Daughters of Bilitis

views updated

Daughters of Bilitis

The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was a lesbian social group founded in San Francisco in 1955 by Del Martin, her lover Phyllis Lyon, and three other lesbian couples, as an alternative to the lesbian bar scene. They named the organization after an 1894 book of poems by Pierre Louÿs, Les Chansons de Bilitis (The songs of Bilitis), which included lesbian love poetry. They also decided that using "daughters" would make them sound innocuous, like any other women's social group. Eventually, however, politics began to take up more and more time at meetings. Discussion of the problems facing lesbians influenced the group to focus less on socializing and more on educating the public. DOB began to work with the magazine ONE, Inc. and with the male homophile Mattachine Society to sponsor public forums and advocate legal reforms. DOB began publishing The Ladder, a newsletter and magazine, in October 1956. The Ladder was aimed not only at DOB's urban constituency but also at isolated lesbians who lived far away from supportive big-city communities.

During the 1950s, DOB emphasized the similarity between lesbians and heterosexuals, arguing that most lesbians were not barhopping, sex-crazed deviates, but rather sober, hard-working, respectable women. The Ladder published poetry, fiction, articles, first-person essays, and the views of the psychiatric profession concerning homosexuality. The Ladder frowned on butch-femme roles as derivative and unladylike, and advocated traditional feminine dress and manners. DOB's emphasis on respectability mirrored the inclusive rhetoric of their brothers in the Mattachine Society, but alienated lesbians who did not share DOB's middle-class political and sexual sensibilities. Readers of The Ladder eventually began to object to the magazine's advocacy of feminine dress and comportment, and sometimes openly challenged the organization's emphasis on making lesbians more acceptable to mainstream society. Still, the DOB worked closely with other homophile organizations in the early 1960s to challenge discrimination and harassment of gay men and lesbians. DOB and the Mattachine Society put pressure on police departments to end police brutality against people perceived to be gay or lesbian, and in 1966 forced municipal departments in San Francisco to speak to lesbian and gay concerns in a series of public forums.

The women's movement of the late 1960s put pressure on DOB to abandon its middle-of-the-road respectability and alliances with gay men in favor of radical lesbian feminist politics. In 1968 Rita Laporte became DOB president, and Barbara Grier became the editor of The Ladder. With them came a feminist politics that many DOB members did not agree with. When Martin and Lyon tried to wrest control at the convention in 1970, Laporte and Grier refused to attend, took the membership list, and began publishing The Ladder themselves as an independent feminist magazine. DOB dissolved the national organization, and without its financial support, The Ladder ceased publication in 1972. Individual DOB chapters struggled to survive, but by the early twenty-first century only one remained, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Daughters of Bilitis died with the 1960s, but it also achieved its goal of empowering lesbians to organize, to speak up and be heard in mainstream culture, and to push for political and social reform. It remains one of the most important groups of the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the organizations most crucial to gay, lesbian, and feminist history.


D'Emilio, John. 1998. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Duberman, Martin. 1993. Stonewall. New York: Dutton.

Faderman, Lillian. 1991. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. 1993. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge.

                                           Jaime Hovey