Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was an early Lesbian organization before Stonewall. Started in San Francisco in 1955 as a social club, the group became an activist group for Gay rights and women’s rights in the USA and Australia until it disbanded in 1970.
DOB was founded by eight women, including the iconic couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. The origins of DOB are found in accounts by Lyon and Martin, who moved to Castro Street in San Francisco from Seattle in 1953. Not knowing many people, Martin and Lyon wanted to be around other women of their orientation, but did not yet have the social connections. “It was just a very scary time,” said Lyon. “People were deeply in the closet.” A women of their acquaintance named Noni asked if they wanted to join a Lesbian social club that was being put together by Rose, a Filipina American woman. In an interview with Nan Alamilla Boyd in 1992, Lyon and Martin described the beginning of DOB, and its shift to activism:
PL: Well, believe it or not, we’ve lost track of everybody who was involved in the early days of DOB, so we don’t know.
DM: When Daughters of Bilitis started, there were eight of us. There were four blue-collar workers and four, you know, white-collar workers.
PL: It simply —
DM: And the thing was it split when we decided that we wanted to see more happen than just social, you know, parties and so on. The split was on the part of the blue-collar workers because they wanted to really stay under cover. They did not want to get involved in anything more, it was just like a —
PL: — ceremony and stuff.
DM: — ceremonial.
PL: Investitures. Ceremonies. A lodge kind of thing.
In order to protect themselves from persecution, they chose a Lesbian-related name for themselves that was vague enough as to not attract unwanted attention: “Bilitis,” from a book called The Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs. Published in 1894, Songs is the fictional (and homoerotic) account of the life and verses of an ancient Greek lover of the poetess Sappho named Bilitis.
Louÿs claimed the book was based on previously undiscovered historical accounts and ancient sources. The book gained an underground following among same-sex oriented women well into the twentieth century. As such, “Bilitis” was a code-name that Lesbians might recognize, but others would not. “If anyone asked us,” said Lyon and Martin about DOB, “we could always say we belonged to a poetry club.”
From Variant to Lesbian, Skirts to Pants
As DOB became more and more involved in civil rights, the group that it was advocating changed names. Initially, the terms “gay” and “lesbian” were considered too volatile to be used indiscriminately, so “variant” (as in “alternative sexual preference”) was used. In addition, members of DOB were assured that their identities would be kept secret, a very real concern when DOB began publishing The Ladder, which printed editorials and reported social events, including upcoming meetings. Members were supposed wear unambiguously feminine garb and hairstyles of the time, so short hair and pants were officially discouraged, although some members chose to ignore those rules. Regardless of what DOB did as not to upset law enforcement, they were under various levels of scrutiny and surveillance by the San Francisco Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
As the organization grew, so did the Lesbian community, which adopted a number of bold stances concerning visibility and representation. No longer content to simply plead for rights, the DOB shifted to openly denouncing the oppression of Lesbians as a community, and began using “lesbian” rather than “variant.” In 1963, DOB President Barbara Gittings amended the name of their journal from The Ladder to The Ladder: A Lesbian Review. In November 1964, The Ladder took on the politics of fashion, declaring, “Pants are proper!” The cover of that same issue featured The Ladder’s first photograph of a woman rather than a drawing, an Indonesian who identified herself as Ger van Braam, whose letter “Isolation in Indonesia” was printed in June of that year.
DOB had an ethic of inclusion, opening its membership to women of all races and backgrounds. As chapters spread across the USA, this created some controversy in some communities that held segregationist attitudes concerning race. Members such as Billye Talmadge, Cleo Bonner (the first and only African American national DOB president), and Pat “Dubby” Walker (blind president of the San Francisco chapter) helped undermine racist and classist distinctions as well as discrimination against those with disabilities within the DOB.
Conventions, Losing “Lesbian,” and End of the National DOB
Perhaps the most radical action taken by DOB was the tradition of holding national conventions every two years. The first National Lesbian Convention was held in San Francisco in 1960, and among those attending were some two hundred women, police officers (to make sure the women were not wearing men’s clothing), and male supporters from the Mattachine Society. The boldness of having a national convention was a shock to other homophile (“same-sex loving,” often with an assimilationist agenda) organizations that considered a convention too provocative. Nevertheless, the first convention was a success.
By 1968, increasingly visible activities of the Lesbian community nationwide had brought about the creation of numerous other organizations. Opinions as to whether Lesbians should side with Gay men or with Straight women split the community, as did lingering assimilationist versus aggressive activist stances. The last DOB convention was not well attended.
In 1968, Barbara Grier became editor, dropping “A Lesbian Review” from the cover, which increased readership but left some Lesbians with the impression that it was no longer a magazine for them. Grier and Rita Laporte (elected president of DOB in 1968) believed the Lesbian community would be better served in aligning itself with Straight women than with Gay men, even though organizations such as the National Organization of Women (NOW) were wary of being labeled “lesbian.” Some Straight feminists such as Betty Friedan warned their sisters about the “Lavender Menace,” that is, the supposed threat against women’s rights posed by the Lesbian community.
In 1970, the magazine’s closely guarded mailing list and files were taken by Laporte from San Francisco to Sparks, Nevada, a move (referred by other members of DOB as “The Theft”) that would mark the end for both DOB and The Ladder. Without its mailing list, the DOB could no longer keep in touch with its members, nor could it solicit funds, and the organization disbanded soon after. Without the support from DOB, the magazine continued for a time, then folded in 1972.
Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2003.
Bullough, Vern L. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park, 2002.
Gallo, Marcia. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006.