The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture recently acquired 47 copies of The Ladder (1956-1972), more than doubling our run for a total of 79 issues of the publication spanning the years 1957 to 1972. We are especially excited about this opportunity to expand our holdings of this ground-breaking publication sixty years after the first issue was released.
The Ladder was the first nationally distributed lesbian periodical in the United States. Preceded only by a local Los Angeles newsletter titled Vice Versa, The Ladder began in October 1956 as the small publication of the group Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). The DOB was founded in 1955 in San Francisco as a social group for lesbians who wanted to avoid public scrutiny and the violence of bars that were often the target of police brutality. As their numbers grew, DOB chapters formed in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The DOB evolved into a highly influential lesbian activist organization providing a “feminine viewpoint,” educating women about “female homosexuality and positive self-image.” The DOB worked closely with groups that were primarily focused on gay men, such as the Mattachine Society and ONE, Inc.
Partners Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the co-founders of DOB, both had educational backgrounds in journalism and worked as reporters. Lyon decided to publish The Ladder as a way to advertise the group—since they were forbidden from doing so in newspapers—as well as to spread awareness about social issues affecting the wider lesbian community. The mission statement of the DOB was printed inside every cover of the magazine:
According to some sources, the magazine was titled “The Ladder” to symbolize a way to escape the “well of loneliness,” a phrase popularized by Radclyffe Hall’s influential novel of the same name. The first issues featured a hand-drawn cover with two people standing beneath a ladder ascending into the clouds. There were only 175 original copies made of this issue, which were given to friends and mailed to professional women in the San Francisco telephone book and around the country. By 1957, the second year of publication, there were hundreds of subscribers on the mailing list, and the magazine was available on select newsstands in major cities. By the publication of its last issue in 1972, it had a subscription of over 4,000 worldwide. It is difficult to estimate total readership, however, because the issues were frequently shared and read aloud at gatherings.
Early content included information from DOB meetings, “Lesbiana” literature reviews, prose and poetry, social experiments, etiquette advice, community events, and reader responses. The editors avoided including any overtly sexual content, but quickly began rallying around political issues and publishing news about the Homophile movement.
The Ladder was published monthly from 1956-1970 and bi-monthly from 1971-72. Over that time span, the magazine underwent drastic changes. The first major transformations began after Barbara Gittings, DOB New York chapter president, became editor in 1963. Gittings added the subtitle, “A Lesbian Review” to the cover in 1964, signifying the word “lesbian” as something that was no longer unspeakable. She changed the magazine’s size and publication quality, increasing issues from 12-15 pages to 27 and moving from a mimeographed copy to professionally printed pages. Kay Tobin Lahusen, a photojournalist who was Gittings’ partner and assistant editor, began using photographs of lesbians, rather than the illustrations typical of past issues. Regardless of the changes in its appearance, The Ladder was issued in a brown paper covering for the duration of its existence.
The last issue was published in September, 1972. In 1975, Arno Press released a nine-volume compilation of The Ladder in hardback as part of their series “Lesbians and Gay Men in Society, History, and Literature.” The Ladder was a lifeline for those women who read it, providing one of the first formal spaces for lesbians to come together in dialogue and artistic expression. Today, it stands as an important artifact of 20th century lesbian and feminist movements and a valuable resource for scholarship.
Post contributed by Valerie Szwaya, intern for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture.