My Butch Career

A Memoir

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 25 illustrations Published: November 2018

Author: Esther Newton

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs

During her difficult childhood, Esther Newton recalls 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, as 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.”

In My Butch Career Newton tells the compelling, disarming, and at times sexy story of her struggle to write, teach, and find love, all while coming to terms with her identity during a particularly intense time of homophobic persecution in the twentieth century.

Newton recounts a series of traumas and conflicts, from being molested as a child to her failed attempts to live a “normal,” straight life in high school and college. She discusses being denied tenure at Queens College—despite having written the foundational Mother Camp—and nearly again so at SUNY Purchase. With humor and grace, she describes the influence her father Saul's strong masculinity had 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 age forty, where Newton's narrative ends, she began to achieve personal and scholarly stability in the company of the first politicized generation of out lesbian and gay scholars with whom she helped create gender and sexuality studies.

Affecting and immediate, My Butch Career is a story of a gender outlaw in the making, an invaluable account of a beloved and influential figure in LGBT history, and a powerful reminder of just how recently it has been possible to be an openly queer academic.


"Newton is not afraid to get personal and offer her mistakes, personality development, and failed relationships for contemplation. After decades of personal and professional struggle, Newton finds a scholarly 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." — Emily Dziuban, Booklist

"In the tradition of the best memoirs, it is chattily engaging, historically illuminating, and deeply, provocatively ruminative. . . . My Butch Career feels intoxicatingly, palpably real: It’s a story we can reach out and touch and one we can also situate ourselves in, even if we’re decades younger than the 78-year-old Newton. What makes My Butch Career so compelling is that while writing about herself, Newton is also examining her milieu with the eye of the cultural anthropologist she became. The story she tells is as much our story as it is hers." — Victoria A. Brownworth, Curve

"Throughout My Butch Career, Newton is remarkably candid about the ways that class has influenced her work and perspective on the historical events unfolding around her. . . . It’s a testament to just how great an anthropologist and chronicler of queer life she is that Newton makes sure to include the kinds of details that paint a more complete and complex picture of the world as she’s experienced it." — Alexis Clements, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Disarming and compelling. . . . My Butch Career is the humorous and graceful story of a gender outlaw in the making, blazing the trail in queer academia." — The Advocate

"The most captivating part of the book sees Newton circulating through second-wave feminist and lesbian circles in New York and Paris, where the debates, social hierarchies, and tangled affairs she encounters bring her to a late coming of age. In the eighties, her scholarship, once ignored, achieves recognition with the rise of gender and sexuality studies. The book is a thoughtful examination of how personal experiences spur intellectual progress." — The New Yorker

"My Butch Career joins a distinguished list of lesbian herstories. . .. It is for readers interested in the psychological and cultural challenges for an individual who identifies as a butch lesbian, as well as readers who are interested in lesbian herstory within the greater context of thegay rights movement." — Cassandra Langer, Gay & Lesbian Review

"My Butch Career is an important narrative of liberation that contributes singularly to the growing body of collective LGBTQ history. It covers the first forty-one years of the writer’s life, a time frame that calls out for a sequel. Newton concludes her memoir with a tribute to the queer writers who have preceded her. With this work, she has secured her place in that pantheon." — Anne Charles, Lambda Literary Review

"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, although she might not like this title as a gender defying secular Jew, has become my Queen Esther." — Amos Lassen, Reviews by Amos Lassen

"My Butch Career beautifully portrays the vital necessity of queer sexual histories. . . . Clearly my career as a queer academic with a doctorate in feminist studies and a tenure-track job in anthropology was made possible by Esther Newton’s trailblazing work. Reading her memoir, I nevertheless feel deep resonances with her expressions not only of pleasure but also of frustration, anger, anxiety, ambivalence, and alienation as she built a professional life in the discipline of anthropology and the American academy. Things have changed, but not enough. Newton’s butch career is an inspiration to continue the struggle." — Erin L. Durban, American Ethnologist

"Newton is definitely a lesbian hero, and her story will inspire any lesbian, particularly those who struggle with being a non-conforming woman in a sexist society. Please read this book! Read it for the important lesson in lesbian history, for the gorgeous and sexy writing, and to celebrate one of our important lesbian pioneers." — Purple Sage blog

"Get a copy of My Butch Career and delve into a past that belongs to Esther personally and, thanks to her generous sharing, to all of us queer folk collectively. Read it.  Relish it." — Tim Retzloff, Queer Remembering blog

"With many photographs to illustrate her memoir Esther leads us through her life and the journey is a complete pleasure – tender, hilarious, sad, and affirming. This is another important work by a gifted and valuable giant in the world of gender studies. Highly recommended." — Grady Harp, San Francisco Review of Books

“In My Butch Career Esther Newton takes her readers through her chaotic family history, the uncharted territory of coming to terms with an identity that is far outside the norms for her generation, and the transforming effects that new social movements had on her. Bringing personalities, scenes, conversations, and relationships to life, Newton has written a book that is powerful, gripping, and immensely readable.” — John D’Emilio

“Esther Newton's sharp insights into her developing consciousness are sometimes so precise and revealing that they take my breath away. Her wit gives her personal traumas in a hostile society universal meaning, making her pain and pleasure available to all, while her reflections on the interconnections of gender, sex, and feminism in love-making remain fresh. Capturing the multiple layers of identity and examining how social forces shape our lives, My Butch Career is absolutely unique in the way it explores women's desire as both personal and social. I know of no other memoir like it.” — Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy


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Price: $22.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. A Hard Left Fist  18
2. A Writer's Inheritance  33
3. Manhattan Tomboy  56
4. California Trauma  72
5. Baby Butch  81
6. Anthropology of the Closet  102
7. Lesbian Feminist New York  119
8. The Island of Women  160
9. In-Between Dyke  183
10. Paris France  198
11. Butch Revisited  237
Notes  249
Bibliography  261
Index  265
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

2019 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in the Lesbian Memoir/Biography Category

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