Reviews

My Butch Career Esther Newton

Modern academia has a well-deserved reputation for stuffiness, so imagine entering that world at a time when not wearing skirts—and, perhaps, being a woman at all—was considered unprofessional. Esther Newton is a queer anthropologist best known for her book Mother Camp, the publication of her doctoral research on drag culture. As implied by the memoir’s title, she identifies as a butch lesbian. She defines butch as a woman who’s sense of self is rooted in a kind of masculinity. Having navigated American culture as a gay woman before Stonewall, she says coming out was not a concept as it is today. One would first come to terms with their identity, then reveal to an underground community of queer folks. But there was never the openness and pride that we now celebrate. As Civil Rights Movement activists fought their battles, Newton kept her head down in the academic world. Her mother had been removed from her university for her activism, and Newton learned to stay quiet in the face of injustice. Her secret hinged on her ability to claim that she was interested in male gay culture as a detached anthropologist.

Reading the introduction of My Butch Career, I tensed as she opened with speculation that butch women would go extinct with the increased publicity of the trans movement. She didn’t seem to have a grasp on the language of the present day trans community and fretted that butch women would become men. Oh no, I thought, she’s a TERF. (A brief primer for those uninitiated into feminist in-fighting: TERF stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist. I’m not sure why this group awards itself the “radical” part of the term; there’s nothing radical about excluding trans folks from liberation.) She speculates that maybe she would have wanted to transition had she been aware of the trans community as a child. I ended up with the impression that she wasn’t unsympathetic, but lacked the modern language of the movement. 

I found much of the language around other social issues clunky. Newton is inescapably bourgeois: her greatest adult struggle was getting tenure. For anyone blissfully unmarred by the political world of academia, tenure is a shield from firing except in extreme cases. It comes with a lifelong pension. Granted, her initial denial of tenure was likely due in part to homophobia and misogyny. I’m sure it hurt. But the lack of class awareness was glaring. After securing tenure at another university, she spends years on paid leave in Paris, quintessential city of luxury in the minds of many Americans.

One of the pitfalls of memoir as a form is that the author inevitably finds their petty disputes more riveting than the reader will. She describes the tumult in her relationship with her college roommate turned lifelong best friend. When her best friend marries and becomes pregnant with a son, Esther disavows her, saying that she’s become a vessel for men. Weightier events aren’t given their due. In an off-handed comment in the final chapter, she refers to getting attacked by a homophobe at a skating rink and breaking her wrist in three places. This story occupies a fragment of a sentence and reads as a mere inconvenience amidst relationship troubles. But hey, it’s her memoir.

Dog obsession is a part of this memoir in an odd way. Her mother fixates on papillons, a breed I had to Google. Newton becomes a poodle person. Their shared obsession with dog breeding alludes to an interest in pedigree of dogs and humans. Newton spends a lot of time on the origin story of her family, going back to great-grandparents. She discusses her dual identity as a WASP and a Jewish woman. She’s either demonstrating that she comes from good stock, or trying to find her place in a world that’s marginalized her for her sexuality and expression. Is she an aloof academic who’s lost touch? Is she a pioneering researcher who forged the way for women and queer folks? Possibly both. Whether you enjoy this book may come down to your interpretation of its author’s intentions.