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  • Lesbians Are from Lesbos: Sappho and Identity Construction in The Ladder
  • Jody Valentine (bio)

The Daughters of Bilitis, a small lesbian club in San Francisco, typed, mimeographed, and distributed 100 copies of the first issue of their monthly newsletter in October 1956, inaugurating the sixteen-year run of The Ladder.1 Brian O’Brien, a member of the DOB, provided an illustration to decorate the cover of the first issue (see fig. 1). In the drawing, which wraps around the newsletter from back to front, a line of women approaches and begins to ascend a ladder through fluffy white clouds toward an appealingly lofty but invisible destination. One imagines that the women in the drawing are following each other up the ladder because they are striving for something new, something better, but something unknown and even difficult to conceive. Inspired by O’Brien’s drawing, the Daughters chose to name their publication The Ladder (Gallo 2006, 25).2 The image and the name were well-suited to the group and its publication, whose history shows lesbians leading lesbians out of past obscurity, out from the secrecy and isolation of the present, and into the hoped-for future of a latter day Lesbos, where they were to create a community of lesbians (and enjoy a lover named Sappho along the way).

In 1955, four lesbian couples, including now well-known social activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, formed the DOB as a social club that met in the members’ homes. The group initially intended to create a safe space to gather—to dance, to chat, and hopefully to meet more lesbians—away from the risks of the gay bar scene.3 They describe the formation of their organization in a welcoming address published on the opening pages of the first issue of The Ladder:

Just one year ago the Daughters of Bilitis was formed. Eight women gathered together with a vague idea that something should be done about the problems of Lesbians, both within their own group and with the public. The original idea was mainly that of providing an outlet for social activities, but with discussion came broader purposes and the club was formed with a much wider scope than that originally envisioned. [End Page 143] The eight charter members, with a constitution, by-laws and a name, started out to find more members.

(October 1956, 1–2)

A newsletter was not initially part of their plan, but within a year the motivated members of the DOB decided to publish The Ladder in order to bring an extended community of lesbians in, as well as to project positive representations of lesbians out.4 At the time, there were only fifteen Daughters.

Their welcoming address quotes DOB President Del Martin’s exclamation that “the Lesbian is a very elusive creature” and clarifies their aims in distributing a newsletter:

We are sending this first issue to you with our compliments in order to acquaint you with our organization and the work we are doing. . . . This newsletter we hope will be a force in uniting women in working for the common goal of greater personal and social acceptance and understanding. . . . It is to be hoped that our venture will encourage women to take an ever increasing part in the steadily-growing fight for understanding of the homophile minority.

(October 1956, 1–3)

The Daughters of Bilitis published the first issues of The Ladder as a newsletter closely tied to the local members and their activities in San Francisco. Soon, however, The Ladder was used to help the San Francisco Daughters find new readers and members outside of the Bay Area. On the covers and in the pages of The Ladder, the Daughters pursued their effort to create positive images of lesbians for lesbians as well as for the outside world. The Ladder’s representations of lesbian experience filled a significant void,5 and its readership grew steadily. By 1959, the Daughters distributed over 500 copies of The Ladder each month throughout the United States and beyond; by 1960, chapters of the DOB had sprung up in New York and Los Angeles. The Daughters of Bilitis had become the first national lesbian organization in...


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pp. 143-169
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