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social sciences

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Daughters of Bilitis  

Founded in 1955 in San Francisco, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was the first national lesbian political and social organization in the United States. As part of the " movement"--as the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement was termed--DOB set a precedent for countless other organizations for lesbians and bisexual women.

The Daughters of Bilitis began when lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin started meeting with several other female couples to discuss lesbian issues. Their group's name came from "Songs of Bilitis," a lesbian-themed song cycle by French poet Pierre Louÿs, which described Bilitis as a resident of the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho.

Sponsor Message.

The founders believed that the name Daughters of Bilitis was both subtle and communicative. Knowledgeable lesbians would glean its meaning, but the general public would not.

At first a social club, the Daughters of Bilitis, influenced by the Mattachine Society, a gay men's group, soon adopted more political goals. The Mattachine Society had formed in Los Angeles in 1951, and DOB allied with both it and ONE, Inc., an independent gay-themed magazine, whose editors were members of the Mattachine Society.

DOB's activities included hosting public forums on homosexuality, offering support to isolated, married, and mothering lesbians, and participating in research activities.

Lyon and Martin poured their energies and resources into the organization. Martin became DOB's first president, and Lyon became the editor of the organization's monthly magazine, The Ladder, which was launched in October 1956. The women used their personal funds to keep DOB afloat; and they often spent more time working on DOB than at their paid jobs.

Under their leadership, the group had a relatively conservative focus. For instance, under their direction the Ladder shied away from overtly political or militant material, publishing instead fiction, poetry, personal essays, research reports, and psychologists' writings on homosexuality. To an extent, it advised conformity to the straight mainstream. It discouraged women from cross-dressing or embracing butch-femme identities--or any other activity that would make them too visibly different.

Additional chapters of the organization began cropping up. By 1958 there were branches in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island. However, DOB did not attract the numbers that gay male organizations of the 1950s and 1960s did.

Possible reasons for DOB's small membership include classism and assimilationism. The organization reached out primarily to white, middle-class women, the very people who had most to lose should they be identified as lesbian at a time when police harassment and loss of jobs were common fates for open lesbians. At the same time, however, its assimilationist message failed to appeal to women of different backgrounds who may have embraced a more radical perspective.

The Ladder's monthly circulation in the early 1960s peaked at about 500 copies, and in 1960 DOB maintained a membership base of just over 100.

While DOB presented itself as an exclusively lesbian organization from the beginning and stressed the need for attention to women's specific needs, it was not until the women's movement of the mid-1960s that the group's focus began to change dramatically. The leadership of Rita Laporte and Barbara Grier in DOB brought a considerably more radical lesbian-feminist flavor to the organization. Under the editorship of Barbara Gittings, The Ladder became more militant.

The shift from lesbian rights to women's rights conflicted with Martin's and Lyon's tactics. After extensive disagreements and a disastrous conference in 1970, ultimately Laporte and Grier usurped the Ladder's subscription list to begin publishing the magazine independently.

The debate over whether to become a part of the mainstream feminist movement--many of whose members were openly anti-lesbian--or to continue concentrating on homophile issues proved devastating for the Daughters of Bilitis.

The organization fell apart shortly after Laporte and Grier's coup. Individual chapters struggled on as autonomous organizations, but the national DOB folded, and the Ladder, now an independent women's liberation magazine, could not maintain sufficient financial support to continue. It ceased publication in 1972, having reached print runs of almost 3,800 copies.

The inability of the Daughters of Bilitis to survive the tumultuous 1960s does not diminish its importance in glbtq history. For many lesbians DOB provided a crucial space in which they could meet outside of the traditional bar scene. Its members fought for legal reform and gay civil rights, along with more research into lesbian life, and helped to foster understanding about lesbian lives both within and outside of their community.

Teresa Theophano


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Butch-femme identities are controversial and difficult to define with precision, but both roles subvert prescribed gender and sexual expectations; ultimately, the butch-femme dynamic is a unique way of living and loving.

social sciences >> Overview:  Cross-Dressing

Cross-dressers have often been misunderstood and maligned, especially in societies with rigid gender roles.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homophile Movement, U. S.

The homophile movement of the United States refers to organizations and political strategies employed by homosexuals from the end of World War II to 1970.

social sciences >> Overview:  Los Angeles

The glbtq history of Los Angeles, the U.S.'s second largest metropolis, is replete with cultural, social, and political firsts.

social sciences >> Overview:  McCarthyism

McCarthyism, which attempted in the late 1940s and early 1950s to expunge Communists and fellow travelers from American public life, made homosexuals the chief scapegoats of the Cold War.

literature >> Bradley, Marion Zimmer

A matriarch of fantasy and science fiction literature, Marion Zimmer Bradley also authored lesbian paperback pulps and articles for The Ladder and Mattachine Review.

literature >> Foster, Jeannette Howard

In Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956), author, poet, translator, and librarian Jeannette Howard Foster established the groundwork for research into lesbian literature.

literature >> Gidlow, Elsa

Elsa Gidlow, known to many as the "poet-warrior," was unabashedly visible as an independent woman, a lesbian, a writer, and a bohemian-anarchist at a time when such visibility was both unusual and potentially dangerous.

social sciences >> Gittings, Barbara

A pioneer in the American gay rights movement, Barbara Gittings worked tirelessly within the American Library Association to make material with glbtq content more accessible to the reading public.

literature >> Grier, Barbara

As bibliographer, reviewer, collector, editor, and co-founder of Naiad Press, Barbara Grier was an important nurturer of lesbian literature.

social sciences >> Lyon, Phyllis, (b. 1924) and Del Martin (1921-2008)

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were among the founders of a lesbian liberation movement that developed and enlarged the very definition of lesbianism.

literature >> Marchant, Anyda [Sarah Aldridge] (1911-2006) and Muriel Inez Crawford (1914-2006)

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Edward Sagarin, writing as Donald Webster Cory, produced important books that prepared the stage for the gay liberation movement, but under his own name he later attacked the very movement he inspired.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

social sciences >> Vincenz, Lilli

Veteran activist Lilli Vincenz, who commenced her activism before Stonewall, also collected thousands of documents about the movement for glbtq rights; donated to the Library Congress, they provide scholars an invaluable resource.


"Daughters of Bilitis." Out in All Directions: A Treasury of Gay and Lesbian America. Lynn Witt, Sherry Thomas, and Eric Marcus, eds. New York: Warner Books, 1997. 200-201.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Esterberg, Kristin. "From Accommodation to Liberation: A Social Movement Analysis of Lesbians in the Homophile Movement." Gender and Society 8 (1994): 442-443.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981.


    Citation Information
    Author: Theophano, Teresa  
    Entry Title: Daughters of Bilitis  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated October 20, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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