Shoulders To Stand On: Daughters of Bilitis

By Evelyn Bailey

We have looked at the three most influential events to shape American society’s attitudes toward homosexuality – the founding of the Mattachine Society, the Lavender Scare and the classification in the DSM-1 of homosexuality as a mental illness.

The years after the end of World War II were some of the most socially repressive in US history. In 1950, the State Department identified homosexuals as security risks. Politically motivated police raids on gay bars took place all over the US and Canada. Laws were enacted prohibiting cross-dressing for men and women. Police harassment and brutality have been constant features of gay and lesbian life for decades.

Indefinite detainments, beatings, and public humiliations are only the tip of the iceberg. Lesbian and male drag queens through the 1950s and 1960s suffered frequent rapes and sexual assaults committed by police officers, sometimes inside police precincts. Moreover, police were certainly no help when beatings, rapes, and lesser indignities were visited upon gay and lesbian people by civilians. In the mid-1950s, all of society’s major institutions and opinion-makers condemned homosexuality and persecuted gay men and women.

Out of this oppressive environment grassroots homophile organizations began to spring up, so that by 1969, there were about fifty “homophile” organizations in the US.  One of these was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, Daughters of Bilitis, founded in San Francisco in 1955. It was conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which were subject to raids and police harassment.

The story goes something like this. In 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had been together as lovers for three years when they complained to a gay male couple that they did not know any other lesbians. The gay couple introduced Del and Phyllis to another lesbian couple, one of whom suggested they create a social club.  In September Del and Phyllis accepted an invitation to get together with three other female couples in San Francisco.

The eight lesbians who gathered that Friday night at Noni and Mary’s hoped there would be other women in the Bay area who would want to enjoy parties and conversation in the privacy of one another’s homes. One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal. Although unsure of how exactly to proceed with the group, they began to meet regularly, realized they should be organized, and quickly elected Del Martin as president. From the start they had a clear focus to educate other women about lesbians, and reduce their self-loathing brought on by the socially repressive times.

The name of the newfound club was chosen in its second meeting. Bilitis is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho, by the French poet Pierre Louÿs in his 1894 work The Songs of Bilitis[7] in which Bilitis lived on the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho. The name was chosen for its obscurity; even Del and Phyllis did not know what it meant. “Daughters” was meant to evoke association with other American social associations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. Early DOB members felt they had to follow two contradictory approaches: trying to recruit interested potential members and being secretive.

While DOB started as a small, secret social club, by the early 1960s there were chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as San Francisco, and a well-regarded monthly magazine by and for lesbians, The Ladder.

The DOB was many things to many women. First and foremost, it was where a gay or questioning woman could go to meet a new girlfriend, begin to heal a broken heart, or find validation for her life. It was a circle of friends to share good times and bad as well as a network of peer counselors who offered support and guidance. It was a resource center for questions about homosexuality and a nice place to go on Saturday night. DOB was a potent mix of counseling and social services, with a dash of grassroots organizing thrown in. Like its members, it grew and changed with the times.

One of the first things DOB did was create living-room discussions of topics of concern to lesbians, but open to all women. Their sensitivity to the intense fear of the time — a fear that is hard for us to even imagine today—meant that one did not have to declare herself to be a lesbian to join the Daughters of Bilitis. Upon arrival at a meeting, attendees would be greeted at the door. In a show of good faith, the greeter would say, “I’m —. Who are you? You don’t have to give me your real name, not even your real first name.”

Soon after forming, the DOB wrote a mission statement that addressed the most significant problem Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had faced as a couple: the complete lack of information about female homosexuality in what historian Martin Meeker termed, “the most fundamental journey a lesbian has to make.”

When the club realized they were not allowed to advertise their meetings in the local newspaper, Del and Phyllis, who both had backgrounds in journalism, began to print a newsletter to distribute to as many women as the group knew. In October 1956 it became The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S. and one of the first to publish statistics on lesbians. Del Martin was the first president of DOB and Phyllis Lyon became the editor of The Ladder.

The DOB advertised itself as “A Woman’s Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.”  The statement was composed of four parts that prioritized the purpose of the organization, and it was printed on the inside of the cover of every issue of The Ladder until 1970: Education of the variant; Education of the public; Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual; Investigation of the penal code as it pertain to the homosexual, proposal of changes… and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.”

New York chapter president Barbara Gittings noted that the word “variant” was used instead of “lesbian” in the mission statement, because “lesbian” was a word that had a very negative meaning in 1956.

In 1953, The Daughters of Bilitis followed the Mattachine Society’s lead in thinking it more prudent and productive to convince heterosexual society at large that gays were not different from themselves, rather than agitate for change. The DOB encouraged its members to assimilate as much as possible into the prevailing heterosexual culture. There was much controversy over this direction as was reflected in ongoing debate over the propriety of butch and femme dress and role play among its members. As early as 1955 a rule was made that women who attended meetings, if wearing pants, should be wearing women’s slacks. However, many women remember it being a rule that went unfollowed as attendees at many meetings were wearing jeans, and the only jeans available in the 1950s were men’s.

In 1960, the DOB held their first convention in San Francisco, which was so successful that they held one every two years until 1968. Two hundred women attended the conference, as did the San Francisco police, who came to check if any of the DOB members were wearing men’s clothes. Del Martin brought them inside to see all the women wearing dresses, stockings and heels.

Two things happened in 1963 that changed the course of the organization. A windfall came to the group when an anonymous donor who refused her name to be recorded, known only to the DOB as “Pennsylvania,” began donating large sums of money to the DOB: $100,000 over five years. “Pennsylvania” wrote $3,000 checks to different DOB members, who in turn signed them over to the organization. And the editorship of The Ladder changed from Del Martin to Barbara Gittings.

Because The Ladder was the primary method of communication from the leadership of the DOB to its individual chapters, the editor position was extremely influential in the group. Gittings made significant changes to the magazine, putting an emphasis on being more visible.

In 1964, Martin and Lyon began to control less of the organization, saying, “We felt that if the organization had any validity at all it couldn’t be based on two people, it had to be able to stand and grow on its own. And it was never going to do it if we didn’t move out.”

The Homophile Movement was influenced by the successful activism of the Civil Rights Movement, and in the mid-1960s feminism became a much higher priority to many of the women in the organization. In 1966, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon joined the National Organization for Women, and urged readers of The Ladder to do the same.  Changing times revealed younger members did not share the concerns with older members; they were more moved by revolutionary tactics.

As a national organization, the Daughters of Bilitis folded in 1970, although some local chapters still continued.   By 1972, The Ladder had run out of funds and it folded.  Some DOB chapters—notably, New York and San Francisco—kept organizing throughout the 1970s and the DOB group in Boston was active until 1995.

The small secret San Francisco social club had helped launch an international lesbian movement. The Daughters of Bilitis stands today as an important example of women’s organizing during oppressive times. Historian Lillian Faderman declared, “Its very establishment in the midst of witch-hunts and police harassment was an act of courage, since members always had to fear that they were under attack, not because of what they did, but merely because of who they were.”

The impact of the fourteen-year run of the DOB on the lives of women was described by historian Martin Meeker: “The DOB succeeded in linking hundreds of lesbians across the country with one another and gathering them into a distinctly modern communication network.”

Through its leadership in the predominantly male homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s, its unique publication The Ladder, and its network of local chapters, DOB played a crucial role in creating lesbian identity, visibility, institutions, and political strategies from 1955 to 1970. In addition, the Daughters helped to broaden the very definition of social change to include female sexuality.

Shoulders To Stand On is proud to recognize the Daughters of Bilitis as the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. Today, Shoulders challenges all of our sisters to become active participants in our continuing struggle to secure our civil liberties, political rights and a future where all are free to be who they are. Be active!  Be visible!  Be proud!

Tags: No tags

Comments are closed.