Well, it’s sort of complicated.
As a self-identity, it wasn’t just associated with lesbians, but a
specific lesbian subculture in the 30′s-60′s. In that context it was
also associated with class and education politics, as many butches
worked in factories and hung out in working-class bars. The term was
also associated with race, as there was, and is, a strong butch
tradition in the African-American lesbian community (as well as
similar traditions in other lesbian communities around the world.)
For a good description of the history of butch/femme culture in the
lesbian community I suggest The Persistent Desire. a collection of
various writings over the last 130 years from around the world.
In the past 10-20 years, it has become associated with both people who
don’t identify primarily with “female” or “male” gender identity
(suggested reading: “Butch is a Noun” by S. Bear) and simultaneously
with class-specific retro lesbian culture (frequently involving crew
cuts and motorcycles). At the same time, other forms of female
masculinity have sprung up. Especially with biker culture, it
overlaps with gender-varient heterosexual women, but “butch” as it is
used in the lesbian community has significantly more history (and
controversy) associated with it. (I’m purposefully skipping over the
controversy bits for this summery.)
So what does working class lesbian identity have to do with geeky
culture? In general, I don’t think it has all that much to do with
it. Geeky culture has always pretty much embraced the male gaze, and
all the early evidence I can find of women in computer science and
technical professions emphasizes feminine clothing and presentation.
Early conference pictures might involve short hair cuts, but unless
they were in military uniforms they also wore skirts. If you look at
the pictures in the Apple Folklore gallery
look about the same as the women on the TV show Thirty Something
(approximately contemporary.) I haven’t been able to find any early
evidence of gender presentation in computer science that didn’t mirror
gender presentation outside of computer science.
When the backlash against comfortable, er, I mean, the reemergence of
hyper-feminine clothing in the 90′s, femme presentation also reemerges
in computer science photos and day-to-day outfits of female coders I
knew. Lots of turtlenecks, pants suits and other clearly-feminine
clothing became common, even in casual environments. Conference
t-shirts were still paired with jeans, but in those cases it seemed to
be mostly a case of conference organizers ignoring women all together
and at least where I lived this was common among many younger women.
The one connection I’ve been able to find between butch culture and
STEM is that there were some butches who worked in some electronic
factories, and GBLT rights emerged early in some STEM companies (AT&T
Bell Labs, for example, had an early gay and lesbian employee group).
Actually, there is one other connection: men redefining masculinity.
For example, the one programmer on Butch Labs (a compilation of
butches), also identifies as male:
http://www.butchlab.com/john-gagon-butch-mini-interview/ There has
been a strong tradition of geeky men redefining masculinity, though
usually in ways that ignore the hundreds of years of history of
masculine women doing just that *cough*. Nevertheless, starting (as
far as I’ve been able to find evidence) in the 80s there were lots of
ponytails, tight t-shirts and jeans and some self-identification as
“butch” or other unconventionally-masculine terms among men writing
software and building technology.
So mostly I wonder how much of these assumptions are held by anyone
but women ourselves. In a field that most often ignores us all
together, there is a waiting stereotype of “butch”, and nevermind that
it was created by and inhabited by men. I am butch (own a motorcycle,
have a lovely collection of fedoras, adore my bowties), and so I don’t
want to over-project my own experience onto other women, but I do
wonder how much of the perceived pressure to be “butch” is really
pressure to be a guy.