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About the Daughters of Bilitis and The Ladder

Classical Grek Poets Saphos and Bilitis sit and lovingly stare into eash other's eyes.


The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. It was a secret lesbian social club in San Francisco when Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon joined it in 1955. It was a discreet and safe space for lesbians to socialize, share experiences, and discuss the challenges they faced.

The organization's name was inspired by Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs, a collection of poems celebrating lesbian love.

The Statement of Purpose for the group read as follows:

1. Education of the variant, with particular emphasis on the psychological and sociological aspects, to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society in all its social, civic and economic implications by establishing and maintaining a library of both fiction and nonfiction on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions on pertinent subjects to be conducted by leading members of the legal, psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behaviour and dress acceptable to society.

2. Education of the public through acceptance first of the individual, leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous conceptions, taboos and prejudices; through public discussion meetings; through dissemination of educational literature on the homosexual theme.

3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychology sociology and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.

4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertains to the homosexual, proposal of changes to provide an equitable handling of cases involving this minority group, and promotion of these changes through due process of law in the state legislatures.

The Daughters of Bilitis is not now, and never has been, affiliated with any other organization, political, social or otherwise.

As the club grew, it became increasingly more political in outlook.

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The Ladder

In 1956, the Daughters of Bilitis began publishing a newsletter The Ladder, one of the first lesbian publications in the United States.

In the first issue (or "first rung" as it was labeled), the group marketed itself to potental new members and subscribers. The introduction stated:

We are sending this first issue to you with our compliments in order to acquaint you with our organization and the work we are doing.

However, in order to help defray publishing expenses we are asking for donations of $1.00 for one year of THE LADDER. If you wish to receive future issues and to help the cause please send in the questionnaire on page 12.

Just one year ago the Daughters of Bilitis was formed. Eight women gathered together with a vague idea that something should be done about the problems of Lesbians, both within their own group and with the public.

The original idea was mainly that of providing. an out let for social activities, but with discussion came broader purposes and the club was formed with a much wider scope than that originally envisioned, as can be seen from the club "Purpose" on page 4.

The eight charter members, with a constitution, by-laws and a name, started out to find more members. And this has been the biggest problem in this first year.

As our President has so aptly pointed out in her message, "the Lesbian is a very elusive creature". Membership has fluctuated from a low of six to the present 15, and only three of the eight charter members remain. But the basic need for, and validity of, such a club continues, and our membership is growing.

This membership is open to all women over 21 who have a genuine interest in the problems of the female homophile and the related problems of other minorities. Initiation fee is $5 for active and $2.50 for associate members, with monthly dues of $1 for the former and 50¢ for the latter.

The name "Daughters of Bilitis "is taken from "Songs of Bilitis", a narrative love poem written by Pierre Louys and published in 1894. Bilitis would seem to have been a contemporary of Sappho on the isle of Lesbos, and the poem is purported to be a translation from the Greek. Although it has been more or less conclusively established that the poem is not authentic, it presents a sensitive and searching picture of Lesbian love.

Our organization is endeavoring to develop a program of interest to all. This includes our monthly public discussion meetings featuring speakers from local business, professional and medical fields; monthly business meetings; and brunches, parties, picnics and beach parties, bowling, horseback riding and other social events.

This newsletter we hope will be a force in uniting the women in working for the common goal of greater personal and social acceptance and understanding. With this first issue we enter a field already ably served by "One" and "Mattachine Review". We offer, however, that so-called "feminine viewpoint" which they have had so much difficulty obtaining. It is to be hoped that our venture will encourage the women to take an ever-increasing part in the steadily-growing fight for understanding of the homophile minority.

Under the editorial direction of Lyon and Martin, the newsletter quickly expanded into a magazine. It became a lifeline for isolated lesbians who lacked resources and a platform for discussing issues relevant to the lesbian community. It featured articles, essays, poetry, and fiction covering a wide range of topics, including relationships, coming out, societal perceptions, and political activism. Unlike the mainstream publications of the time it promoted positive representation for lesbians and provided resources for self-acceptance.

The Ladder was distributed by mail to subscribers across the United States, allowing it to reach a broader audience. While the magazine's circulation remained relatively small compared to mainstream publications, its impact was significant within the lesbian community. It'd readership was much larger than its subscription base. A single copy of the magazine was often passed around to several readers who hadn't subscribed.

The magazine separated from the organization in 1970. It ceased publication in 1972, but its legacy persists as an important artifact of lesbian history during a pivotal period of social change.

Cover of the first issue of The Ladder featuring a ladder reaching up to the clouds with the silhouettes of two people at the bottom.  The San Francisco Bay is in the background.

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As the organization grew, the Daughters of Bilitis expanded their activities beyond social gatherings and began engaging in political activism. They started advocating for the decriminalization of homosexuality, fighting against discrimination, and promoting greater visibility for lesbians in society.

As they became more active, the DOB faced various conflicts with other groups and law enforcement.

During the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuality was often criminalized, and law enforcement agencies actively targeted LGBTQ+ organizations such as the DOB. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted surveillance on LGBTQ+ organizations including the DOB. The FBI monitored their activities, collecting information on members and leaders.

The 1970s saw the emergence of feminist groups critical of the DOB. Some radical feminists viewed the organization as too conservative and aligned with mainstream society. They criticized DOB for not fully embracing a more radical and confrontational approach to challenging societal norms.

Differences in ideological perspectives, strategic approaches, and personal disputes among members sometimes strained the cohesion of the group.

The DOB’s final chapter closed in 1978, but its legacy endures as a pioneering force in the struggle for lesbian rights and visibility.

Martin and Lyon continued to be active in the women’s rights and gay rights movements. In 2004 they became the first same-sex couple offered a marriage certificate in San Francisco.

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Related Reading

AI Art inspired by the cover of the first issue of "The Ladder."  The San Francisco Bay in the background. In the foreground an impossibly tall ladder disappears into the clouds. At the base of the ladder, the silhouettes of two women start to climb the ladder. One woman has long hair and a dress. The other woman has very short hair and is dressed in a shirt and pants.

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