Daughters of Bilitis | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Laura Dominguez/L.A. Conservancy

Daughters of Bilitis

This Minimal Traditional-style building was an important center of lesbian activism and social life in the 1950s and '60s. 

Founded in San Francisco in October 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis (also referred to as DOB) was the first lesbian civil rights and political rights organization in the U.S.

The original purpose of the organization was to provide an alternative social space for lesbians outside of bars, which were subject to raids, arrests, and harassment.

The Daughters of Bilitis was established when eight women (in four couples) came together to form a social club, which eventually grew to hold regular meetings with chapters across the country.

Within four years of its founding, Daughter of Bilitis chapters existed in New York, Rhode Island, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. 

The Los Angeles chapter of the organization was founded by Helen Sandoz and Stella Rush in 1957. Meetings took place at Sandoz's apartment at 852 Cherokee Avenue.

As president of the Los Angeles chapter, Sandoz was influential in making lesbians comfortable with participating in public meetings with heterosexual men, gay men, and representatives from the scientific and medical communities.

The Daughters of Bilitis formally disbanded in 1972, leaving a deep impact within the LGBTQ community. 



Activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon spearheaded the Daughters of Bilitis from their San Francisco home in 1955. They derived the name from the 1894 work of French poet Pierre Louys, The Songs of Bilitis, in which Bilitis was a fictional character who lived on the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho, a Greek lyric poet from the 6th century BCE. 

Like many homophile groups in the 1950s, the Daughters of Bilitis advocated for the assimilation of non-heterosexuals into mainstream heteronormative and heterosexual culture.

Members followed careful regulations around gender performance and presentations of self. For example, if a woman chose to wear pants, she was expected to wear women's dress slacks because jeans were associated almost exclusively with men during the 1950s.

These choices led the organization to question and debate the propriety of butch-femme presentations of self within mainstream society.

By 1962, the Los Angeles chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis became one of the most influential interview pools for sociologists and psychologists studying the social and mental health conditions of lesbians. This is especially significant because, at the time, most social science and medical studies focused solely on gay men.

As an organization, the Daughters of Bilitis provided a space for non-heterosexual women that was safe and free from the potential dangers and liabilities that came with LGBTQ bars during the mid-twentieth century.

With the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, the organization's leadership began to debate the intersections of their sexual and gender identities.

The larger organization realized that, in addition to advocating for their rights as non-heterosexuals, they also had to advocate for their rights as women in order to achieve full civil equality. As a result, the organization began to align itself more closely with the ideology and goals of second-wave feminism.

The Daughters of Bilitis made a deep impact within the LGBTQ community over its seventeen-year history. Each of the chapters played an important role in connecting non-heterosexual women across the country, as well as exploring what it means to be both a non-heterosexual individual and a woman in the U.S. during the mid-twentieth century.

Photo by Adrian Scott Fine, LA Conservancy

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