream depictions of lesbianism underrepresent butch or masculine lesbians, in instances that reflect the simultaneous shame and phobia that accrues around the figure of the butch lesbian as symbol of "the stigma of lesbianism" (Newton 1989, p. 283). Although the butch lesbian is occasionally seen as an "embarrassing" figure for gays, queer culture has an expansive vocabulary that recognizes the nuances of female masculinity. Some of these terms are soft butch, baby butch, hard butch, stone butch, tomboy femme, dyke-fag, boi, stud, soft stud, and aggressive.


As this historical sketch suggests, masculine women may be motivated by the exigencies of their circumstance, identification with men and masculinity, or female same-sex desires. Masculine women may feel they are born this way, or may see their "masculinity" as an extension of childhood interests or as a conscious rejection of the feminine role. Sociologist PJ McGann has observed that motivations for masculine behavior may shift as the individual develops. At an early age, a child may "choose clothing, toys, and activities based on their intrinsic interest" to her, whereas later tomboyhood may be a more pronounced reaction to "imposed meanings of femininity" and the "fusion of restriction and femininity" (1999, p. 111).


Masculine (manly) women have been identified by many different names. Some of these include: tomboy, mannish woman, passing woman, butch, lesbian, homasse, invert, cross-dresser, tribade, female husband, bulldagger, transgender, he-she, marimacha, drag king, drag queen, and aggressive. So-called "cross-gender behavior" has been observed in females across the globe, though the meaning of this behavior is culturally specific and thus cannot automatically be dubbed butch, tomboy, or transgender. In many societies, cross-gender behavior is not punished or abnormal and is instead woven into the fabric of the culture, as is—or was—the case in many North American Indian tribes (Lang 1999). Other examples are females who become social men, known as sadhins, in northwest India (Phillimore 1991) and the tombois of West Sumatra (Blackwood 1999). As Jason Cromwell points out in his survey of historical and cross-cultural gender variance, these examples reflect a global gender diversity and should not be subsumed under or simplified within histories of lesbianism (1999, p. 61). As he and others point out, there is a political tension and conflict of interest in the claiming of historical and cultural figures as "transgender" or "lesbian." Some masculine women may have cross-dressed in order to cover for or pursue their lesbian desires, while others may have identified as men but their transgenderism has erroneously been construed as lesbianism in historical accounts.

Masculine women and girls are often comedic secondary characters or the sidekicks of feminine female protagonists in narratives centered on heterosexuality in literature or film (Roof 2002). Well-known masculine women in literature include the character of Jo March in Little Women, Sula Peace in the novel Sula, Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, Frankie Addams in The Member of the Wedding, Jess Goldberg in Stone Butch Blues, and the heroine of the Chinese poem "Ballad of Mulan." Tomboys are eventually "tamed" in many of these narratives, as seen in their adoption of a more conventionally feminine attitude and appearance at the onset of puberty. Those who do not are usually seen as suspect (McGann 1999), or are viewed as abnormal, asexual, or lesbian.

Masculine women have a visible presence in women's sports. Conservative disapproval of these activities has directed much homophobia toward women's sports (Cahn 1993). Famous masculine female athletes include Babe Didrikson Zaharias (c. 1913–1956, all-around athlete), Martina Navratilova (b. 1956, tennis player), and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (b. 1962, heptathlete). Many female hip-hop and rap artists get their start as tough, masculine women but soften their looks to maintain mainstream success (Queen Latifah [b. 1970, rapper, actress, and beauty spokesperson], Missy Elliott [b. 1971, rapper and record producer]). Not surprisingly, the sexuality of these women and many female athletes is under constant scrutiny. Historical figures that fall into the category of masculine woman, and that show the diversity of experience among them, include the Greek goddess Athena, Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431), female pirates Anne Bonny (c. 1697–1782) and Mary Read (c. 1690–1721), diarist Anne Lister (1791–1840), Running Eagle (d. 1850) and Blackfeet ninawaki ("manly-hearted women"), abolitionist Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883), Radclyffe Hall, blues singer Gladys Bentley (1907–1960), author Leslie Feinberg (b. 1949), and electropunk musician JD Samson (b. 1978).

see also Butch/Femme; Transgender.


Alcott, Louisa May. 2004. Little Women. New York: Sterling. (Orig. pub. 1868.)

Blackwood, Evelyn. 1999. "Tombois in West Sumatra: Constructing Masculinity and Erotic Desire." In Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures, ed. Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cahn, Susan K. 1993. "From the 'Muscle Moll' to the 'Butch' Ballplayer: Mannishness, Lesbianism, and Homophobia in U.S. Women's Sport." Feminist Studies 19(2): 343-368.

Cisneros, Sandra. 1991. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books. (Orig. pub. 1984.)

Cromwell, Jason. 1999. Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Feinberg, Leslie. 1993. Stone Butch Blues: A Novel. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.

Halberstam, Judith. 1998. Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lang, Sabine. 1999. "Lesbians, Men-Women, and Two-Spirits: Homosexuality and Gender in Native American Cultures." In Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures, ed. Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lee, Harper. 2004. To Kill a Mockingbird, ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. (Orig. pub. 1960.)

McCullers, Carson. 2004. The Member of the Wedding. New York: Mariner Books. (Orig. pub. 1946.)

McGann, PJ. 1999. "Skirting the Gender Normal Divide: A Tomboy Life Story." In Women's Untold Stories: Breaking Silence, Talking Back, Voicing Complexity, ed. Mary Romero and Abigail J. Stewart. New York: Routledge.

Morrison, Toni. 2004. Sula. New York: Vintage International. (Orig. pub. 1973.)

Newton, Esther. 1989. "The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. New York: New American Library.

Newton, Esther. 2000. "My Butch Career: A Memoir." In Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Phillimore, Peter. 1991. "Unmarried Women of the Dhaula Dhar: Celibacy and Social Control in Northwest India." Journal of Anthropological Research 47(3): 331-350.

Roof, Judith. 2002. All about Thelma and Eve: Sidekicks and Third Wheels. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Stevens, Liz, and Estelle Freedman. 1983. She Even Chewed Tobacco: Passing Women in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Women Make Movies.

                                        Emma Crandall