The Daughters of Bilitis was one of the first lesbian organizations to be established. The group was founded in 1955. The name came from a collection of poems written by Pierre Louÿs called Songs of Bilitis.
Before the group was established, there were limited opportunities for lesbians to meet other lesbians. Lesbians often were victims of discrimination and public hostility.
Goals and Achievements
Though originally unsure about how the group would function, they continued to meet and eventually elected Martin as the group's president. Their main goal was to educate other women about lesbians and reduce their own self-hatred triggered by the social repression around them. Originally a social group, similar to The Mattachine Society, the group slowly adopted more political goals. The groups activities included hosting public forums on homosexuality, offering support to isolated, married, mothering lesbians, and participating in research activities.
One of the priorities of the founding members was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal. While there were lesbian bars at the time, they were often subject to police raids and general harrasment. Martin and Lyon recalled later:
"Women needed privacy...not only from the watchful eye of the police, but from gaping tourists in the bars and from inquisitive parents and families."
The Daughters of Bilitis later published a journal called "The Ladder" as a form of communication between those in the group and the community. In 1956, they began to publish their mission statement inside the cover of the magazine:
- 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.
The namesake of the group, Bilitis, was a female character who was romantically associated with Sappho, the female Greek lyric poet, who is still a famous symbol of lesbians today. The founders believed that the name was both subtle and communicative, as knowledgable lesbians would understand it's meaning but the general public would remain unaware.
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian couple, had been together for 3 years when they complained to a gay couple that they didn't know any other lesbians. This couple introduced them to another lesbian couple. One of the women, Rose Bamberger, suggested that they start a private social club, and that would be the start of the Daughters of Bilitis.
Hosted in the home of Rose and her partner Rosemary, the first meeting consisted of Rose Bamberger and Rosemary Sliepen, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Marcia Foster and her partner June, as well as Noni Frey and her partner Mary.
Controversy at the End
In 1970, the Daughters of Bilitis disbanded due to organizational problems, disagreements about aligning themselves with homophile organizations composed predominantly of gay men, and supporting the growing feminist movement. Younger members were more sparked by confrontational methods of protest, while older members didn't agree with this stance.