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Daughters of Bilitis

Daughters of Bilitis

This week, we’ll be taking a look at the esteemed Daughters of Bilitis.  In concert with the Mattachine Society, this group led the birth of the modern queer rights movement.

The Daughters of Bilitis, also called the DOB or the Daughters, was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States.  The organization, formed in San Francisco in 1955, was conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which were subject to frequent raids and ongoing police harassment.  As the DOB gained members, their focus shifted to providing support to women who were afraid to come out.  The DOB educated them about their rights, and about gay history, in general.  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."  Overall, the Daughters of Bilitis thrived for 14 years, becoming an educational resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers and mental health professionals.


The years after the end of World War II were some of the most morally strict in US history. Postwar anti-communist feelings quickly became associated with the personal secrets of people who worked for the US government.  Congress began to require the registration of members of "subversive groups," which of course they alone were able to define, giving them a dangerous power in helping define morality of the day.  In 1950, the State Department identified homosexuals as security risks, and what followed was a succession of more repressive acts that included the dismissal of federal, state and local government employees suspected of being homosexual; politically motivated police raids on gay bars all over the US and Canada; and even the enactment of laws prohibiting cross-dressing for men and women.


In 1955,  two women named Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had been together as lovers for about three years when they complained to a gay male couple they knew that they did not know any other lesbians.  The gay couple introduced Martin and Lyon to another lesbian couple, one of whom suggested they create a social club.  In October 1955, eight women — four couples — met to provide each other with a social outlet.  One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal.  Martin and Lyon recalled later, "Women needed privacy...not only from the watchful eye of the police, but from gaping tourists in the bars and from inquisitive parents and families."  Although unsure of how exactly to proceed with the group, they began to meet regularly, quickly realized they should be organized, and swiftly elected Martin as president of the group.  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 in which Bilitis lived on the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho.  The name was chosen for its relative obscurity--even Martin and Lyon did not know what it meant.  "Daughters" was meant to evoke an association with other American social associations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Early DOB members felt they had to follow two seemingly contradictory approaches: trying to recruit interested potential members and at the same time, being secretive.  Martin and Lyon justified the name, writing later, "If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club."  They also designed a pin to wear to be able to identify with others, chose club colors and voted on a motto "Qui vive", French for "on alert".  The organization ultimately filed a charter for non-profit corporation status in 1957, writing a description so vague, Phyllis Lyon wittily quipped, "it could have been a charter for a cat-raising club."


Within a year of its creation, most of the original eight participants were no longer part of the group, but their numbers had grown to 16, and they decided they wanted to be more than only a social alternative to bars.  Historian Marcia Gallo writes "They recognized that many women felt shame about their sexual desires and were afraid to admit them.  They knew that...without support to develop the self-confidence necessary to advocate for one's rights, no social change would be possible for lesbians."

By 1959, there were chapters of the DOB in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island along with the original chapter in San Francisco.  Upon arrival at a meeting, attendees would be greeted at the door.  In a show of good faith, the greeter would say, "I'm so and so.  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 Martin and 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, Lyon and Martin, 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, when they mailed surveys to their readers in 1958 and 1964. Martin was the first president and Lyon became the editor of The Ladder.

The DOB advertised itself as "A Women's Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society."  The statement was composed of four key 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:

First, education of the variant...to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society...this to be accomplished by establishing...a library...on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions...to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.

Secondly, education of the public...leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices...

Thirdly, participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.

And lastly, 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.


The early gay rights movement, then called the Homophile Movement, was developed by the Mattachine Society, formed in 1950, as previously covered by this podcast.  Although the Mattachine Society began as a provocative organization with roots in its founders' communist activism, leadership of the Mattachine thought it more prudent and productive to convince heterosexual society at large that gays were not different from themselves, rather than agitate for change.  As discussed, they changed their tactics in 1953.  The Daughters of Bilitis followed this model by encouraging its members to assimilate as much as possible into the prevailing heterosexual culture.

This 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.  Barbara Gittings recalled years later of an instance when, in preparation for a national convention, members of the DOB persuaded a woman who had worn men's clothing all her life, "to deck herself out in as 'feminine' a manner as she could... Everyone rejoiced over this as though some great victory had been accomplished... Today we would be horrified at anyone who thought this kind of evangelism had a legitimate purpose."

The Daughters of Bilitis were used as political fodder in the 1959 mayoral race in San Francisco. Russell Wolden, challenging incumbent George Christopher, distributed information implying that Christopher was making the city safe for "sex deviants".  Wolden was responsible for materials that stated, "You parents of daughters — do not sit back complacently feeling that because you have no boys in your family everything is alright... To enlighten you as to the existence of a Lesbian organization composed of homosexual women, make yourself acquainted with the name Daughters of Bilitis."  There were only two copies of the subscription list of The Ladder, a deliberate attempt to discourage its getting into the hands of anyone who might use it against the subscribers.  DOB leaders moved the list from its headquarters to find later San Francisco police had searched the office after its removal.  Even the FBI was curious enough to attend meetings to report and confirm in 1959, "The purpose of the DOB is to educate the public to accept the Lesbian homosexual into society."

National convention

In 1960, the DOB held their first convention in San Francisco, which was so successful that they held one every two years until 1968. Press releases announcing the convention were sent to local radio and newspapers, prompting the San Francisco Chronicle to direct a jab at Russell Wolden and publicize the convention when Herb Caen, known at the time as “Mister San Francisco”, a journalist intimately familiar with the happenings of the city, wrote, "Russ Wolden, if no one else, will be interested to learn that the Daughters of Bilitis will hold their national convention here May 27–30.  They're the female counterparts of the Mattachine Society — and one of the convention highlights will be an address by Atty. Morris Lowenthal titled, 'The Gay Bar in the Courts.'  Oh brother. I mean sister. Come to think of it, I don't know what I mean..."  The blurb was reprinted in the March issue of The Ladder.


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.  The attendees listened to speakers, including a debate between two attorneys about the legality and morality of gay bars, a presentation by the American Civil Liberties Union, and an Episcopal priest who "served up damnation with dessert", as he went on a "tirade" reminding the audience they were sinners, to which they listened politely, and as to not raise any ire.  The DOB also gave awards to men who were allied with them, whom they called "Sons of Bilitis", or SOBs, including their lawyer, photographer, and members of the Mattachine Society who assisted them with the convention.

Change in direction

In 1960, letters from readers in The Ladder appeared expressing exasperation with the emphasis on conformity in the DOB.  In the 1970s, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon reflected that by contemporary standards, the early ideals of the DOB for integration and adjustment of the lesbian into society were outmoded, but they remembered that in the 1950s and early 1960s many gay men and lesbians considered those ideals unreachable, and this approach radical.  The DOB never ultimately had the number of members comparable to the Mattachine Society's.  Although some may have considered the DOB's ideals unrealistic, some also considered them too tame.

In 1961 the largest raid on a gay bar in San Francisco resulted in the arrests of 100 people, and the police forced women arrested in another raid that same year in Chicago to disrobe to prove they were not wearing men's underwear, bringing a call in The Ladder to be more active. "If we ever hope to win our battle, we must fight.  First, unshackle ourselves from fear, for it alone is our omnipresent enemy," read the report.

However, in 1962, at the Daughters' second convention, national president Jaye Bell again urged for the pragmatic approach of integration and patience with a slow criminal justice system. Two very important things happened in 1963 that changed the course of the organization.  A windfall came to the group when an anonymous donor who refused to have her name recorded, known only to the DOB as "Pennsylvania," began donating large sums of money to the DOB: to thte tune of $100,000 over five years—quite the sum, back then. "Pennsylvania" wrote $3,000 checks to different DOB members, who in turn signed them over to the organization.  Further, the editorship of The Ladder changed from Del Martin to Barbara Gittings, which changed the tone and voice of the publication.

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 a stark, sudden emphasis on being more visible in society.  One of Gitting's priorities was aligning the DOB with the East Coast Homophile Organizations (acronym: ECHO), a coalition of other social and political clubs for gays and lesbians.  Evidence of how impatient audiences were getting with psychiatrists telling them they were mentally ill was displayed in 1964 when at an ECHO convention, a featured speaker named Dr. Albert Ellis stated that "the exclusive homosexual is a psychopath" to which someone in the audience responded, "Any homosexual who would come to you for treatment, Dr. Ellis, would have to be a psychopath!" a comment that was met with applause.  The times were changing, and the tide had begun to turn.

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." Martin and Lyon joined the newly formed Council on Religion and the Homosexual (or the CRH) to develop an ongoing dialogue between organized religion and gays and lesbians.  They urged the DOB to join the organization as well, but a previous rule precluding the DOB from joining separate organizations (set in place primarily to ensure it would not join organizations that sympathized with Communist aims) precluded it from doing so.

The Homophile Movement was influenced by the successful activism of the Civil Rights Movement (parenthetically, in 1960 the DOB's national president was actually Cleo Bonner, an African-American woman), and higher profile members of the DOB such as Barbara Gittings, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon began to very publicly picket the White House, the State Department, and several other federal buildings in 1965 and 1966 alongside members of the Mattachine Society.  Gittings, as editor of The Ladder, encouraged others to do the same, and soon, their activism became controversial in the leadership of the DOB.  Gittings also ran a regular column in The Ladder that she called "Living Propaganda", encouraging women to come out to their friends and family members.  It often included contributions from Frank Kameny, "one of the most significant figures" in the American gay rights movement, urging political action. Some readers responded positively to Kameny, who in a speech declared homosexuals as normal as heterosexuals; some were put off by the political tone, and some were angered by Kameny, as a man, suggesting to them what they—women—should do.  DOB leadership disliked Kameny and overall, the decisions Gittings was making for the magazine so ultimately, she was "let go" as editor in 1966.

Rise of Feminism

Del Martin has written that the Daughters of Bilitis was a feminist organization from the very beginning, focusing on the problems of women as well as problems of the female homosexual; however, 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 NOW, the National Organization for Women, and urged readers of The Ladder to do the same, even reporting they got a family discount.  Historian Martin Meeker points to the 1966 DOB convention that was a 10-day affair joining the DOB with the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations—otherwise known as NACHO--as the turning point where women's issues in the DOB began to have more importance to its members than gay issues.  It was the largest convention DOB had yet organized, publicized in mass media all over San Francisco, attended by a large panel of nationally known speakers, with many of the presentations focused on topics that were exclusively male-centered.

A November 1966 essay by DOB president Shirley Willer pointed out the differences in problems faced by gay men and lesbians: gay men dealt more with police harassment, entrapment, solicitation, sex in public places, and until recently few women were being arrested for cross-dressing.  Willer pointed out the problems specific to lesbians were job security and advancement, family relationships, child custody, and visitation.  Feeling as if their issues were not being addressed by homophile organizations, many members of the DOB began to say that lesbians had more in common with heterosexual women than men.

The Daughters were also affected by the changing times.  Younger members did not share the concerns with older members; they were more moved by revolutionary tactics.  Problems in the organization of the national governing board were becoming increasingly worse when local chapters were unable to take action on issues important to them without the approval of the national board.  Members became disillusioned and left, and younger lesbians were more apt to join feminist organizations.  By the time the 1968 convention was held in Denver, less than two dozen women attended.

Editing The Ladder was truly a full-time job.  Longtime DOB member Helen Sandoz, who had taken over editing it after an interim period after Barbara Gittings left, was so burdened by the responsibilities that it was affecting her relationship.  She passed it on to Barbara Grier in 1968, who had been contributing to the magazine as a book reviewer and poetry writer. Grier edited the magazine from Kansas City and was a relative newcomer to the workings of the DOB, despite contributin to the magazine since 1957.

Grier had high aspirations for The Ladder. She removed "A Lesbian Review" from the cover, placed there in 1964 by Gittings, to attract more women readers.  She doubled the size of the magazine, expanding every section, and devoted much of the space in the magazine to feminist ideals. She reported the first DOB chapter in Australia in 1969 and attempts to form chapters in New Zealand and Scandinavia.  In 1970, convinced that the DOB was falling apart and The Ladder must be saved, Barbara Grier worked with DOB president Rita LaPorte to take the subscriber list from the DOB headquarters in San Francisco strangely to Reno and expand the magazine further.

There were only two copies of the subscription list, however.  Despite assurances from The Ladder to subscribers that these names would be kept confidential, Rita LaPorte took the list of 3,800 names from DOB headquarters and the printers without telling anyone but Grier.  When Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon discovered its loss, they assumed the police or FBI had confiscated it.  Previous editors Martin, Lyon, Gittings, and Sandoz considered the act a theft.  Because LaPorte took the list over state lines, pursuing it would have been a federal matter, and the Daughters did not have the resources to see it through.  Grier severed ties with DOB leadership and in doing so took away the Daughters' primary method of communication from the national organization to its individual chapters.  As a national organization, the Daughters of Bilitis folded in 1970, although some local chapters still continue to this day.  Grier also effectively ended The Ladder, despite her plans for the magazine to run on advertising (something The Ladder had not previously had) and subscriptions, when the $3,000 checks from "Pennsylvania", written to the DOB, stopped coming.  By 1972, The Ladder had run out of funds and it folded.

Dozens of other lesbian and feminist organizations were created in the wake of the Daughters of Bilitis.  However, 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 that was mediated through print and, consequently, imagination, rather than sight, sound, smell, and touch.”

Leelah Alcorn

Leelah Alcorn

Leonard Matlovich

Leonard Matlovich