The Women of Color Behind the Daughters of Bilitis

Remembering the two women of color who co-founded one of the earliest lesbian rights organizations

[Photo: Members of the Daughters of Bilitis around 1956. On the far left is Del Martin; on the far right is Phyllis Lyon.]

In 1894, French poet Pierre Louÿs published a collection of erotic poetry called The Songs of Bilitis, claiming that they were translations of Greek poems written by Bilitis, a female contemporary of Sappho’s. (Yes, that Sappho.) But although Sappho was real, Bilitis was not; Louÿs invented her. The poems were his, and they depicted Bilitis’s sexual relationships with women frankly and erotically. Here’s an excerpt:

She entered, and passionately, with half-closed eyes, she joined her lips with mine, and our tongues knew each other. . . Never in my life had there been a kiss like that.

She stood against me, amorous and willing. Little by little my knee rose between her warm thighs, which spread as though receptive to a lover.

The Songs of Bilitis was reprinted in an English collection of Louÿs’ work in 1955, the same year that a social club for lesbians was organized in San Francisco. They called themselves the Daughters of Bilitis—a deliberately obscure name, understood only by those who had heard of Louÿs’ fake Sapphic poetry.

The two most famous co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) are Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a couple who began their relationship in 1953 but were not legally married until 2008, after the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage within the state. Gavin Newsom, who was then the Mayor of San Francisco, officiated at their wedding.

In the fifty years of their relationship, Del and Phyllis became well-known advocates for lesbian and gay rights. It’s understandable that their fame has eclipsed the other founding members of the DOB, which include two women of color: Rose Bamberger, who was Filipina; and a Chicana woman named Mary, whose surname has been lost.

Although the idea for the DOB came from Rose, she didn’t last long as a member, and departed within six months. It’s not clear how long Mary remained a member. In Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement, Marcia M. Gallo describes a nascent organization that had a difficult first year. Members’ goals differed, and fractures occurred along race, class, and gender lines. Those fractures have continued to divide the queer community to this day.

In the Beginning

Rose Bamberger was a young Filipina woman in a relationship with a white woman named Rosemary Sliepen, and Rose really loved to dance. But although San Francisco in the 1950s had a lively gay nightclub scene, same-sex couples could not dance together in public. Additionally, gay bars were subject to police raids, sometimes triggered by undercover cops who posed as gay men or lesbians in order to entrap queer people. Going out to a gay club was dangerous.

So Rose had an idea: Why not start a social club for lesbians, in which they could gather together in each other’s private homes and dance? This would allow them to avoid those police raids.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon became involved when a friend of Rose’s reached out to them and asked if they’d be interested in joining a group like this. At the time, Del and Phyllis had been finding it difficult to meet other lesbians. Although they went to the gay bars, they didn’t enjoy the scene, which they felt was cliquish. In an interview with Nan Alamilla Boyd for the book Wide Open Town: A Queer History of San Francisco to 1965, Del explains, “We did not know how to mix with them. We felt like tourists.”

According to Gallo:

“Phyllis Lyon vividly remembers the phone call from Rose in September 1955, ‘when she said, “Would you like to be a part of the group of six of us that are putting together a secret society for lesbians?”’ Lyon raises her voice as she tells the story. ‘We said, “YES!!” Because we would immediately know five more lesbians and we did, which was ... AMAZING.’”

The women held their first official meeting on Friday night, September 21, 1955, with four couples in attendance: Rose and her partner Rosemary; Noni Frey and her partner Mary; Marcia Foster and her partner June; and Del and Phyllis.

They agreed to create an application card that restricted applicants to being over 21, in order to avoid any accusations of contributing to the delinquency of minors. (Juvenile delinquency was an issue that was much in the news at the time.) They decided that new members must be “Gay girl[s] of good moral character,” and that although the club was for women, men would be allowed on certain occasions. They also agreed that the club’s colors would be blue and gold, that they’d have a motto, Qui vive (“on the alert”), and that the name of the group would be the Daughters of Bilitis.

Del Martin became the first DOB president; Noni Frey its vice president. Phyllis Lyon was the secretary, and Rosemary Sliepen the treasurer. Marcia Foster was designated as a trustee. Rose and Mary, the two women of color, did not appear to be granted an official club role.

[Photo: The Daughters of Bilitis membership card for the San Francisco chapter.]

Fractures

The founding members’ initial plans soon ran into problems. At the October 19, 1955, meeting, three women arrived in men’s clothing. This apparently made other DOB members uncomfortable due to the stigma against cross-dressing, which was enforced by police. In Wide Open Town, Del recalls: 

“We always heard the story that you had to wear at least three items of clothing of your own sex, and it does seem that the police were concerned about cross-dressing, that was a big thing. I guess that was the way that could identify us, you know. And that’s how we could identify ourselves. Probably the reason for dressing butch was to let you know, ‘Here I am! I want to meet some of you.’ We didn't have many ways of finding each other. It was very difficult. So they pegged onto that because that was all the cops could figure out about us.”

Although Del’s belief that lesbians were “dressing butch” in order to meet other lesbians was probably true for some, for other people, cross-dressing was about much more than clothes. Butch was an identity. 

Today we have many terms that can describe gender nonconforming and transgender identities, including butch. In the 1950s, however, the language around gender was not as expansive, and gender was thoroughly policed by the police. Cross-dressing in public could land a person in jail. Additionally, butchness was linked with being working class. Middle-class women were expected to conform to gender norms. (There were altogether different standards for the wealthy elite; see Radclyffe Hall.)

By November, as recorded in the DOB minutes, the founders decided that “if slacks are worn they must be women’s slacks.” This meant that the DOB was already aiming for middle-class respectability, and probably stoked the belief among some in the working-class gay bar scene that the DOB was not for them.

A second fracture soon erupted over the goals of the DOB itself. Rose Bamberger, the originator of the club, wanted to focus on private social events only. Some of the others wanted to mix socializing with public action that would support integrating queer people into mainstream society. 

This disagreement was the cause of the first major break in the group, which occurred within the first few months of its existence.

Here are Del and Phyllis describing this split in Wide Open Town:

D.M.: When Daughters of Bilitis started, there were eight of us. There were four blue-collar workers and four, you know, white-collar workers.

P.L.: It simply—

D.M.: And the thing was that it split when we decided that we wanted to see more happen than just social, you know, parties and so on. The split was on the part of the blue-collar workers because they wanted to really stay under cover. They did not want to get involved in anything more, it was just like a—

P.L.: —ceremony and stuff.

D.M.: —ceremonial.

P.L.: Investitures. Ceremonies. A lodge kind of thing.

D.M.: A sorority thing or something. And the Filipino woman whose idea was it, the club, she just wanted to have parties and dance. You couldn’t dance in the bars then.

The goal of advocating for lesbian and gay rights was obviously an admirable one, and today’s LGBTQ movement owes a lot to early activists like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. And yet the DOB’s decision to foreground that activity over building connections outside the harsh glare of the public sphere reveals a number of failures of awareness. Although white, middle class, cisgender lesbians certainly faced plenty of bigotry in the 1950s, those who were non-white, working class, and gender non-conforming faced additional hurdles.

Rose Bamberger and the other “blue-collar workers” were seeking a safe space. Even if white middle-class lesbians could become integrated into mainstream society—as the DOB hoped—those who were marginalized due to their race, class, and gender expression would still be excluded. It’s not surprising that Rose didn’t stick around.

Whose Community?

About a year after that first meeting, the DOB had reorganized and found its footing. Boyd explains that like other early homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society, which was for gay men, the DOB was “engaged in an assimilationist project of social uplift—they used the language of integration and, at times, expressed disdain for the queer and gender-transgressive qualities of bar-based communities.”

One of the ways the DOB furthered its project was through launching a newsletter called The Ladder in November 1956. It reached thousands of lesbians across the country, and was published until 1972. 

The DOB expanded from its San Francisco roots, establishing local chapters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island by 1959. It held its first national convention in 1960, and the 1962 convention was even broadcast on television. In 1966, the DOB was involved in anti-war demonstrations in several cities.

In Wide Open Town, Del Martin recalls: 

“People say, ‘Well, why weren’t you out there picketing and doing all this in the ‘50s?’ Well, hell, you can’t have a movement until you’ve got yourself ... People need to have a sense of self-worth to fight for. What we were trying to do at that time is survive. What we were trying to do is build a sense of community, among those of us who could, that gave us self-esteem and gave us a sense of our own individual power—and then our power as a group. ... You have to build a sense of community within your group before you can do anything else.”

In the 1950s, “your group” meant white, middle-class, gender conforming, cis women. The struggle to expand the definition of “your group” has continued to this day within the queer community.

To their credit, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have never said they were the original founders of the DOB. In a 1995 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, Lyon wrote:

“We are erroneously given credit as the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco in 1955. It wasn’t even our idea. A young Filipina immigrant envisioned a club for lesbians here in the States that would give us an opportunity to meet and socialize (and especially to dance) outside of the gay bars that were frequently raided by police. Meeting in each others’ homes provided us with privacy and a sense of safety from the police and gawking tourists in the bars. Personally, our motivation was simply to meet other lesbians. There were eight of us in the beginning: four couples, four blue-collar and four white-collar workers, two lesbian mothers, and two women of color.”

It’s a lot easier to reduce the story of the Daughters of Bilitis to two famous white women founders than to tell the more complicated story. But it’s up to us to remember these complications—not only with the DOB, but with all of queer history.

Let’s remember that Mary, the Chicana woman whose surname has been lost, and Rose Bamberger, who came up with the idea in the first place, were there at the beginning. Imagine how many other women of color were part of the LGBTQ rights movement and have since been forgotten or erased. We need to remember them.


My Writing Diary

The protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's murder and in support of Black Lives Matter has meant that in recent days, I've been focused more on the real world than the fictional one I'm supposed to be creating. Writers deal with distractions all the time, but this is much more than a distraction. I'm trying to incorporate reality and also make space for creativity. It's an ongoing process.


Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.