Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Daughters of Bilitis, a social club for lesbians, became the first national lesbian organization in the United States. Through its political activism and its publication, The Ladder, the group challenged society’s sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia and created a space for lesbians to come together for political, social, and personal empowerment.

Summary of Event

In 1953, after they met and then fell in love in Seattle, Washington, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin moved home to the San Francisco Bay Area. There they established a life together but were frustrated in their efforts to meet other lesbians. In September, 1955, they eagerly accepted an invitation to talk with six other women about forming a “secret” club for lesbians. Out of their discussions grew the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). [kw]Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States (1955) [kw]Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States, Daughters of (1955) [kw]National Lesbian Group in United States, Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First (1955) [kw]Lesbian Group in United States, Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National (1955) [kw]United States, Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in (1955) Daughters of Bilitis [c]Organizations and institutions;1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States[0490] [c]Publications;1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States[0490] [c]Feminism;1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States[0490] Lyon, Phyllis Martin, Del Frey, Noni Bamburger, Rose Sandoz, Helen Rush, Stella Gittings, Barbara Lahusen, Kay Tobin Grier, Barbara

The Ladder was a longtime publication of the Daughters of Bilitis.

From 1955 to 1970, the Daughters of Bilitis was a national organization, with local chapters, biannual conferences, and a paid membership averaging about two hundred women annually. Although small in numbers, the organization played a crucial role in the fledgling homophile movement. In addition to the DOB’s main office in San Francisco, there were established DOB chapters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. Local chapters—organized by activists such as Helen Sandoz and Stella Rush in Los Angeles, and Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen in New York— encouraged women to join by sponsoring house parties, dances, picnics, informal discussion groups, and public programs. Other cities, such as Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Providence, Rhode Island, as well as Melbourne, Australia, also had chapters for shorter periods of time. A national office in San Francisco oversaw administration and publications mainly.

The reach provided by DOB’s magazine The Ladder, Ladder, The (periodical) launched in 1956 to publicize the group’s efforts, also broadened the organization’s impact throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Under editors Lyon, Martin, Gittings, Sandoz, and Barbara Grier, the monthly magazine became one of the most important national publications of the growing lesbian and gay rights movement, and it was read by thousands of women and men around the country and throughout the world. DOB-New York activist Lahusen was one of the movement’s first photographers; her covers for The Ladder in the mid-1960’s featured black-and-white portraits of lesbians, portraits never before made public. In its literary and political coverage and its artwork, The Ladder began to lift the veil of silence from lesbian lives.

The early architects of DOB may not have thought it radical to publish a magazine or organize parties and conventions for lesbians, but in those Cold War years, their acts were indeed radical. In the post-World War II period, the United States experienced precarious prosperity at home, and competition from the U.S.S.R., a former ally, abroad. Right-wing politicians, looking to regain control of Congress and the White House in the early 1950’s, manipulated the public’s concerns about the safety and security of Americans. Some, such as U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy, alleged that U.S. institutions—from Hollywood to the state department—were in danger of being corrupted by traitors. Soon, “loyalty” was equated with “conformity,” and it was not long before “subversive” was linked with “homosexual” in the public’s mind. In 1953, an executive order signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the federal government the power to deny employment based on an applicant’s sexual orientation. Despite the publicity given the televised interrogations of people accused of Communist Party affiliations in the early 1950’s, more people were discharged from their government jobs for being suspected homosexuals than for being Communists.

From the beginning, the founders of DOB made organizational choices that enabled them to work toward their goals of self-acceptance, societal recognition, and changes in public policies regarding homosexuality. DOB membership was always open to all women interested in learning more about the “problems” of homosexuality. Even the name they chose for their new group provided protection, as it borrowed the title of an obscure nineteenth century work of erotica written possibly by one of the female lovers of the Greek poet Sappho, named Bilitis.

DOB was many things to many women. First and foremost, it was where a lesbian possibly could meet a new lover. It was a circle of friends to share good times and bad, a network of peer counselors who offered support and guidance, a resource center for questions about homosexuality, and an arena for activism. In addition to challenging American sex and gender norms of the mid-twentieth century, the group criticized the sexism Sexism;in GLBT movement[GLBT movement] faced within the homophile movement and fought against the homophobia Homophobia;in women’s movement[womens movement] and heterosexism encountered within the women’s movement.

By 1970, already existing divisions within DOB over the significance of political ideologies such as feminism and lesbian and gay liberation, as well as organizational fragmentation, were sharpened when then-editor of The Ladder, Grier and national president Rita Laporte decided to sever the magazine from DOB and publish it independently. Citing fears about the organization’s commitment to The Ladder, Grier and Laporte removed the mailing lists and production materials from DOB headquarters in San Francisco across state lines to Nevada without informing the organization’s leaders. Devastated by the loss of their prized magazine, the DOB governing board decided not to pursue expensive and time-consuming legal remedies to force the magazine’s return. They also agreed to disband the national organization, giving autonomy to the local chapters operating under the DOB name. Many of the local chapters—such as those in San Francisco and New York—continued to organize activities for their members throughout the 1970’s; the DOB chapter in Boston, started in 1969, is still nominally in existence.

Significance

Unlike the plethora of choices open to lesbians in the early twenty-first century—from campus groups to chat rooms to professional organizations to coffeehouses and cafés—in 1955 there was nowhere, beyond a few bars, where a lesbian could go to meet others like herself. During a culturally conservative time in the United States, when “the feminine mystique” exerted more cultural power than did feminism in reinforcing a retreat to conformity and domesticity for American women, the Daughters of Bilitis created and maintained first a local, then a national, organization that challenged homophobia and sexism. Through their dances and debates, and their publications and meetings, the Daughters of Bilitis helped build not one but two significant twentieth century movements for social justice: the lesbian and gay civil rights movement and feminism. Daughters of Bilitis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullough, Vern L., ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallo, Marcia M. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Birth of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Different Daughters: The Daughters of Bilitis and the Roots of Lesbian and Women’s Liberation, 1955-1970.” Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York Graduate Center, 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grier, Barbara, and Coletta Reid, eds. The Lavender Herring: Lesbian Essays from “The Ladder.” Baltimore: Diana Press, 1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. Lesbian/Woman. 1972. Rev. ed. Volcano, Calif.: Volcano Press, 1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schultz, Gretchen. “Daughters of Bilitis: Literary Genealogy and Lesbian Authenticity.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7, no. 3 (2001): 377-389.

December 10, 1924: Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights

June, 1947-February, 1948: Vice Versa Is Published as First Lesbian Periodical

May 27-30, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes

February 19-20, 1966: First North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Convenes

May 1, 1970: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto

November 28, 1970: Del Martin Quits Gay Liberation Movement

1971: Lesbian Tide Publishes Its First Issue

October, 1974: Lesbian Connection Begins Publication

April, 1987: Old Lesbians Organize for Change

Categories: History Content