Helen Sanders

Helen Sanders, Costa Mesa, California, October 24, 1976.


Introduction:  Based in Los Angeles, Sanders was deeply involved in DOB and the broader homophile movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Her interview provides a good picture of the work of DOB, its goals and strategies, its internal divisions, and its relationship with Mattachine and male activists, whose sexism towards women and women’s issues often made cooperation difficult.




Martin/Lyon were close friends of Sanders.  

Daughters of Bilitis founded as a social alternative to the bars - but soon a political organization.  Only thing members had in common was lesbianism - widely divergent political views; only lesbianism could be talked about.

Raid on Alamo Club - most women plead guilty. Leads DOB toward political action, toward strengthening the self-image of lesbians.  Realize that most lesbians feel guilty - need to change that.

Some recruitment through friends; some through bar contacts. Meetings in early days generally small - had to dress nicely - need for security in public discussion meetings (didn’t want to risk jobs) - frequently cops would come to public discussion meeting.

“Fear”- women wouldn’t come to DOB, but would go to bars which were far more dangerous. Reason for emphasis on respectability was so that organization would be safe for women - reduce risks of membership.

Total ignorance about what lesbianism is - meetings designed to increase self-knowledge. Many speakers anti-lesbian: have to know who the enemy is, know what they think: how else can you learn how to approach them? e.g. convention in SF with head of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

DOB approach different from Mattachine Society - DOB much bolder in challenging experts and authorities. Also willing to invite anyone. Men fearful - had better jobs to lose, were harassed more.

Primary purpose was legal reform, but also knew that law reform not enough - attitudes also had to change. Lesbian problems different from homosexual - some problems of no interest to the men - e.g., pregnancy, mothers, breast cancer.  Men didn’t feel lesbian problems were so important. Sanders knows more about venereal disease than she’ll ever need to know. Had good friends among many of the men, but as a group it didn’t work. Couldn’t get together on policy.

Many of the members of Mattachine feared, disliked women, especially strong assertive ones. Not true of the leadership. Also, many women afraid and uncomfortable among men. Emphasized the difference between the leadership and the membership.

[Sten Russell adds - says ONE much more sincere than Mattachine in trying to make co-ed organization work - but couldn’t overcome the hostility of the membership.]

DOB - hard to hold it together once it started to grow nationally. Needed personal contact -maybe a particular woman’s thing. Barbara Grier - “a man-hater.”  Late 60s - a schism in the organization right down the line.  

Gittings was easy to work with. But she politicized The Ladder more than Sanders and other leaders wanted it. Sanders didn’t feel the national magazine should be politicized - going to isolated lesbians - average readership not interested in big issues - want stories and poetry; could put up with some good editorial material.


[Sten Russell: says DOB democratic, not autocratic. Gittings doing editorials that didn’t reflect the organization’s opinion]  

DOB constitution says DOB not affiliated with any other organization. Gittings wanted NY DOB to join NY Mattachine. Issue came up at San Francisco DOB convention in 1960. Proposal defeated, but Gittings works closely with Mattachine, writes editorial that was “pure Mattachine.” Take magazine away from her.

Gittings very political - different from other DOB leaders.  Gittings leaves DOB, begins working  closely with Kameny and Mattachine. Shirley Willer appears - has money, uses it to expand and improve Ladder. Sanders in charge at that time. Becomes a really good magazine.

Ladder’s purpose was to reach the lonely, isolated lesbians away from the big cities. Not meant to be political journal. Politics for the active, organization members.  Again, only thing lesbians had in common was lesbianism, not politics.

Gittings a dynamo - militant, impatient, political. DOB “too tame” for her - she had more energy than DOB and Ladder could use.

Lyon during World War II was the first woman editor of the Daily Californian.  Sanders background also in printing and journalism. Natural that DOB should early begin publishing. But Ladder not to be a political arm of the organization, not something to scare off some women.

Early issues hardly used word Lesbian - would never have gotten a state charter if open about it. Ken Zwerin was DOB’s attorney.

1950s and early 60s, about 10 active, working members. Put own money into it. Sanders did printing at Macy’s. Leaders had jobs, contributed money. Later on, Shirley Willer became great fundraiser, lots of money available. Ladder never made money, but was worth the expense. Ladder would report “political” material, etc., but not editorialize or espouse.

Barbara Grier - introduces militant, man-hating element into Ladder. Sanders really at odds with her. Two sharply defined camps – Rita Laporte secures mailing list, takes off with it. She and Grier take it over by time of 1970 Convention - didn’t go to it - knew they’d lose. Old leadership decides not to fight it - times changing.

Grier/Laporte not interested in women’s issues - were anti-male rather than pro-woman. Sanders was interested in more material about women’s issues - but Grier interested only in attacking men.

Denver national meeting, 1968: Willer/Glass had reorganization proposal, new structure and constitution. Willer thought with enough money DOB could become a major power and organization.  Sanders against it - not enough leadership and dedication to implement the program. Willer would be stuck doing it alone. In fact, when vote came, she was alone. Proposal defeated.

Laporte elected as a way of keeping Willer out of the presidency. Laporte the only one interested in taking on the presidency - “a vacuum”. No one really knew her well.  Grier and Laporte begin working together. Grier, very autocratic, begins influencing Laporte.  Sanders gets endless, angry correspondence from Grier. Eventually burned it all!


Willer a dogged, conservative, money-minded person - careful and cautious but big plans when foundation solid. Gittings, take-a-bull-by-the-horns type, rushes headlong into things. Volatile.

Glass - a mathematical, accountant’s mind.

1961 - DOB leadership retreat, Labor Day. About 40 people, LA and SF, met halfway between two cities. Leadership came and membership. Tallmig involved in Prosperos, wants to use Prosperos group dynamics approach. Became a problem - never got off the ground. A lot of it taken up with interpersonal problems, relationships. (Jaye Bell and Tallmig lovers, had just broken up). Not much business and new thinking. Should have been open only to leadership -many members there only to have fun.

[Second listen:

1961 Labor Day Weekend:  “halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco” near Morro Bay. About 40 women, took a motel for the weekend. 3 factors: SF and LA DOB leadership. Jaye Bell, president, living with Billie Tallmig, a schoolteacher. Involved in Prosperos, hyped up on its group dynamics theory, wants to use it in DOB.

“We had a very hard time getting off the ground at this meeting…the first day was not one of our more successful days. We did have some pretty good discussions and we did talk about some of the plans we had. We repudiated ONE’s Bill of Rights. The last evening of it disintegrated. I was becoming very irritated by the factionalism involved which seemed to come not so much from the business of the Daughters as from the inner problems of the couples that were there.”

“We sort of affirmed what we already believed and that we were going to go right on doing what we already were doing.”]

1962 LA DOB convention - high point in terms of unity, togetherness.

1966 Ten Days DOB/NACHO.  Sanders has sessions on tape.

Conflict between Sanders and Grier. Sanders tells Grier that DOB owns Ladder, editor working for organization, not independent. Big flap over Jane Rule Story. Grier anti.

Sanders and Rush both very attractive women - gave them power in the organization, other women listened to them, willing to follow their leadership. Leadership never advocated sexual license - consenting adults in private. Also true for ONE and Mattachine.

Only met Grier once, at Denver 1968 convention.

Sanders got more involved in Prosperos, less in DOB.

Sanders and Rush did many speaking engagements. Conflict between older activists and gay libbers - young had no appreciation for old; old said young wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the groundwork laid by old movement. Sanders saw there was no longer any room for oldies. Times changing.


Sanders wrote the Ben Cat articles. Ladder meant a lot to many women, otherwise isolated. Enhanced their lives.

Troy Perry worked under Sanders at Sears-Roebuck.

10 days in Aug – 1966 - beginning of real split/hostility between DOB and male organizations. DOB did the work, SIR got the credit. Martin furious.

LA chapter not very active after 1962 convention - members too transient. Later revived by Jeanne Cordova.

Sanders about to have her 56th birthday.

Hard work - all the leaders had full-time jobs. DOB work and Ladder done at night, before work in the morning. Sanders brought Ladder to office, 6:00 in the morning, did all the printing before office opened - really took chances.