Lesbians and the 1950s

Copyright (c) by Amber R. Byers, 2008. All rights reserved.

Lesbian Role Distinction in the 1950s: Sexuality, Social Life, and Public Image

Butch-femme women made lesbians visible in a terrifying clear way in a historical period when there was no Movement protection for them. Their appearance spoke of erotic independence, and they often provoked rage and censure both from their own community and straight society. Now it is time to stop judging and to begin asking questions, to begin listening. -Joan Nestle[1]

Following World War II, there was a return to strict gender roles. Much resistance to sexism and oppression was seen within the lesbian community. The prominence of a Butch-Femme role distinction became the norm in lesbian communities. This role, essential in the 1950s, was a personal behavior code and an organizing principle for community life, with a strong pressure to fit into these two roles. “If they required individuals to compromise their identity they offered the reward of participation in a community which effectively resisted the oppression of gays and lesbians."[2]

General Role Distinction


  • Aggressive
  • Focused on pleasing her Femme
  • Did not discuss her Femme’s sexual behavior with others


  • Passive
  • Focused on her own pleasure
  • Would gossip about her Butch


Changes in the butch’s appearance came in the 1950s, when they adopted a working-class, masculine look. They wore jeans, t-shirts and sweaters. “The t-shirt symbolized the daring of lesbians wearing male clothing. Shopping for men’s clothing proved to be difficult for these women. The DA, or Duck’s Ass, was a popular greased hairstyle in the 1950s, especially amongst the butches. This differed greatly from the 1940s butch who wore starched white shirts, pants and often had short hair."[3]

Femmes in the 1940s copied the fashion of straight women, wearing high heels, dresses, blouses and make-up. Though Femmes sometimes wore pants, they continued to be distinct from the butches, exuding a glamorous air. This style changed very little from the 1940s to the 1950s. Femmes continued to keep pace with changes in general fashion trends, working to cultivate a more overtly sexy look while wearing both pants and skirts.

Social Meaning of Butch-Femme

The 1950s butch was characterized as tough and by a willingness to fight. Their goal was not to pass as men. Being butch or part of a butch-femme couple on the streets meant claiming difference. There was a fine line between “not denying” and “advertising” their sexuality. The butch-femme image became easier to attain as people began to welcome newcomers.

Those most comfortable with the Butch/Femme image became core members of the community. There were competitions as to who was more butch and this became synonymous with a butch’s ability to defend herself and her Femme.

Gay liberation was influenced by bar communities. A culture of resistance generated pride. “In the 1950s bar culture there were many indications of different approaches to resistance, but the times did not allow them to coalesce into politics."[4]


During the sexual revolution of the 1920s, Society became more about sex, but with a primarily heterosexual focus. Lesbians acted as “pioneers” in the fight for women’s sexual independence.

Sexuality in the 1950s became more experimental, involving frank conversations about sexual practices and more outreach to new members of the lesbian community. Oral sex became more accepted as a legitimate form of lovemaking. Butch and Femme roles became more rigidly defined. By the late 1950s, older butches were teaching and giving advice to younger butches, as Femmes did not feel as much pressure to learn the sexual practices of the community.

There was a strict role definition of a Stone Butch/Untouchable. The stone butch makes love to her femme, while the Femme does not reciprocate. Young butches conformed to this ideal. Many stone butches were spontaneously orgasmic and claimed that their ability to please their Femme was all the pleasure they needed. Some saw this role as a problem, equating stone butches to traditional masculinity.

Butches portrayed themselves as untouchable for many reasons. There appeared to be a discomfort of being touched rooted in their biology. There was also much importance placed on role distinction, an unwanted vulnerability involved in mutual lovemaking, the butch ego, and the butch’s ambivalence toward her female body.

In the 1950s, Femmes approached sexuality from a self-centered perspective. Those interviewed stated that they were happy with the role division. They liked being the center of attention and having less work expected of them. Some Femmes who tried to take on a more active role did not like it.

Lesbians who would not select a role, but changed roles, were derisively referred to as KiKis or AC/DC and were viewed with suspicion by other working-class lesbians. This was often due to a belief that a woman who did not dress or speak appropriately was assumed to be undercover police. An arrest, of course, could cost a woman her job, her housing, her family, her friends, and sometimes her very life. Butches saw changing roles as a betrayal and Femmes recognized that changing roles meant that their pleasure was no longer the focus.


Ethyl Waters[5]

Lesbians of Color/Segregation

The previous descriptions applied more directly to white lesbians than to lesbians of color. Black Studs and Femmes in the 1950s were constructed in the idiom of Black culture. They dressed more formally, even on weeknights. Studs wore three-piece suits and men's dress shoes. Femmes “aimed to achieve the highest standard of feminine beauty,” rarely wearing pants.[6] A majority of Studs and Femmes did not like “natural” hair look.

In reference to social life and attending bars, African American lesbians had a more difficult threshold to cross. Center city, Philadelphia was predominantly gay-dominated, with significant racial segregation. African American establishments clustered around South Street, White bars were around Market Street and “Locust Strip.” Lesbian bars in Philadelphia stayed largely segregated by race up until the 1970s. Contrary to the white lesbian and gay bars in Philadelphia , “black bars” such as Brown Bomber and San’s, C&W, and Den, attracted both lesbians and gay men, collapsing the gender divisions that drove white lesbians and gay men to separate spaces. The following are several quotes referencing racial segregation in gay and lesbian bars in Philadelphia: “They apparently had a quota on the number of blacks that they would allow in there,” “If you were very dark with real Negroid features, they turned you away,” “You don’t go on the other side of Market Street ‘cause the white faggots will beat you up."[7]

Broadening our views beyond bar culture reveals the importance of race in shaping lesbian social activities. Most Detroit African American lesbians’ social lives revolved around parties in private homes. For discretion, party locations were relayed by word of mouth. Making social contacts with a connected person was crucial. Certain hosts gained reputation for offering their homes to private parties. Ruth Ellis and partner Babe hosted many parties in their home. Parties involved dancing. It was important to have a safe space to meet and dance with other women. In order to host a house party, one had to have the ability to own one’s own home. Even so, there was much diversity in socio-economic status of partygoers. Status was associated with values and self-respect. There was much trust and respect for the importance of discretion and confidentiality by partygoers.

Some black lesbians did attend white lesbian bars, but they were a minority there. Racism was a deterrent for many black lesbians to frequent existing lesbian bars. Women of color accepted and embraced in white bars were not considered a threat or “competition” to white lesbians and did not challenge racially separate dating practices.


Upwardly mobile lesbians looked sporty, collegiate. In the upwardly mobile crowd, the mannerism and the differences between butch and femme were more muted.

Philadelphia provides examples of gay spaces segregated by class. Specifically, Maxine’s was filled by “piss elegant queens.” Drury Lane was said to be “pompous” and filled with “fancy fags.” The Allegro had a more low class atmosphere; one was not expected to dress up. Westbury was slightly more “middle-class or conventional” but attracted a broader clientele. “Rough Trade” bars attracted some patrons and repelled others.

Gay and Lesbian Relations

Relations between the Gay and Lesbian community took place in commercialized leisure establishments like bars, clubs, restaurants, coffee shops, and bookstores. “Creating homosocial and heterosocial cultures, they developed worlds of same-sex and cross sex relationships."[8] Some bonds between lesbians and gay men stemmed from a shared femininity or shared masculinity, despite their sexual difference. Other bonds between lesbians and gay men were formed due to shared interests in literary and musical culture or racial or ethnic similarities.

There were more gay bars than lesbian establishments in Philadelphia at this time; therefore socializing in residential spaces became more important for lesbians. They became less publicly noticeable and less subject to police surveillance. When lesbians would go out to the bars, they often attended gay bars and were able to become familiar with gay culture. Gay men were unable to experience the lesbian world and continued to be ignorant about their lifestyles. Lesbians were, however, able to establish a small number of bars and subsequently were more protective of the few spaces they had. Some establishments, such as Surf’s, attracted both lesbians and gay men. In the gang wars between the genders, Surf’s was a mixed space.


The Harbor Club on Southwest First Avenue, one of Portland's few gay bars. Photograph taken in the late 1940s[9]

Lesbian Bars and Other Venues

Migrations to cities following World War II allowed gay communities to form in urban centers. Gay bars became more common, and the sense of gay identity strengthened during the 1950s. Bars allowed women to explore sexuality at a slower pace, to go to bars and slowly explore same-sex attraction. They, however exposed lesbian women to homophobic violence. Many lesbians avoided bars for this reason. Fear of being exposed to coworkers and dominant society also deterred many lesbians from attending bars.

In early 1950, Portland's Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee launched an attack against the Music Hall, a popular gay and lesbian nightclub. She especially recoiled against the establishment's floor show, which featured these drag performers.

There were a variety of lesbian bars in Philadelphia. “Barone’s,” also known as “Rusty’s” developed into a definitely lesbian, sub-cultural space. Crossing the threshold into Rusty’s, you entered the “inside” world. Inside Rusty’s, lesbians were able to define themselves through community and public space. Lesbians called each other “Brothers,” and protected each other from police and straight male harassment. There was a tendency not to welcome men into lesbian bars, but a few gay men would attend.

After-hours private clubs, Diners, automats, coffee houses, restaurants, cafeterias, movie theaters, and hotels were also locales enjoyed by gay and lesbian clientele. Restaurants were less gender segregated than the bars and were often frequented after the bars closed for the night. Coffee houses were also popular with both lesbians and gay men. These businesses were part of a substantial lesbian and gay economy. They allowed lesbians and gay men to form convergent and divergent communities with and against each other. 

Closet Economy

The Closet Economy involved two factors that shaped gay/lesbian socio-economic life prior to Stonewall, until 1969. These include a social stigma attached to homosexuality and homosexuality’s illegality throughout the United States. The centrality of the “closet” required that individuals controlled information about him or herself in order to avoid the threat of violence posed by visibility.

Social patterns were organized around the “closet.” Specifically, homosexual activity was generally “asocial” before 1969. There was much segregation of information between gay and straight worlds and a split between public and private lives. This created the need for homosexuals to lead double lives. Lesbians and gay men could not climb the corporate ladder as easily, due to concealment of personal life and unmarried status. Much money was spent on “Transaction costs” of temporal and spatial separations; transportation, liquor, and multiple sets of clothing. These are but a few of the many economic costs of living in the “closet.” Living in large cities could reduce some concealment costs.

There are several other economic costs incurred due to association in the social culture of gay bars, baths, and bookstores. Police raided bars; leading to arrests, legal fees, and the loss of jobs. Extortion was a large cost for bar owners, as bars, in their semi-legality, had to pay for “protection.” Because of legal and extra-legal threats, bars were often owned by straight outsiders, or by organized crime. During the Closet Economy, gay commodity culture existed through heavily coded works, such as The Well of Loneliness, as well as through semi-legal businesses selling erotic photographs, nude magazines, erotic fiction, and sex toys. New gay and lesbian social institutions published newsletters, which spawned mail-order businesses serving homosexuals. These capitalist endeavors contributed to the process of identity formation. They created a basis for political action and stimulated desire; yet at the same time, rigidly defined identities, and exploited desire.


Homophile Protest[10]

Lesbian Organizing

The early “homophile” movement began in the 1950s with the formation of the Mattachine Society and ONE, Inc. Both of these organizations were comprised of predominantly gay males. ONE Magazine was the first widely circulated gay and lesbian magazine.

Women who were involved with the Mattachine Society began to realize that the concerns of gay men differed from those of lesbian women. “The same forces that allowed gay identity to coalesce from the late nineteenth century onward—the shift to wage labor, the growth of industrialism and urbanization, the removal of production from the home, and the restructuring of the family—affected both men and women, but in decidedly different ways."[11] For example: promiscuity, relationships, gender, and sexual identity each affect men differently than women. The differing concerns and the emergence of a lesbian identity combined to provide the impetus for the creation of the Daughters of Bilitis. The Daughters of Bilitis utilized education, public events, and publications such as “The Ladder” to address their needs.

Resort Communities

The resort community, Cherry Grove, was a gay and lesbian “world” that allowed for the freedom of expression. Women here were the most separate and distinct group in the eyes of Gay men, with the Grove consisting of a majority of gay-male dominated spaces. Nonetheless, lesbian groups went there and succeeded in making a space for themselves and they continued to travel to Fire Island from the 1930s onwards. During the McCarthy Era, “the Grove’s unwritten charter was to be a grand, fun, party’ place."[12] Cherry Grove held its own values that fostered community building between gay men and lesbians. Apart from a world dominated by heterosexism and homophobia, Cherry Grove offered women certain freedoms in an environment full of different opportunities and possibilities.

Lesbians went to Cherry Grove for sex, safety, and shifts in society. Cherry Grove was a far less threatening environment for women. With gay men around, there were fewer opportunities for violence from heterosexual men due to homophobia than on the mainland. Lesbian women were less likely than gay men to face police harassment. Lesbians were also able to publicly enjoy their sexual preference.

The lesbians attracted to Cherry Grove in the 1930s through the 1950s were upper class white women. “Grove racism, sexism, and larger economic factors seem to have almost completely daunted lesbians who were black, Latino, or Asian, who even today come mostly as day-trippers, not renters or owners."[13] There was not a shift toward acceptance of middle class and minority women until the 1960s.

Women at Cherry Grove had independent incomes and professional jobs and they identified with art, theatre, and café society. Public socializing, serial monogamy, their relationship with ‘camp,’ and a lack of cross-class eroticism further characterized the lesbian community. Many of the dominant characteristics of Grove lesbians are the antithesis of those of gay men in Cherry Grove. The men were promiscuous and often had public sex. Furthermore, Grove lesbians established their social status by throwing parties, demonstrating their wealth, education, and success. These women constituted a circle of resourceful and adventurous friends.

Older lesbians lives revolved around respectability and discreteness, often using marriage as a cover. “These women felt it necessary to hide their sexual orientation, which meant their entire affective life, from their families, friends, and coworkers. Under these conditions, the Grove meant much more to them than just another summer resort."[14] The older lesbians expressed ambivalence toward labels, “although the older ‘ladies’ pursued lesbian relationships with relish, they were more ambivalent than their younger friends toward lesbian identity."[15] The lesbians of Cherry Grove were apart from the working-class bar culture of the mainland and were able to thrive in their ‘campy’ atmosphere without having a strong allegiance to butch or fem identities.


Odd Girl Out, first edition[17]

Lesbian Pulp Fiction 1950s

Pulp fiction - cheap paperbacks printed on coarse paper – proved to be what one historian has called the "survival literature" of lesbians during that era - David Bianco[16]

The genre of lesbian pulp fiction was beginning to grow in the 1950s. At this time, it was expected that the characters in a lesbian novel would never receive any satisfaction from a lesbian relationship. One or both usually ended up committing suicide, going insane, or leaving the relationship. As was the standard with pulp fiction novels, neither the cover art nor the title was under the control of the author. Both were approved by the publisher in order to be as suggestive and lurid as possible. In 1950, Gold Medal's first lesbian title, Women's Barracks, appeared, written by a lesbian using the name Tereska Torres.

The Beebo Brinker Chronicles

Odd Girl Out, by Ann Bannon, was published by Gold Medal Books in 1957. She followed up Odd Girl Out with I Am A Woman (In Love With A Woman Why Must Society Reject Me?), in 1959. Bannon's third book, Women In The Shadows, was also published in 1959. Journey To A Woman and The Marriage, which was not reprinted or republished, were published in 1960. Beebo Brinker, the prequel to the first four books and most highly rated of the series, was published in 1962.


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  5. http://www.genders.org/g32/image/jagose_fig5.jpg
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  9. http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ohq/105.1/images/boag_fig01a.jpg
  10. http://www.gaypioneers.com/mattachine.jpg
  11. John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) p.43.
  12. Esther Newton, Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) p.216
  13. Newton, Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town p.205.
  14. Newton, Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town p.210
  15. Newton, Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town p.214
  16. http://www.planetout.com/news/history/archive/07191999.html
  17. http://www.annbannon.com/books.html