Butch Heroes by Ria Brodell is a collection of paintings of masculine women who loved women whose stories were preserved in history. You can buy the collection in a lovely hardcover format—for ordering information start here.
Brodell designed her paintings to resemble Catholic holy cards. This isn’t a format that is familiar to me because I’m not Catholic, but I still very much enjoyed the presentation.
Many of the historical sources of information about gender-transgressing women were court documents which record punishments for women who were caught breaking the laws of the time period. Brodell’s portrait collection offers a mixture of presentations of these women, sometimes showing them in their prime, standing confidently and looking steadily into the “camera” without shame, while others show them in their moment of pain as the violent hand of the law came down on them. It’s difficult to look at the violent ones, but they tell the truth of what women endured in order to dress as men and marry other women.
Beside each painting is the information recorded about the subject’s life, and the stories are all extraordinary.
I love that Ria Brodell decided to illustrate the historical butch women that lesbians look up to. We’ve read about them in libraries, gazing in wonder at printed text in aging volumes, knowing they are our ancestors, but we’ve never before been able to look upon their (imagined) faces and see their strength and poise and share in their struggles.
This was an absolutely wondering project to take on and I’m very grateful for it.
My personal favourite is the portrait of Mary East aka James How with her wife. The painting shows two women pausing during an ordinary day at home, Mary wearing men’s clothing and looking the part of the husband. This one in particular helps me to imagine the lives of other women, who surely existed, who did the same thing as the women in these records but without getting caught, and who lived a happy life with a female partner without meeting a violent end. And of course, even those women who were executed for their choice to live their own truth had years like this, joyfully living the life they wanted in disguise as a man with a woman partner by their side.
I recommend this book for every lesbian’s collection. To see more, follow this link.