Women we love: The Daughters of Bilitis

The first organisation to fight for civil and political rights for lesbians.

Women we love: The Daughters of Bilitis

Sometimes referred to simply as DOB, the Daughters of Bilitis was the first lesbian civil and political rights organisation in the United States.

Formed in San Francisco in 1955, the DOB was conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which at that time were subject to raids and police harassment.

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 queer history.

The DOB operated for 14 years, and was recognised as a key educational resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers, and health professionals.

What led to the establishment of the Daughters of Bilitis?

In 1950, the US State Department declared homosexuals to be a security risk. This is because people who were having same-sex encounters were – fairly accurately – seen as being vulnerable to blackmail. This was in the midst of the post-war political environment when the Cold War was at its height and anyone who was slightly non-conformist was held in suspicion.

As a result of the identification of homosexuals as a security risk, the systemic discrimination and repression of LGBTQ people quickly escalated. Queer people were dismissed from employment in any federal, state or local government jobs, new discriminatory laws were enacted, and police raids on queer bars increased.

In 1955, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon – two women who had been together for a number of years – decided to start a social club for women in San Francisco. Eight women attended the first event. One of the main objectives was that they wanted to have somewhere to dance – at that time, it was illegal for two women to dance together in a public place.

The group began to meet regularly and soon began to formalise their organisation. Del Martin was elected as the first President.

As well as creating opportunities for women to dance together, the organisation also focused on educate women about sexuality, and countering the self-loathing often triggered by the prevailing social repression.

Why did they call themselves the Daughters of Bilitis?

Bilitis is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho – it comes from the work of the French poet Pierre Louÿs in his 1894 work The Songs of Bilitis in which Bilitis lived on the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho.

The name – which was adopted at the second meeting of the group – was deliberately chosen for its obscurity. It was designed to sound like it might be a poetry club, or something equally innocuous.

How did the Daughters of Bilitis become a national organisation?

By 1959, chapters of the DOB had also been established in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island.

To help communicate to members and potential members, the DOB began publishing a newsletter – The Ladder. This was the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the US.

From 1960, the DOB held a national convention every two years.

What was the connection between the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society?

Formed in 1950, the Mattachine Society was a homophile movement – an organisation of gay men. The focus of the Mattachine Society was to convince wider society that gay men were not a threat and should be assimilated into day-to-day life.

The DOB followed a similar strategy, pushing for acceptance and assimilation rather than any radical or revolutionary agenda.

What led to the end of the Daughters of Bilitis?

There’s a number of factors that are likely to have contributed to the end of the organisation.

Changes in the organisation’s leadership came at a time when there was a growing appetite for more radical political action. There was an increasing tension between the focus on assimilation – that had been the foundation of the organisation – and a push for an embrace of feminism and a rejection of conformity.

The Stonewall Riots of 1969 marked a new era in LGBTQ identity, consciousness, and aspirations for equality.

By 1970, the DOB had officially folded.

The DOB may be no more, but it played an essential role in helping to organise women and build an identity as to what it means to be a queer woman.