What is the history of The Ladder?
Liz Highleyman | October 16, 2006
For many gay and bisexual women in the 1950s and 1960s, The Ladder, published by the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), provided their first hint that there were others like themselves.
The first issue of The Ladder appeared in October 1956, edited by Phyllis Lyon, who, with her partner, Del Martin, had co-founded DOB – the first U.S. lesbian organization – the previous year. Initially a 12-page newsletter, The Ladder included short stories, poetry, news, research findings, book reviews, and letters from around the world, as well as announcements of meetings and social activities.
At a time when most women's magazines were filled with recipes for meatloaf, writes community historian Marcia Gallo, "The Ladder helped develop a lesbian identity and feminist culture in the era before the women's liberation movement." Its early contributors – some using pseudonyms or initials – included science fiction author Marion Zimmer Bradley, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, novelist May Sarton, and Ann Weldy (aka pulp novelist Ann Bannon).
Though available by subscription and for sale at newsstands in major cities, The Ladder was mainly passed from hand to hand. Circulation reached several hundred within a few years, and nearly 4,000 by the time the magazine ceased publication. A 1959 survey revealed that the average reader was white, in her early 30s, lived in a city, and had a higher education and income level than women in the general population.
By 1960, Martin began editing The Ladder after stepping down as DOB president. In 1963, the editorship passed to Barbara Gittings, who lived in Philadelphia and founded the New York City DOB chapter. Gittings added "A Lesbian Review" to the journal's title and began running cover photographs of real lesbians, often taken by her lover, Kay Tobin Lahusen.
Further changes came about in the mid-1960s under the editorship of Helen "Sandy" Sandoz, who gave the The Ladder a less political slant. Sandoz turned the editorship over to frequent contributor Barbara Grier at the 1968 DOB convention. Grier – who had written The Ladder's popular "Lesbiana" media review column since the late 1950s under the pen name Gene Damon - took the magazine in a more militant lesbian-feminist direction and sought to professionalize the publication.
Beset by struggles between the "variant" women of the homophile era and younger radical lesbian-feminists, DOB officially disbanded at its national convention in August 1970. A few months prior, DOB national president Rita LaPorte had obtained the sole copy of the magazine's subscriber list, as well as the plates from the mailing house, and she and Grier began publishing The Ladder independently. While Grier later claimed the move was necessary to save the magazine from a dying organization, Lyon and Martin maintain that it was a theft. Grier expanded The Ladder and emphasized quality art and writing, but the magazine had run out of funds within two years; the last issue was published in August 1972.
In the years that followed, other lesbian-feminist publications filled the void, but The Ladder retains its singular place in history. "For gay women who came across a copy in the early days, The Ladder was a lifeline," writes Gallo. "It was a means of expressing and sharing otherwise private thoughts and feelings, of connecting across miles and disparate daily lives, of breaking through isolation and fear."
For further information:
Gallo, Marcia. 2006. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of Lesbian Activism (Carroll & Graf).
Soares, Manuela. 1998. "The Purloined Ladder: Its Place in Lesbian History." In Gay and Lesbian Literature Since World War II: History and Memory, ed. by Sonya Jones (Haworth).
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
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