"The Ladder: A Lesbian Review
An Interpretation and Document Archive

Introduction by Marcia M. Gallo,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
September 2010

The Ladder was the glue that kept us together. Whatever other differences there were . . . and there were many among us . . . getting the magazine out gave us a reason for working together that was bigger than ourselves.[1]


   Initially envisioned as a recruitment tool for a new gay women's group in San Francisco, The Ladder was the first ongoing monthly publication in the U.S. created by lesbians for lesbians. Launched in October 1956 by the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), it would attract new members to the struggling social club; at the same time, it added an important female voice to the small, male-dominated homophile ("love of same") movement of the mid-1950s. During its sixteen years of continuous publication, The Ladder also became a respected site of debate and analysis for the growing gay movement while expanding contemporary attitudes about lesbians and reflecting adamantly pro-woman perspectives. In its final years, from 1968 to 1972, The Ladder promoted the ideologies and activism of the emerging feminist movement as well as showcasing demands for lesbian liberation.

   As an important full-text addition to Women and Social Movements, The Ladder is reproduced in three segments, each highlighting the magazine's development and growth as well as the evolution of two significant modern movements for gender and sexual freedom. These particular segments of The Ladder--singly and together--provide researchers with valuable primary source materials on women's activism a decade before the resurgence of a mass women's movement in the U.S. while chronicling the creation of modern lesbian identities, communities, and institutions. The content as well as the images found in The Ladder contribute to a deeper understanding of women's organizing in general in the post-World War II period; in particular, The Ladder supports assessments of the mid-1950s as a complicated time of nascent civil rights struggles that included gender and sexuality as well as race and economic status. It gives voice to those relatively unknown women in a handful of U.S. cities and internationally who were committed to gender equality and integration; at the same time, it shows how the Daughters utilized a strategically separatist framework in their same-sex outreach and organizing efforts.

   The first segment gives researchers access to The Ladder's initial publication year, from October 1956 to October 1957, as it emerged into the still-tiny network of homophile groups under the editorship of DOB co-founder Phyllis Lyon in San Francisco. The second segment includes selected Ladder issues from October 1964 to August 1966, when New York DOB co-founder Barbara Gittings guided its growth and development as a respected magazine from her home in Philadelphia at a time when homophiles were refashioning themselves as gay rights activists. The third and final segment brings researchers into the ferment of women's liberation, from April/May 1970 to the final issue in August/September 1972, when longtime Ladder contributor and Kansas City librarian Barbara Grier positioned the magazine as a center for lesbian feminist news, critiques, literature and art. One of the noteworthy aspects of the collection is the continuity of purpose and presentation reflected in The Ladder's pages despite the wide-ranging geographic locations, as well as political perspectives, of its editors.

   As DOB's organizational newsletter, The Ladder disseminated information about meetings and social events to women and men in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond. It helped the Daughters appeal for funds and volunteers, reported on national homophile conventions, and advertised activities organized by local DOB chapters. From its inception, the production and distribution of the monthly magazine also was the central activity of the Daughters; its creation and production required many hours of work on a monthly basis which drew upon the administrative skills of women in DOB's hometown of San Francisco as well as in the group's larger chapter cities in Los Angeles and New York. Working on The Ladder provided a sense of purpose to the organization as a whole as well as giving its members, as the epigram above noted, "a reason for working together that was bigger than ourselves."

   More than 100 complimentary copies of the first issue were printed and mailed to friends, friends of friends, and "professional women" (lawyers, doctors, business owners) listed in the San Francisco phone book as well as to researchers like the team working with Alfred Kinsey at Indiana University. As news of The Ladder spread, DOB began to receive letters of support as well as small donations; one reader "sent eight packages containing about 6000 duplistickers for use in mailing The Ladder," Phyllis Lyon remembered in 2001. "We had difficulty keeping up with the mail that was pouring in." Subscriptions at first were $1.00 per year; in June 1957 rates went up to $2.50. "By December (1957) we had 55 members and 400 subscribers," she reported.[2] Historian Martin Meeker notes an increase to 750 copies distributed in 1960; by 1964, nearly 1,000 copies were mailed out per issue.[3] When editor Barbara Grier stopped publishing The Ladder in 1972, it had a mailing list of nearly 4,000. However, circulation numbers for The Ladder are difficult to quantify; the magazine's reach far exceeded that of the organization. In the early 1960s, in addition to subscriptions, the magazine was sold on newsstands and in bookstores in select cities throughout the U.S.; verifiable records of such sales are extremely limited. Further, nearly every former DOB member or Ladder reader remembers "handing around" the magazine to lovers, friends, roommates and co-workers, thus making actual readership numbers nearly impossible to ascertain. Yet it is undeniable that the little magazine had a big impact.

   While it continued to play a central organizational role in DOB until 1970, The Ladder evolved into a respected publication subtitled "A Lesbian Review" as it grew from mimeographed newsletter to increasingly sophisticated, professionally printed magazine. The Ladder became a magnet for intelligent, well-read people, both homosexual and heterosexual, within and beyond the Daughters of Bilitis. It drew on the gifts and generosity of talented artists, editors, essayists, novelists, poets, and photographers. Its mailing list also grew to include subscribers throughout the world, from Canada to the United Kingdom; from Germany and Scandinavia to Australia, Japan, and Indonesia. The Ladder enabled the start of a virtual transnational lesbian community in the 1960s.

   The magazine helped advance and create lesbian visibility at a time when it was rare to find portrayals of gay women beyond the stereotypes of sadistic schoolteachers or sex-starved co-eds. It worked to create, and in some ways succeeded in shaping, images of "the lesbian" as wholesome, attractive, well-schooled and well-scrubbed. The Daughters of Bilitis consciously utilized The Ladder to present a portrait of a carefully-constructed, clean-cut Lesbian Everywoman. Her various and multifaceted portrayals on the magazine's covers--alone or with others--meant that alternative, and self-referencing, views of lesbians were available for the first time to the general public.

   Such is the power of the press. For many scholars of the period, the creation of a lesbian and gay publishing network was one of the most significant achievements of the pre-gay liberation homophile activists.[4] For the Daughters of Bilitis, The Ladder was a practical necessity as well as a stunning success, so much so that when it was severed from the organization, DOB could no longer exist as a national entity. Neither could The Ladder.

Constructing the base for The Ladder

Vice Versa

   The Ladder was not the first American lesbian magazine. That distinction belongs to a newsletter produced in 1947 in Los Angeles by a young aspiring writer named Lisa Ben (a pseudonym she created from "lesbian"). Ben had relocated to Los Angeles from her home in the San Francisco Bay area during World War II and was introduced to the homosexual social scene there by a friend who asked her if she was gay. According to a 2002 interview, Ben "thought she was being asked if she was happy." Her positive response led her friend to include her in an evening spent at a local club, "where Lisa noticed that the men and women were in separate areas." She discovered the alternate meaning of "gay" as well as her own attraction to other women.[5]

   As a newcomer, Ben observed that while there were magazines available for nearly every interest group, there were none for gay women. While employed by RKO movie studio, the 26-year-old typist had enough freedom during her working hours to read the Hollywood entertainment news as well as record her own observations of the gay social milieu she was beginning to enjoy. In June 1947, she began a newsletter named VICE VERSA, writing up her own thoughts and experiences with a flippant spin on the "kind of love that was thought of as a vice" as well as copying relevant news items and movie industry gossip. Despite free time at the office, however, she carefully hid her work on the newsletter; her caution led Ben not only to write and publish VICE VERSA anonymously, but also to type originals with carbon copies rather than using the still-laborious but much faster mimeographing process. Not trusting the mail, she handed out copies to women she met at gay bars and restaurants.

   In the first issue, she announced that VICE VERSA was "a magazine dedicated, in all seriousness, to those of us who will never quite be able to adapt ourselves to the iron-bound rules of Convention." Despite a positive response from the women who received it, however, the February 1948 issue was the last. Ben lost her position at RKO; further, the tediousness and isolation of the work on VICE VERSA frustrated her and she never found a group of women with whom it could be shared. The discovery of a community of lesbians who would regularly produce a magazine came later--ten years later. When the Daughters of Bilitis formed a chapter in Los Angeles in 1958, Lisa Ben was one of its first members.[6]

The Women of ONE Magazine

   Los Angeles also was the site in 1953 of the founding of ONE magazine, created by a small group of gay men who had helped start the first homophile group in the U.S., the Mattachine Foundation, later renamed the Mattachine Society. Inspired by the masqueraded all-male troupes of late medieval France, Mattachine was founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and four other men including the designer Rudi Gernreich (creator of the bikini bathing suit, among other daring fashion trends of the 1950s and 1960s) and conceived as a secret organization that would bring information and education to "the gay public." Mattachine spread slowly at first, establishing small, affiliated groups in San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Chicago by 1953. In October 1952, a group of Los Angeles members broke away from the organization to form a new group with the purpose of publishing a magazine. The first issue of ONE, edited by Dale Jennings, appeared in January 1953. According to cultural anthropologist C. Todd White, "ONE Magazine launched against the winds of culture. Through its thought-provoking essays, daring social commentary, and sharp, consistent design, ONE tacked its way into history."[7]

   ONE attracted a handful of talented women, including Irma "Corky" Wolf ("Ann Carll Reid"), Joan Corbin ("Eve Elloree"), and Stella Rush ("Sten Russell"). When the Daughters of Bilitis was formed in 1955, the women involved with ONE helped publicize its existence in their magazine. Stella Rush became the "Los Angeles correspondent" for The Ladder in 1957. She also was instrumental in founding the Los Angeles chapter of DOB the following year.

   Born in Los Angeles in 1925, Rush made southern California her home for most of her life despite periods of time spent in Kentucky with her mother's family and in Berkeley, California, where she attended the University of California. She remembers meeting DOB co-founder Phyllis Lyon when both women were involved with UC Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Californian. "But Phyllis was a wheel . . . an editor for the paper," and didn't remember their first meeting. Rush returned to Los Angeles before completing her coursework and attended UCLA. She maintained a connection to the Unitarian Church begun in Berkeley because the Church was extremely liberal and welcomed all sorts of "rebels," as she saw herself. In Los Angeles, she often relaxed after church meetings with women friends at the gay club nearby, the If Club, and gradually accepted herself as a lesbian. A relationship with an older woman brought her to the group of gay men and women who had started ONE Magazine. Rush published her first article in the magazine in 1954, "Letter to a Newcomer," about rejecting the lies and deceptions regarding one's sexuality in order to earn a living or "just to get along in society." She longed for the day when she could be completely open and honest about herself and, despite her reliance on a pen name, devoted a good part of her life to the lesbian and gay rights movement as a writer, reporter, editor, bookkeeper, and organizer.[8]

   Reporting on a homophile conference in Los Angeles in 1957, Rush met then-DOB president Helen Sandoz, who used the pseudonym Helen Sanders and was known as "Sandy." Sandoz had been involved with the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco since its first year of existence and was its second president. In addition to serving as The Ladder's fourth editor from 1966 to 1968, she contributed artwork and articles from the earliest days of publication. She also helped type and mail newsletters from Los Angeles after she relocated there in 1958. Sandoz was one of a handful of determined women who helped get The Ladder off the ground.[9]

Erecting The Ladder

   From its first issue in October 1956, The Ladder relied on the commitment of the five women who were its editors during its sixteen years--Phyllis Lyon (1956-1960), Del Martin (1960-1963), Barbara Gittings (1963-1966), Helen Sandoz (1966-1968), and Barbara Grier (1968-1972)--as well as the thousands of hours of labor donated by its members and, starting in the mid-1960s, regular $3,000 checks from a wealthy closeted admirer.[10]

   As the first editor of the new publication, Phyllis Lyon put an indelible stamp on The Ladder, literally and figuratively. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1924, Lyon spent her teenage years in the Bay area and majored in journalism at UC Berkeley. Despite having had the opportunity to interview her idol, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, on assignment with a Chico, California newsletter in 1949, Lyon quickly tired of writing for "the women's pages" in California newspapers. She moved to Seattle to serve as associate editor of a construction trade magazine and there met Del Martin, who had grown up in San Francisco. They became lovers and moved "home" to an apartment on Castro Street in San Francisco in 1953, establishing themselves in jobs and purchasing a home together. Their shared desire to form friendships with other lesbians led them to accept an invitation in September 1955 to help start a new secret club; the club, named after the mythical Bilitis, a female lover of Sappho, was launched as a way for lesbians to socialize that would go beyond the gay bars, restaurants, and nightclubs in the Bay area. Although DOB started independently, it soon interacted with the two other homophile groups then in existence; Lyon and Martin went south to attend ONE, Inc. conferences and soon DOB shared office space and programming with Mattachine's San Francisco chapter.

   Lyon always tried to maintain a careful balance between reportage and public relations, but from its first issue The Ladder was utilized primarily as a way to announce the existence of the women's group and recruit new members for the Daughters of Bilitis; secondarily, it was a source of information on homosexuality and the homophile movement. In keeping with its purpose as a newsletter, a Calendar of Events directed women toward parties, work nights, and other gatherings; reports from DOB and other homophile meetings provided summations of lectures and discussions. Although the first issues were not only typewritten but also mimeographed, soon the magazine was professionally printed, a measure of the seriousness with which the Daughters approached their new endeavor. Each issue of The Ladder from October 1956 to September 1957, which fluctuated from 14 to 31 pages, maintained the same cover art. Drawn by DOB member Brian O'Brien, the front cover featured two slender women, one in a dress and one in slacks and blouse, at the foot of a ladder reaching into the clouds above. On the back cover, four additional female figures are walking along a shoreline toward the two on the front cover. The slogan "from the city of many moods . . . San Francisco, California" spanned the back and front of the magazine, with DOB's organizational coat of arms shown in the lower right front corner. It was not until October 1957 that a stunning pen-and-ink drawing of a young white woman removing a mask, drawn by "Kay Somers," replaced O'Brien's artwork. From then on, the cover art of The Ladder varied wildly, from simple black-and-white images to sophisticated personal portraits, as it began to graphically reveal the range of artistic talents among the Daughters as well as the diversity of lesbians generally.

   Among the riches for researchers in the first year of publication are a number of features editor Lyon introduced that became mainstays of the magazine. DOB's Statement of Purpose, as well as a listing of organizational officers and newsletter staff, appeared at the front of the magazine; this continued in every issue thereafter. The Statement of Purpose never varied until The Ladder was severed from DOB in 1970, despite controversies over some of its language, especially a phrase found in the first provision. Under "Education of the variant," the Daughters asserted that "advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society" was part of their organizational mission. Although little protest is reported over the use of the less-than-flattering term "variant" (which was finally dropped by Helen Sandoz in 1967 and replaced with "Lesbian"), numerous letter writers from throughout the country--including soon-to-be-celebrated playwright Lorraine Hansberry in her first letter to The Ladder, printed in the May 1957 issue--wrote in to either support or challenge the necessity of lesbians making such "adjustments" to society. Hansberry's lengthy letter helped stimulate an impassioned debate over public representations by lesbians that extended for several issues.

   Readers' letters, despite being edited for brevity and clarity by every editor of The Ladder and sometimes created by contributors who also wrote articles for the magazine under different surnames, were printed in The Ladder starting with the second issue, and soon were grouped under the heading "Readers Respond." The hundreds of short compliments, complaints, and questions sent in by readers provide a treasure trove for researchers, as they provide first-person accounts of debates over issues of conformity and conventionality, motherhood and marriage, and many other issues that Ladder readers wrestled with in the late 1950s. Most often, due to privacy concerns, first and last initials were used to hide the identity of the letter writers; this shielded Ladder correspondents from possible unwanted exposure but also may have enabled them to be more direct in expressing their opinions.

   Despite such cautions, as well as the use of pseudonyms by many DOB members and Ladder contributors, the perceived need for secrecy regarding one's same-sex desires and the threat of repercussions from involvement in a lesbian organization were ever-present. One of the first public programs announced in the magazine was a series of discussions on "fear." In addition, the November 1956 issue featured an article headlined "Your Name Is Safe!" which reassured readers that "(d)onors to The Ladder include many people from the professions--lawyers, social workers, psychiatrists, businessmen--as well as the numerous individuals who are interested in the problem, either from a personal or intellectual standpoint." Reflecting the chill of Cold War McCarthyism, Lyon then noted that the group "is not outside the law" and analyzed a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (U.S. v. Rumely) that "upheld the right of a citizen to refuse to reveal the names of purchasers of reading material to a Congressional investigating committee." She also used her own reliance on a pseudonym as an object lesson. Although initially listed as editor Ann Ferguson on The Ladder's masthead, after three issues Lyon published a short article with the headline "Ann Ferguson Is Dead!" in boldface, bordered by heavy black lines. In it, she explained that she "killed Ann Ferguson" because she wanted to emphasize that being open about one's homosexuality was one of DOB's main goals; she felt she must act publically on her beliefs. She added that an additional reason for dropping her pseudonym was the fact that she could never get used to answering when someone called her "Ann." Despite her public example, however, most Daughters did not follow Lyon's lead and continued to rely on their "DOB names" when in print and, sometimes at meetings as well.[11]

   Another important section of The Ladder that Lyon began almost immediately and which provides excellent resources for researchers is "Lesbiana," the magazine's ongoing bibliography of lesbian literature. In the first issue, Lyon announced that such a feature would be forthcoming and by December 1956 ran the first book review--of "Homosexuals Today--1956" published by ONE, Inc. By March 1957, and continuing in every issue from then on, The Ladder featured a running list of lesbian fiction, nonfiction, drama and poetry; in August 1957, a letter from "G. D., Kansas City, Kansas" complimented Lyon on the inclusion of a bibliography and offered her services. Starting the following month, "Gene Damon" (the pseudonym most often used by Barbara Grier) reviewed and critiqued anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen books with lesbian themes or homosexual content every month--a singular contribution she continued to make to the magazine, and the lesbian and gay movement, until the early 1970s.

   After guiding the magazine through its first four years of growth and development, Lyon handed the editorial reins over to her life partner and DOB co-founder Del Martin in 1960. Martin expanded The Ladder's political coverage while still using the magazine to publicize the work of the Daughters. By 1963, she was eager to pass on the responsibilities to a longtime DOB leader and Ladder contributor well-known within the organization and the homophile movement for her ability to express her strong opinions not only verbally, but also in writing.

A Lesbian Review

   The second segment of The Ladder reproduced in Women and Social Movements brings researchers a wealth of images and content from the selected issues edited by New York DOB co-founder Barbara Gittings from October 1964 to July/August 1965, and from June 1966 to August 1966. This arguably is the best run of the magazine: it shows the groundbreaking inclusion of the subtitle "A Lesbian Review," as well as some of the pioneering original photographic portraits of lesbians featured on the magazine's covers, created by Gittings's co-editor and life partner Kay Tobin Lahusen, one of the gay rights movement's earliest activist photographers. Both of these "firsts"--the subtitle and the cover portraits--are extremely significant to the development of lesbian identities in the mid-'60s and to the increased visibility of the lesbian rights movement. So too were the subsidies of an anonymous donor, nicknamed "Pennsylvania" by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who worked through New York Chapter president Shirley Willer. She sent regular $3,000 cashier's checks to individual officers of DOB, who would then turn them over to the organization; in 1987, Willer estimated that each DOB chapter had received at least $6,000, in addition to the funds that were used to produce a good-looking publication. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have noted that, "(t)his boon made it possible to publish The Ladder on slick stock and make it the polished magazine we had all hoped for. With a more attractive format came manuscripts from some established authors."[12] Along with the expanded inclusion of nationally and internationally regarded authors of lesbian fiction and nonfiction, these developments helped catapult The Ladder to the forefront of gay literary and political publications. Although Gittings stabilized its size (now consistently 27 pages), and continued providing established sections such as "Lesbiana" and "Readers Respond," as well as carefully-selected essays and poetry, The Ladder changed radically during her editorship from 1963-66.

   Born in Vienna, Austria on 31 July 1932, Barbara Gittings spent her adolescence and adulthood mainly in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. She attended high school in Wilmington, Delaware; went to college for a year in Chicago and then moved to Philadelphia in 1950 at age 18. She was a voracious reader and particularly focused her self-directed studies on same-sex desire after being advised of her "homosexual inclinations" by a teacher. After reading The Homosexual in America in 1955, she contacted and then met with its author, Donald Webster Cory. She learned from him of the existence of homophile organizers in Los Angeles and San Francisco and traveled to the West Coast to meet them in 1956. She arrived at the DOB meeting in San Francisco the night they were discussing publishing The Ladder and became one of its early subscribers. Less than two years later, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin asked her to organize an East Coast chapter of the Daughters and Gittings teamed up with Marion Glass ("Meredith Grey") to do so in New York in 1958. For the next three years, Gittings traveled from her home in Philadelphia twice a month to New York to help lead meetings, plan activities, and produce a short chapter newsletter. In 1961, she answered a letter of inquiry to the chapter from Kay Lahusen (who assumed the name "Kay Tobin" in the gay movement) and soon after meeting at a DOB picnic they became friends and lovers. Together, they brought a determination to increase the availability of images of "real" lesbians, as well as wide-ranging artistic and literary sensibilities, to The Ladder.[13]

   When Gittings added the words "A Lesbian Review" to the cover in March 1964, it marked the first time that "lesbian" was used as part of the title of an ongoing, popularly available monthly American magazine. DOB appropriated what had been a salacious word, widely used in the 1950s and 1960s on the covers of sexy paperback novels featuring "women in the shadows" engaged in same-sex liaisons, a few of them written by DOB members like Valerie Taylor (Stranger on Lesbos, Return to Lesbos). There was a perceived need within DOB to overtly advertise The Ladder's focus, so when Gittings assumed the editorship with the October 1963 issue, she acted quickly. Initially, she included "lesbian" on the covers in blurbs for articles inside. The January 1964 cover announced, "In this issue: The Fourth Sex--The Lesbian," and the February 1964 cover promised, "In this issue: Lesbian Literature in '63." By October 1964, which is the first issue reproduced in the second segment of The Ladder in Women and Social Movements, the subtitle "A Lesbian Review" is distinct. Far more subdued are the words at the bottom of the cover, "for sale to adults only," which Gittings resented having to include and successfully eliminated by January 1965. It also was in 1965 that "A Lesbian Review" began to dominate the cover; by June 1966 the subtitle is darker, larger, and overshadows the title The Ladder itself. In this way, Gittings made visible the magazine's content and intended audience as the magazine was becoming more widely available at selected bookstores and newsstands in cities like San Francisco, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York as well as by subscription.

   The June 1966 cover, also reproduced here in the second segment, was groundbreaking in yet another aspect: it introduced an African American lesbian, Ernestine "Eckstein," who then was vice-president of DOB's New York chapter. She not only agreed to allow them to use her photograph as the cover portrait for that month's issue, but also freely engaged in a lengthy discussion with Gittings and Lahusen about her involvement in homophile activism, the civil rights movement, and her thoughts on how to move both forward, all of which were highlighted in the magazine. She called upon DOB to engage in more visible social action protests, such as picketing, but also urged they take "test cases" into courts of law like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had done. Her eight-page interview--edited down by Gittings from a multi-hour taping--revealed an intelligent, thoughtful, socially conscious and politically aware young woman who at that time was a leader in one of DOB's most active chapters. Her image on the cover, and her ideas throughout the pages of The Ladder, helped greatly to complicate notions of the kinds of women who were involved in DOB and expanded definitions of lesbian identity. Moreover, hers was the second cover portrait featuring a woman of color; in November 1964, The Ladder premiered the use of cover portraits of gay women by printing a photograph sent in by "Ger van Braam," an Indonesian lesbian who wrote the editors describing the realities of her life in Jakarta (also reproduced here). However, it is important not to overstate the magazine's racial inclusivity: despite the fact that DOB had an African American lesbian as its national president from 1963 to 1966, (Cleo Bonner, aka "Cleo Glenn"), she was never interviewed in The Ladder, and the cover portraits described here are the only two that featured known women of color in the magazine's sixteen years of publication. Reflecting a majority white membership in DOB, almost all of The Ladder's covers portrayed young white women, who usually were slender, somewhat athletic, and casually stylish as well.

   The Ladder under Gittings also promoted a growing international lesbian and gay network. For example, she featured Esme Langley, founder of the DOB-inspired Minorities Research Group in England, on the cover in January 1965; an article headlined "The Ladder Salutes ARENA THREE" celebrated the first anniversary of "our English counterpart...the only other magazine in the English-speaking realm which focuses on the lesbian."[14] The article ended with information on how Ladder readers could subscribe to Arena Three.

   However, over time Gittings was seen as much less effective by some Daughters when it came to promoting DOB activities; by many accounts, the final straw came when she missed important deadlines for registration and publicity for the organization's fourth biennial convention, held in San Francisco in 1966. By that time, Gittings and Lahusen were deeply involved with the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. and other homophile groups in organizing the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO), as well as a national homophile coalition; further, not only were they engaging in picketing at important federal sites in defiance of DOB policies, but they also were publicizing the roiling debates over gay rights protests in the pages of The Ladder. During the summer of 1966, Gittings was "fired" (or "relieved of her duties"); that year's August issue was her last. She and Lahusen quickly devoted themselves to other gay groups and activities. Gittings was instrumental in helping to open up the American Library Association to gay books and issues and Lahusen's ongoing photography provided a visual record of the growing gay rights movement.

   The Ladder then passed into the hands of DOB stalwart Helen Sandoz, who edited it from 1966 to 1968 from her home in Los Angeles. She returned it to its original purpose--that of organizational newsletter--yet maintained the expanded focus on lesbian fiction, nonfiction, and reviews established by her predecessors. She also got rid of the by-now anachronistic term, "the variant," in DOB's Statement of Purpose, which still was printed on the inside cover of every issue of The Ladder. Sandoz also began to increase the magazine's inclusion of reporting on women's issues, within and beyond the gay movement. But, she was producing the magazine almost single-handedly, despite the fact that Barbara Grier served as Assistant Editor from her home in Kansas City; Sandoz's partner Stella Rush also pitched in as much as she could but eventually Sandoz felt the burden of production was too heavy. She ultimately handed over the editorship to Grier at DOB's national convention near Denver in 1968, a small gathering marked by dissension over the future of DOB as a national organization.

"The Changing Scene"

   The third segment of The Ladder reproduced in Women and Social Movements captures the second half of Barbara Grier's editorship with selected issues from April/May to August/September 1970, and from April/May 1971 to December/January 1972; it ends with the magazine's final issue of August/September 1972. The third segment shows how the magazine increased in length (from 47 pages per issue in 1970, to 51 and 55 pages in 1971 and 1972) while shifting from a monthly to a bimonthly publishing schedule; more importantly, researchers can trace how The Ladder was used as a source as well as a springboard for new publications featuring feminist and lesbian feminist news, critiques, literature, and art. Most importantly, this segment incorporates the surprising "theft" of The Ladder by Grier and DOB's last national president, Rita LaPorte, in the early summer of 1970, and helps to trace the impact it had both on the magazine and on the organization.[15]

   This development came on the heels of a decentralization plan promoted by then-national DOB president Shirley Willer and her partner, New York DOB co-founder Marion Glass, in 1968. They were eager to create a "United Daughters of Bilitis" network that would link autonomous chapters rather than have DOB continue to function as a national organization governed by a board of officers who oversaw the local groups. The plan was debated at DOB's poorly attended 1968 biennial convention. After a contentious discussion, the few members present agreed to consider the proposal, but would not take action on it until the next national meeting, set for New York in 1970. Out of the confusion over the future of the organization--and uncertainty over its commitment to its only real asset, The Ladder--Grier and LaPorte decided to take action before the New York meeting. As President, LaPorte went to DOB's San Francisco office and removed materials relevant to the magazine (including copies of every issue, correspondence files, and some production tools); she then requested, and received, the magazine's address labels from the shop that printed and mailed out each issue. LaPorte took them to her home in Reno, Nevada; she and Grier planned to continue publishing The Ladder independently regardless of what decisions were made about DOB's future. This caused a crisis in the organization and played a crucial role in its demise as a national lesbian rights organization, all in the name of feminism. Researchers can probe the impact on the magazine of this rupture; what is clear is that, without the volunteer labor of chapter activists and the regular financial support provided by DOB's anonymous donor, the magazine could not survive for long. It lasted until 1972, when a new lesbian feminist publishing venture--Naiad Press--was announced to The Ladder's mailing list by Grier, along with her partner Donna McBride, author Anyda Marchant, and Muriel Crawford. For thirty years, Naiad successfully published lesbian literature, resuscitating out-of-print classics as well as launching new works.

   Barbara Grier justifiably can claim the record for longest continuing editorial involvement with The Ladder. Almost immediately after reading her first issue in 1957, she volunteered her considerable energies and her personal library of lesbian-themed books. Born 4 November 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio, she spent most of her life as a Midwesterner before relocating to Florida in 1980. Her family settled in Kansas City, Kansas when she was a teenager and she made Kansas City her home for more than thirty years. As a librarian there, she had the good fortune to meet women like science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley as well as the pioneering lesbian researcher and bibliographer Dr. Jeannette Howard Foster; it was through Bradley that she heard about The Ladder and began her fifteen-year involvement with it. Grier's investment in the magazine always was much more significant than her involvement with DOB. She contributed not only a monthly "Lesbiana" column--as well as annual collections of the books reviewed that year--but many other biographies, reviews, and stories under her pseudonyms "Gene Damon," "Vern Niven," "Lennox Strang" or "Lennon Strong," "B.G.," "H.B.," and others.[16]

   When she took over editorship of the magazine from Helen Sandoz in 1968, she intended "to turn The Ladder into, at least, the Atlantic Monthly of Lesbian thought."[17] Her first issue in August 1968 announced "The Changing Scene," the theme of DOB's 1968 biennial convention--the only one Grier ever attended. The cover, by Elizabeth Chandler, is done in the style of concert posters then popular in counterculture communities. In addition to a powerful personal and political reflection on the Vietnam War by expatriate author Jane Rule, the August 1968 issue also marks the first contribution to The Ladder by New York DOB member Martha Shelley, an example of the younger generation of lesbian activists who were beginning to lead DOB chapters. By the April/May 1970 issue, reproduced here in the third segment, Shelley was contributing her poetry as well as the political essays she would soon become well-known for. This issue is significant, however, for its inclusion of a first-person account of "The Transsexual Experience" from the perspective of a female-to-male transsexual, as well as "A Brother's Viewpoint," written by a man about his lesbian sister; both of them are bold contributions. "Lesbiana" continues its review of lesbian-themed literature; much of the magazine's content, however, is reprinted from elsewhere. Seven pages are devoted to "Cross Currents," a news-clipping feature started by Barbara Gittings, and the section continued or increased in size over the next two years.

   The first clue of the coming "divorce" of The Ladder from DOB, as Barbara Grier has described it, came in the June/July 1970 issue when, for the first time in nearly fourteen years, there is no DOB Statement of Purpose inside the front cover.[18] Instead, there is a plea for advertising which begins with a description of the magazine: "(a) thousand adult readers regularly receive The Ladder, a magazine circulated throughout this country featuring news and views of the homosexual and the homophile movement of particular interest to women." It then lists a post office box in Reno as the mailing address for "advertising copy and check." The same address is noted on the masthead with Daughters of Bilitis listed as publisher. A stylized photo of author Jane Rule by Lynn Vardeman graces the cover, with a review of her latest book, This Is Not For You by author Isabel Miller, featured inside. Also featured, are poems by Elsa Gidlow, acclaimed lesbian writer, as well as a strong condemnation of "female liberation" that did not include lesbians by Rita Mae Brown, reprinted from Rat Magazine. Regular features like "Lesbiana" are shortened; another eight pages are given over to news clippings in Cross Currents and there are a number of letters in Readers Respond, several from Canadians.

   In the August/September 1970 issue an announcement appeared:

The Ladder, published by Lesbians and directed to ALL women seeking full human dignity, had its beginnings in 1956. It was then the only Lesbian publication in the U.S. It is now the only women's magazine openly supporting Lesbians, a forceful minority within the women's liberation movement.
Incredibly, there is no mention of Daughters of Bilitis despite the fact that the cover reproduced art used a dozen years earlier. "We find the similarities of the two striking and we feel this points out a significant fact: that women must band together, all women, or human freedom as dreamed of by all men and women, heterosexual and homosexual alike, will never be possible," Grier noted. Rita LaPorte echoed these sentiments and went on to quote Lorraine Hansberry's letter of May 1957, again never mentioning that it was written to DOB. The issue again featured Rita Mae Brown, this time as author of "The Woman-Identified Woman," the famous lesbian feminist statement written collectively by Radicalesbians, a group of activists of which she was a member; Jane Rule also contributed a short story. Cross Currents opened with the celebratory "WOMEN'S LIBERATION: COAST TO COAST, CITY TO CITY, TOWN TO TOWN: MARCH, APRIL, MAY AND JUNE 1970."

   The second part of this segment begins with the April/May 1971 issue and continues to December 1971/January 1972. Despite a full team of managers and assistants, columnists and secretaries, editor "Gene Damon" pleaded repeatedly for financial contributions to keep The Ladder going. The magazine continued to feature fiction by numerous authors including Jane Rule, Rita Mae Brown, Martha Shelley, and others; Cross Currents provided a strong compendium of news. A new feature was added, "Journeys in Art," which presented feminist analyses of a variety of well-known as well as obscure artists and their drawings, paintings, and sculpture. Several cartoons drawn by Ev Kunstler were added to the issues (one featured a bearded old man holding a sign warning "The End Is Near" standing next to a bellbottomed young woman with one reading "This Is Just The Beginning, Baby!), as well as original art contributed by "staff artist" Adele A. Chatelin. "Open Letter to a Black Sister: Women's Liberation is Our Thing Too!" by Anita R. Cornwell is a welcome addition to the October/November 1971 issue, as is the coverage of the NOW conference in Los Angeles affirming lesbian rights reported in the December 1971/January 1972 Ladder.

   The final issue, in August/September 1972, summarily announced on page 2 that, "(t)his is the last issue of The Ladder," and thanked the readers who had supported the magazine. It went on to say, "(f)or those of you who have casually read us through the years, indeed sometimes intending to subscribe, but not ever quite getting around to it, we wish you whatever you deserve and leave it to your own consciences to decide just what that might be." As with the "divorce" from DOB, no explanation is given for the sudden wrenching change, which must have been very upsetting to many readers, both long-term and recent.

   In December 2003, after describing the financial pressures that led to her decision to stop publishing the magazine, Barbara Grier recounted a story which captured what The Ladder had meant to burgeoning lesbian communities. While attending a mid-1980s convention of lesbian writers and publishers in Chicago, she was introduced as its last editor. As she recalled, "(w)hen The Ladder was mentioned, the entire room erupted in applause. It felt like it went on for ten minutes. Every woman there knew the magazine and loved it. There was no doubt of its significance."[19] With the inclusion of these three full-text segments in Women and Social Movements, The Ladder and its pioneering lesbian editors can continue to inspire appreciation for the significant role they played in molding and making visible lesbian and lesbian feminist activism, community, and creativity from 1956 to 1972.



1. Stella Rush, interview with author, Los Angeles, Calif., 21 and 22 May 2002; interview in author's possession.
Back to Text

2. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, "Daughters of Bilitis and The Ladder that Teetered," in Everyday Mutinies: Funding Lesbian Activism, ed. by Nanette Gartrell and Esther D. Rothblum (New York: Haworth Press, 2001), pp. 113-18.
Back to Text

3. Martin Meeker, Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s-1970s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 95, 99.
Back to Text

4. See especially Martin Meeker, Contacts Desired; see also John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Martin Duberman, Stonewall (New York: Penguin Books, 1994); and Rodger Streitmatter, Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995).
Back to Text

5. Florine Fleischman with Susan Bullough, "Lisa Ben," in Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, ed. by Vern L. Bullough (New York: Haworth Press, 2002), pp. 63-65.
Back to Text

6. Paul Cain, "Lisa Ben," Leading the Parade: Conversations with America's Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002), pp. 11-16.
Back to Text

7. C. Todd White, "Dale Jennings: ONE's Outspoken Advocate," Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, pp. 83-93; Salvatore J. Licata, "The Homosexual Rights Movement in the United States: A Traditionally Overlooked Area of American History," Journal of Homosexuality 6 (Fall/Winter 1980/81):161-89.
Back to Text

8. Stella Rush, interview with author.
Back to Text

9. Stella Rush, "Helen Sandoz," in Before Stonewall, pp. 145-47.
Back to Text

10. Martin and Lyon, "Daughters of Bilitis and the Ladder that Teetered," p. 117.
Back to Text

11. Manuela Soares, "The Purloined Ladder: Its Place in Lesbian History," Journal of Homosexuality 34:3 (1998): 27-49.
Back to Text

12. See Marcia M. Gallo, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006), pp. 83 and 141; Martin and Lyon, "Daughters of Bilitis and the Ladder that Teetered," p. 117.
Back to Text

13. Gittings and Lahusen believed that DOB's public relations efforts could be sharpened by showcasing average, ordinary gay women on the front of The Ladder. Their covers would provide an alternative to the often negative portrayals of lesbians in the media in the early 1960s. Gallo, Different Daughters, pp. 95-97.
Back to Text

14. "The Ladder Salutes Arena Three," The Ladder, 9, no. 4 (January 1965): 23-26.
Back to Text

15. Soares, "The Purloined Ladder," pp. 27-29.
Back to Text

16. Barbara Grier, interview with author, Alligator Point, FL, 29 December 2003; interview in author's possession.
Back to Text

17. Barbara Grier and Coletta Reid, eds., The Lavender Herring: Lesbian Essays from The Ladder (Baltimore, Md.: Diana Press, 1976), p. 13.
Back to Text

18. Grier, interview with author.
Back to Text

19. Grier, interview with author.
Back to Text

back to top