Monday, May 29th, 2023

Esther Newton’s memoir

As co-editor of a history of anthropology series published by the University of Nebraska Press, I read a lot of biographies of anthropologists and some fieldwork memoirs. Recognizing that Esther Newton’s memoir is more focused on her sex partners than such professional work as she has done, I still consider My Butch Career third-tier (or bottom seond-tier). For me, there is way too little fieldwork memoir — not that Newton (1940-) did much fieldwork, and in the usual expectation for anthropologists of working in another language than one’s native one, usually outside one’s native country, did none.

Newton has very high regard for herself as a pioneer. Aside from my belief that one should not make claims about priority for oneself (see Merton 1957), I find Newton’s claims extravagantly false. Far from being among the first to “create sexuality and gender studies” (p. 1), I consider her more than a century F. Burton (1885), decades after those of Ferdinand Karch-Haack (1911), Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead (not to mention the focus on gender and ignoring sexuality of Mother Camp).

I also would demur to her celebration of Mother Camp as the first anthropological description of the American gay community” (emphasis added, o. 1) or as the foundation document of of gay and lesbian studies in social science” (p.113) Ethnographic work by sociologists, such as Nancy Achilles (1967. Sherri Cavan (1963), Albert Reiss (1961), Maurice Leznoff (and William Westley 1956), Bill Simon and John Gagnon (1967a,b), and ethnographic work by psychologists Evelyn Hooker (1961) and Martin Hoffman (1968) preceded Mother Camp, and looked at more than one gender-deviant role in one setting. I’d say that each of these earlier works were solider analyses of a wider swath of urban North American gay communities And, I’d say that Mart Crowley’s 1968 play “The Boys in the Band” showed a more representative portrayal of urban gay male diversity than the romanticizing of drag queens as “heroes” of the gay community in the view of most participants, as Newton claimed without evidence from straight-acting gay men who loathed drag queens.

I have to admit that those ludicrous flights of self-congratulation on the very first page of the book raised my hackles and made me skeptical of what would follow in the book.

In contrast with most lesbian anthropologists, Newton discusses sex, not just gender. Impatient as I am with the eagerness of lesbian anthropologists to focus entirely on gender (see Murray 1994), I have to say that Newton fails to provide any clear statement of what she considers “butch[ness],” though the title promises an account of a “butch career.”

Many failed relationships come in for some reporting and analysis. Newton is candid that, identifying with Gertrude Stein (p. 99, etc.), she was looking for the sort of wife Alice B. Toklas was (underestimating, in my view, Toklas’s agency and even control of the “genius” she was tending). I think the best part of the book recalls the cult of Jill Johnston, of which Newton was less than fully committed. (I’d have liked more on Monique Witing and her cult.)

Newton was not present at the creation of the Anthropological Research Group on Homosexuality (ARGOH) in 1978, first attending the 1982 meeting. She claims (p. 238) that there were no other women there, which I doubt, though I am separated from my archive. Kenneth Read chaired the foundation meeting at the 1978 AAA in Los Angeles. My memory of it was that most of those in attendance were female. Deborah Wolf told me about the meeting, and I remember that I sat between her and Denyse Lockhard, with more women next to each of them; the only male there whom I then knew was Mike Gorman. Read’s mandarin manner turned off a lot of people—especially, but not only the women there. It is easier now to recognize that it took some courage for him to use his status to front for the organization, but the organization was (and has remained) very timid about challenging AAA.

Newton expresses happiness with the erasure of (homo)sexuality from the group’s name (p. 238). I interpret the jettisoning of sexuality differently:

For a time, partly I’m sure in reaction to the paternalism of elders like Read and [treasurer] Arnold Pilling, lesbian separatism turned ARGOH into a mostly male organization. With the decimation (-plus) of gay men by HIV, along with the increasing predominance in numbers of women among anthropology graduate students Pilling, the eclipse of consideration of “nasty” phenomena such as sex within the “master discourse” that was and continues to be gender, SOLGA was increasingly dominated by an opportunistic clique of lesbians, many in women’s studies departments, who openly dismissed discrimination against gay men and sought to eclipse work touching on sex for a mix of foci on transgender performativity and marriage/childrearing. The more recent jettisoning of “lesbian and gay” for “queer” [Association of Queer Anthropologists, a shorter title that excludes gay men who do not consider them selves “queer”} has further marginalized homosexuality as a focus for interpretation (let alone research…). (Murray 2012)

This might be a good juncture to note that Newton’s memoir has absolutely no instances of any attempts to aid the employment of gay men studying gay men. Elsewhere, she managed some more romanticizing of an effeminate gay male colleague, whom she does not seem to have done anything to protect. Indeed, she has dismissed concerns for gay males trying to get jobs and do gay studies.

Over the course of her memoir, Newton whines a lot about how difficult her professional trajectory has been. She bemoans “the honors and respect that had been missing from my early academic career” (p. 247). Inevitably, while reading her, I thought of my own “career.” I was raised in a working-class family. Both my parents grew up on farms they did not inherit. Newton grew up upper middle-class/professional, with a stepfather who paid for private school after here unhappiness with Palo Alto High. He also paid for her college education and the first year of graduate school (after which she had fellowships). Moreover, he bought her cars when she was 16 and 18 and paid for a European trip after her first year in college. In contrast, my parents did not give any money to my education. I had a National Merit Scholarship funded by my father’s employers to fund my undergraduate education, subsisted through graduate school on salaries as a teaching assistant (and, eventually, instructor). I inherited a car (that I had totaled) when I was 19, did not get to Europe until I was in my 30s. Newton’s family connections led to advice about her choice of graduate school from senior anthropologists Carl Withers and Hortense Powdermaker. I got no advice about graduate schools from anyone. Newton’s first publication in a refereed journal (the feminist one, Signs) did not come until 1984. Although I am 10 years younger then Newton, I had published five books (including my unrevised dissertation; hers was published in a series edited by her dissertation supervisor, David Schneider, who also arranged its reprinting by the University of Chicago Press [p. 132, 254n2—and presumably arranged the very elite dissertation committee that included Clifford Geertz and Julian Pitt-River); in contrast I was examined by an ad hoc committee, some of whom had not read the dissertation, since the whole committee I had chosen was on sabbatical) and more than 20 articles in refereed journals (including the two most prestigious anthropology journals, Man [now JRAI] and the American Anthropologist. Newton had tenure (albeit at a third-tier university and after tumultuous tenure decisions there and, earlier, being denied tenure at CUNY-Queens). With a partly “lavender resumé,” I could not even get a job interview, let alone a tenure-track job. Also, she was given a room in Paris to write (p. 214), a luxury I have never known.

I will readily stipulate that at least as a history of its lesbian component, Newton’s 1993 community study Cherry Grove, is sound, readable, and interesting. Alas, there is little about how Newton researched it, nothing about what she taught across decades at SUNY-Purchase, and no evidence that she encouraged gay or even lesbian students there to pursue lesbigay studies( or any other kind of graduate work).

I wish there was less about the networks of her various beloveds and more about what she learned or was taught in college and graduate school. It is clear that her debt to David Schneider is enormous, but there is no evidence of any that was intellectual.

Though I found the book frequently boring (I can imagine the abandoned novel!), I have to say that it is more readable than most LGBTQ books from Duke University Press. And it also has a lot of photos (more than are needed). In contrast to the most recent anthropologist biography I read (about another anthropologist succumbing to the ethnoromantic temptation, In the Arms of Africa</em>), My Butch Career is lacking in analysis of why she wrote what she did,or how she did. Bottom line: My Butch Career is not bad, nor is it especially good an anthropologist memoir.

P.S. In my long review I did not take up Newton’s bitterness about the committees that reviewed her for tenure—the Queens one which voted against ig and the SUNY-Purchase one that voted 3-2 for it. Men on both committees made comments about her less than feminine appearance that now would be regarded as illegitimate. However, Newton’ publication record would not pass muster now and was dubious then: she had published zero articles in refereed (let alone core anthropology) journals. Her one book was written before she became an assistant professor. It was her dissertation. Moreover, it was published in a series edited by her dissertation supervisor by a non-academic (textbook) publisher. She also failed the “community service” category. Though that meant primarily serving on faculty committees, she had no case in a wider sense at that time. It appears she drove to Purchase, met her classes, probably had minimal office hours, and drove back to NYC and had no social contacts with her colleagues.


Achilles, Nancy. 1967. [1964] “The development of the homosexual bar as an institution.” 228-244 in John Gagnon & William Simon (eds.), Sexual Deviance. NY: Harper & Row.
Burton, Richard F. 1885. Terminal Note to The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. London Kamashastra Society.
Cavan, Sherri. 1963. “Interaction in home territories.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 7:17-32.
Hoffman, Martin. 1968. The Gay World. NY: Basic Books.
Hooker, Evelyn. 1961. “The homosexual community.” Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Applied Psychology. Pp. 354-364 in J.Alamer & M. Goldstein, Perspectives in Psychopathology, NY: Oxford University Press
Karsch-Haack, Ferdinand. 1911. Das gleichgeschlechtliche Leben der Naturvölker. Munich: Ernst Reinhardt. Reprinted by Arno Press, New York, 1975.
Leznoff, Maurice, and William A. Westley. 1956. “The homosexual community.” Social Problems 2:257-263.
Merton, Robert K. 1957. “Priorities in Ssientific discovery”. Merican Sociological ReviewR 22.635-659.
Murray, Stephen O. 1981. “Die ethnoromantische Versuchung.” Der Wissenschaftler und das Irrationale 1:377-385.
——1987. Review of Other Voices by Kenneth Read. Urban Life 15:479-482.
——. 1994a “Subordinating native cosmologies to the empire of gender.” Current Anthropology 35:59-61.
——. 2012. “Memories of the founding of sociology and anthropology lesbigay caucuses.” In Pieces for a History of Gay Studies. E-book.
Newton, Esther. 1972. Mother Camp. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
–—-. 1984. “The mythic mannish lesbian.” Signs 9:557-575.
–—-. 1993. Cherry Grove. Boston: Beacon.
Reiss, Albert J. 1961. “The social integration of ‘queers’ and ‘peers.’” SP 9:102-120.
Simon, William, and John Gagnon. 1967a. “Femininity in the lesbian community.” Social Problems 15:212-21.
—. 1967b. “Homosexuality: the formulation of a sociological perspective.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 8:177-185

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.