In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • "To Strive for Economic and Social Justice":Welfare, Sexuality, and Liberal Politics in San Francisco in the 1960s
  • Jonathan Bell (bio)

In the mid-1960s, a group of Democratic politicians and welfare policy advocates used a major expansion of the welfare state in California to widen the reach of the party's electoral coalition and to set the stage for the identity politics of the 1970s and beyond. The coming to power of a liberal Democratic administration in California in 1958 heralded a period of social policy experimentation that, in conjunction with the increasing power of a left-liberal movement within the party, provided welfare experts and politicians with the political language through which they would later expand the boundaries of what constituted normative social behavior in areas such as sexuality and individual freedoms. This article explores how liberal politicians like Phil Burton of San Francisco joined with welfare rights lobbyists and bureaucrats to embrace late twentieth-century notions of sexual and gender equality though a broader reconception of economic equality brought about by the expansion of the California welfare state in the early 1960s. These politicians leapt into a local political milieu dominated by individual personalities and cliques in which there was space for a new generation of political entrepreneurs who used appeals to the socially marginalized to help them challenge existing power structures. At the same time, homophile activists were seeking to tie their sexual equality agenda to mainstream political debates over economic and social citizenship. A study of how mainstream liberal politics and the sexual equality movement interacted in San Francisco in a period of rapid social and political change sheds light on the processes [End Page 193] through which mainstream politics adapted to changing conceptions of society, including attitudes toward welfare and the "deserving" poor, sexuality, individual rights, and the regulation of capitalism, often before the generally accepted shift in social attitudes in the later 1960s.

Historians who have focused in recent years on welfare politics in the postwar years have tended to stress the inability of liberal politicians to surmount corporate and conservative obstacles to any expansion of the welfare state.1 These studies all take the weakness of a leftist tradition in the United States as a given, whereas I will argue that the ability of liberals to reconfigure their ideological worldview in the 1960s set the stage for policies predicated on a new vision of American society that presaged the emergence of identity politics later in the century. There is also a rich literature charting the emergence of a gay rights movement in the United States and specifically in San Francisco, though this tends to focus on the internal workings of the movement and represents the state mainly as an organ of harassment and repression prior to the 1970s.2 In this article, I ask how homophile activists and mainstream liberal politicians in the City by the Bay sought political power and influence using similar ideological appeals to social rights in order to effect a major transformation of the city's political scene between the late 1950s and the 1960s. Though I give due attention to the important themes of the lobbying know-how of California homophile activists and to the particular urban political geography of San Francisco, the principal focus of this article is the use of a shared language of social and economic citizenship that united welfare rights specialists and San Francisco gay rights activists, and that provided the latter with an entrée into straight, and mostly Democratic, politics before sexual rights per se became accepted in mainstream party politics in the early 1970s.

It is true that San Francisco was in many ways unique, as the newly founded Society for Individual Rights' secretary Mark Forrester noted in a letter to members in November 1964: "Due to peculiarities in San Francisco—size, population, political structure and its long history of accepting the unique—the homosexual living here has a good chance to do something particularly effective for himself."3 San Francisco provided a well-established network of gay and lesbian activists, a large number of gay-friendly meeting places, and local politicians used to community politics and a rich variety...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 193-225
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.