The Daughters of Bilitis was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. The organization, formed in San Francisco in 1955, was conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which were subject to raids and police harassment. “Bilitis” is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho, by the French poet Pierre Louÿs in his 1894 work The Songs of Bilitis, in which Bilitis lived on the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho.
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had been together as lovers for three years when they complained to a gay male couple that they did not know any other lesbians. The gay couple introduced Martin and Lyon to another lesbian couple, one of whom suggested they create a social club. In October 1955, eight women — four couples — met to provide each other with a social outlet. One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal. Although unsure of how exactly to proceed with the group, they began to meet regularly, realized they should be organized, and quickly elected Martin as president. From the start they had a clear focus to educate other women about lesbians, and reduce their self-loathing brought on by the socially repressive times. As the DOB gained members, their focus shifted to providing support to women who were afraid to come out. The DOB educated them about their rights, and about gay history.
Soon after forming, the DOB wrote a mission statement that addressed the most significant problem Martin and Lyon had faced as a couple: the complete lack of information about female homosexuality in what historian Martin Meeker termed, “the most fundamental journey a lesbian has to make.” When the club realized they were not allowed to advertise their meetings in the local newspaper, Lyon and Martin, who both had backgrounds in journalism, began to print a newsletter to distribute to as many women as the group knew. In October 1956 it became The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S. and one of the first to publish statistics on lesbians, when they mailed surveys to their readers in 1958 and 1964. Martin was the first president and Lyon became the editor of The Ladder.
By 1959 there were chapters of the DOB in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island along with the original chapter in San Francisco. Upon arrival at a meeting, attendees would be greeted at the door. In a show of good faith, the greeter would say, “I’m —. Who are you? You don’t have to give me your real name, not even your real first name.”
The DOB advertised itself as “A Woman’s Organization for the purpose of Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society.” The statement was composed of four parts that prioritized the purpose of the organization, and it was printed on the inside of the cover of every issue of The Ladder until 1970
“Education of the variant…to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society…this to be accomplished by establishing…a library…on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions…to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
Education of the public…leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices…
Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
Investigation of the penal code as it pertain to the homosexual, proposal of changes,…and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.”
New York chapter president Barbara Gittings noted that the word “variant” was used instead of “lesbian” in the mission statement, because “lesbian” was a word that had a very negative meaning in 1956
The Daughters of Bilitis endured for 14 years, becoming an educational resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers and mental health professionals. Dozens of other lesbian and feminist organizations were created in the wake of the Daughters of Bilitis, which is recognized as the first organization to success in linking hundreds of lesbians across the country with one another and gathering them into a network of support, socialization, and education mediated through print.