The Ladder, a magazine distributed from 1956 to 1972, was one of the first openly Lesbian folk publications in the USA. It was published by Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), a Lesbian organization headquartered in San Francisco.
Background: Vice Versa
The Ladder had precedents in magazines produced for pre-Nazi Berlin’s vibrant Lesbian community in the 1920s and 1930s: Die Freundin (German: “The Female Friend”), Frauenliebe (German: “Women’s Love”), and Garçonne (French: the word garçon or “boy” with a feminine suffix). There was also at least one American precedent: Vice Versa: America’s Gayest Magazine, a newsletter produced by Lisa Ben (anagram for “Lesbian,” used by Edythe Eyde) in Los Angeles, California from June 1947 until February 1948. Eyde hoped the newsletter could help her meet other women without fear of arrest. She wrote it while at work as a secretary in the RKO movie studio, producing twelve copies of each issue that were passed around from woman to woman. Eyde never asked any money for Vice Versa, calling it “a labor from the heart.”
For more information on Lisa Ben, including an interview and issues of Vice Versa, go to queermusicheritage.us/viceversa.html.
The Ladder was different from Vice Versa in that it was never just the effort of one person, but rather the mouthpiece of an organization that would quickly grow to be national in scope. The Daughters of Bilitis was founded in 1955 by eight women, including Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Both Lyon and Martin had journalistic experience. DOB began publishing The Ladder in October 1956, funding it with members’ dues and donations. At first, The Ladder was similar to Vice Versa in that people involved in publishing it did not give their real names in print. But editor Phyllis Lyon began using her real name in the fourth issue, declaring, “Ann Ferguson [Lyon’s pseudonym] is dead!”
The Ladder also differed from Vice Versa in that it was designed as a booklet rather than a newsletter. Unlike the twelve copies of Vice Versa that Eyde painstakingly carbon-copied from two manuscripts, the first issue of The Ladder had 200 copies and featured schedules of events such as business meetings, bowling, softball, and picnics. The primary focus of the magazine in its early years was to let women who loved women know that they were not alone, but in a way that their anonymity would be protected. Initially, the magazine was mailed in a plain envelope.
From Assimilation to Confrontation
The practice of assimilation (including suggestions that women not dress in clothing deemed appropriate to men, especially not pants, and not wear their hair short) that the Daughters initially preferred shifted to a more confrontational tone, criticizing society for its intolerance rather than simply asking The Ladder readership to conform to society’s standards. In March 1964, editor Barbara Gittings modified the name, changing it to The Ladder: A Lesbian Review.
Readership increased, and The Ladder became available in newsstands in major urban centers. Articles featuring heterosexual authorities that spoke up for the normalcy of variants (an assimilationist term used in The Ladder for homosexuals until 1967) were replaced with Lesbians speaking up for themselves.
In November 1964, The Ladder announced, “Pants are proper!” along with subtle support for shorter haircuts:
The running debate among top fashion designers on both sides of the Atlantic has at last subsided… This season you can wear pants absolutely anywhere — which means dandy pants for town and fancy pants for evening. You can choose from knickers, britches, jumpsuits, pantsuits, pants-shifts, etc. Combine with a champion-swimmer hairdo sleeked back behind your ears and a cropped coat. An inside contact reports that fashion artists are being told to draw their panted women “to look like lesbians.” But who can be sure what that means?
Hand-drawn covers were replaced by photographs of actual women in 1964. The cover of the November 1964 issue had a photograph of a woman from Indonesia who identified herself as Ger van Braam. This was the first cover to put a name to the face. Covers got progressively bolder, and eventually featured two women holding hands.
Gittings also attempted to woo more Gay men as readers. Men, in fact, had worked with both The Ladder and Vice Versa. Straight male ally Forrest J Ackerman, an icon among science fiction enthusiasts (he was the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and claimed to have coined the word “sci-fi”), wrote reviews, editorials, and stories for Vice Versa under the name “Laurajean Ermayne,” and helped DOB publish The Ladder in its early days. Ackerman was honored by DOB as an “honorary lesbian” and an SOB (Son of Bilitis). There was also attorney Benjamin M. Davis, whose lecture, “The Lesbian and the Law,” was featured in the first issue of The Ladder.
Debate and Dissolution
Behind the scenes there were heated debates as to whether the magazine should be more militant or more light-hearted, whether to focus on Lesbian issues or be more generally feminist, and whether to include articles for Gay male readers. 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.
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 some members of DOB as “The Theft”) that would end both DOB and The Ladder. Without the support from DOB, the magazine folded, and without its mailing list, DOB could no longer keep in touch with its members, nor could it solicit funds. The Ladder would continue to be printed until 1972.
Divisions within DOB were not the only cause of The Ladder’s demise. Other Lesbian publications such as The Furies, Lesbian Connection, and Lesbian Tide as well as magazines dedicated to the LGBTQ community in general were competing in post-Stonewall America. It was a movement in print that would eventually lead to many more magazines and, with the advent of the internet, websites for Lesbians.
Jones, Sonya L. Gay and Lesbian Literature since World War II: History and Memory. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 1998.
Passet, Joanne Ellen. Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeanette Howard Foster. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2008.
Whitt, Jan. Women in American Journalism: A New History. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2008.