A current debate on the mHB message boards (in which I've been trying to propagate my view of male cross-dressing as femme) has had me thinking (tangentially) about how feminist-informed women perceive of male cross-dressing and, from there, how feminism perceives, or has perceived, of femme expression in general. The following is an attempt to summarize my (ongoing) thoughts in a coherent way...
Femme and feminism have often been uncomfortable companions and the reason for that is not hard to apprehend. Prior to feminism (in particular, the second wave) women were generally expected to dress in a certain way, behave in a certain way, conform to the oppressive gender rules laid down by a male-dominated society. Among the many achievements of the feminist second wave, one was to say a resounding "no" to all this. And the importance of their (albeit partial) victory cannot be overstated. Freedom (including gender freedom) means nothing without the ability to say "no".
However, in gaining that gender freedom, a converse (though not opposite) one was (perhaps inevitably) constricted: the freedom for some women to choose to present in a fem(me)inine style, to wear pretty or sexy clothes, and so forth. Such presentation was disparaged, as it was held to be reinforcing the gender status quo, and that women who opted for it were either dupes or traitors: in either case collaborators in their own oppression. This disparagement was heightened within lesbian feminism, as the erotic roles of butch and femme were further derided for aping an unenlightened and heteronormative conformity.
Eventually femme feminists themselves said "no". We are not puppets of the patriarchy; we are not perpetuating gender stereotypes. We are informed by feminism and we choose this form of gender expression. ("Refusing the fate of Girl-By-Nature, the fem(me) is Girl-By-Choice" – Lisa Duggan & Kathleen McHugh in their Fem(me)inist Manifesto again.) We choose it because it expresses an essential part of who we are: femmes. In this, lesbian femmes (Joan Nestle, Madeline Davis, Jewelle Gomez, Amber Hollibaugh, Dorothy Allison, Minnie Bruce Pratt, ...) have been in the vanguard: because femme is also about sexuality, and the denigration of femme (and butch) struck at the erotic heart of their lives. Now, in the 21st century, there is a burgeoning femme pride, albeit still in the leftfield of queer and (trans)gender debate.
Nonetheless, the battle fought by the feminist second wave, the freedom to say "no", remains important (especially as that freedom seems once more to be being eroded – for an exposition of this topic see, for example, Natasha Walter's recent book ‘Living Dolls’). Because not all women are femme. It's not possible even to say "most" women, even in the simple majority meaning of the word. (As to the actual proportion – majority, minority, large or small – who can possibly say.) But it doesn't matter anyway. All that matters is that some women are femme; that they have the right to choose femme expression for themselves; and, equally, that other women have the right to choose otherwise.
Having got thus far, it is not much of a leap to realize that such gender freedom might also be necessary for men. That some men are femme, too, and have the same need to express it. And that, in doing so, those men are not necessarily maintaining gender based oppression, and are not just acting out their own stereotypical, hyper-sexualized visions of women. Rather, they are appropriating the major cultural signifiers of femme (women's clothes) and using them to express their own femme personalities. Or so it seems to me. Even if most such men would probably not explain themselves in anything like those terms.
Regarding men's ability within society to express their femme, that is perhaps another question – or perhaps, another battle. At present western culture is barely tolerant of male femininity (in whatever form it takes: trans, femme, sissy, ...), but to some extent at least this is our own fault. Women did not gain such gender freedom as they do have without fighting for it. As a wife of a cross-dresser (quoted by Helen Boyd in ‘My Husband Betty’) put it: "We had to burn our bras. You're going to have to wear yours in public." In the light of everything I've just written, that seems a very pertinent comment.