“And why not ‘belong’?” This question was penned by Del Martin in the first publication of The Ladder[i] and epitomizes the mentality of the first wave of the gay rights movement, dubbed homophile or assimilationist. This generation of gay activists wanted to belong alongside the American majority. They wanted to convince this majority that gay people can be respectable citizens, so that they would be able to live among the rest of society without harassment. The qualifier “respectable” is an important one to note: many LGBT+ people did not fall into “respectability”, and thus were shunned by the assimilationists. As a result, this wave has been classified as classist, racist, and exclusionary, especially by the second wave of the gay rights movement, which was drastically more radical.
While these criticisms are valid and important to keep in mind, few historical studies seem to consider the fact that this first wave, emerging during the 1950s, carried with it the heritage of early American Cold War discourse on homosexuality and gender. Relatively little has been studied prior to the Stonewall riots of 1969, which saw the birth of the agitative gay liberation movement. This is especially true in relation to the lesbian assimilationist movement. Most studies that examine this assimilationist movement either simply resume the history,[ii] or are sociological by nature and thus proceed without exploring how historical context might have dictated the direction of the movement and its discourse.[iii] Some notable exceptions exist[iv], but these do not link assimilationist discourse and early Cold War discourse.
Lesbian discourse specifically is of interest, because lesbians had to both navigate a homophobic climate as well as a sexist, patriarchal system reinforced by early Cold War mentality. This intersection imposed a frame of conventionality to which the assimilationist lesbians had to adhere more strictly than homosexual men to fit into society. However, lesbian assimilationist strategy strove not for societal acceptance, but rather minimal tolerance. These lesbians thought that society would not and should not change for them, but if they adapted to it instead, they would be tolerated on an individual basis.[v] The Ladder was first published in 1956-1957 by the Daughter of Bilitis, the first widespread lesbian homophile social group. The publication gives insight into how assimilationist discourse mirrors Cold War discourse concerning gender in the United States. To fit into the American majority, lesbian assimilationists used gender performance as their integration tool.
By the early 1950s, the United States and its citizens began to interpret the Cold War as an unprecedented clash of civilizations. To preserve the American way of life, state and society aggressively promoted traditional gender roles. This discourse included an aggressive anti-homosexual element. Already in 1952 John F. Kennedy proclaimed that “it would be a mistake to judge the Communist threat as primarily military”.[vi] The war was to be fought on ideological grounds—the capitalist way of life pitted for survival against that of communism. As such, the nation looked inwards to find and eliminate covert communist agents. This introspection reached a frenzied peak during what is now known as the second Red Scare. Homosexuality was understood to threaten the American way of life because it rejected religion, morality, and dominant culture. It was conflated with communism (especially in Senator McCarthy’s influential rhetoric) by these shared elements of deviancy,[vii] thus implicitly justifying rampant prejudice and discrimination towards homosexuals.
Homosexuality was also understood to be a serious security risk. People believed that homosexuals could be blackmailed by communist agents for sensitive information, especially if they desired to stay in the closet.[viii] This belief gave rise most notably to McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare, both undercurrents of the Red Scare. The Lavender Scare is notable because McCarthy suggested that subversive, homosexual elements operated within the government, which caused thousands of governmental employees suspected or rumored to be homosexual to be fired from their positions.[ix] Thus, homosexuals were automatically lumped in with communism because of their deviancy, despite any outward loyalty to the United States. Homosexuality was considered an infection to be neutralized to secure the United States’ ideological supremacy over that of the communists.
It was within such context that the lesbian assimilationist discourse emerged. As the United States strove to combat the enemy of communism in its society, its mentality concerning the female gender shifted to strictly and aggressively prescribe the American way of being a woman. The image of the true American woman was white; suburban; middle-class; Christian; nurturing; feminine-looking; passive; submissive to her husband; “prefer[ing] marriage to a career”,[x] etc.[xi] Lesbian assimilationist strategy was thus not only inherently framed by Cold War discourse concerning homosexuality, but also concerning a woman’s appropriate appearance, her actions in general society, and her role in the family unit. As an echo of this outlook, the lesbian assimilationists’ own discourse circled around the fact that they were women “endowed with all the attributes of any other woman … [Their] only difference lies in [their] choice of a love partner”.[xii] Gender performance became a coherent strategy to counter the image of the lesbian as an anti-American element and display a degree of respectability.
Thus framed by the American vision of female gender, The Ladder aggressively advocates traditional female gender performance to its lesbian readers. Three central elements of this performance are how one is perceived, how one behaves, and how one fits into the family unit. The first element in the case of women often entails clothing. Under the gaze of paranoid Americans, clothes were a central way of communicating one’s position and attitude in and towards society. The first volume of The Ladder continually stresses the importance of avoiding the “fly-front pants [and the] butch haircuts and mannish manner [which are] the worst publicity that [they] can get”.[xiii] Working-class lesbians at the time were known for their butch/femme pairs.[xiv] Especially in the case of the butch, assimilationists understood this to be a flaunted attack on society. The butches, and the femmes who approved of their deviant performance, seemingly did not want to belong. “Thus the ‘obvious’ Lesbians [created] in the public a stereotyped picture of all Lesbians”[xv] as anti-societal monsters, not only endangering themselves but negatively affecting the whole community.[xvi]
Therefore, assimilationists posited that “their attire should be that which society will accept”[xvii] and should present themselves and dress as femininely as any other woman would and should. Namely, they should wear women’s clothes (dresses and tailored slacks), and let their hair grow long. In respecting prescribed gender performance, assimilationist lesbians would be given space to exist in society.[xviii] As prime example of this, The Ladder touted that ‘converted’ butches had more friends than before and “no longer have the feeling that everyone is watching [them]”.[xix] This sentiment of surveillance is not to be dismissed as paranoia, given the context of the Cold War discourse and abating Red Scare. Adhering to the image of the feminine American woman allowed lesbians to evade society’s gaze, and their gender performance made them worthy of tolerance.
The same gendered conventions were prescribed in The Ladder concerning the assimilationists’ activities within society. Interactions with others were framed by the ideas of how respectable women ought to act. American women had a good temperament, were “mild-mannered”, “agreeable” and “delightful”[xx]—not engaging in violent or agitative behavior, which was dangerous and suspect. The Daughters of Bilitis were primarily formed with the goal of creating a group to socialize with other lesbians, and of creating safe spaces which would not automatically be associated with non-respectable lesbians. These non-respectable lesbians flaunted their sexuality and apparent disdain for traditional gender roles and dress. An example of such a non-respectable locale was the gay bar, where the rough butch scene was omnipresent. The president of the Daughters of Bilitis implied one ought to be ashamed to be seen in such settings.[xxi] In contrast, some example activities which periodically appear in The Ladder’s calendar of events are bowling, picnics, and brunches. These classy, calm venues and activities fit well within the Cold War propaganda image of the middle-class white woman’s social life and expected behavior.[xxii]
To conform to societal expectations of the respectable woman, it was suggested, during a meeting between the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society (a mostly male homophile group), that homosexual men and lesbians should date: “Living in a predominantly heterosexual world, an individual at times must, or should, have a date … it very often leaves a lot better impression [sic]”.[xxiii] Always, when organizing activities for themselves or when considering their image in society, the Daughters of Bilitis did so within a cadre of respectable femininity as dictated by Cold War mentality. They would act in such a way as to avoid the labels of agitators. They instead acted as respectable women, “public-spirited”,[xxiv] considerate of the American image and of the societal majority’s comfort and safety.
Finally, an important element of Cold War discourse concerns the family. It served as the bastion of American values, the first educational milieu of children, and a capitalistic economic unit of its own right.[xxv] The family became one of the first lines of defense to ensure that the American/Western way of life resisted any attempt at subversion.[xxvi] The American family (the white, middle-class, suburban nuclear family) was a propaganda tool, an image extolling the virtues of the capitalist system. American women were seen as agents for “peace and security [and able] to preserve the American way of life”.[xxvii] They would also be at their happiest and most fulfilled when caring for their family.[xxviii]
Marriage was the foundation of the American family. American marriages, based on love and companionship, were sharply contrasted with communist marriages, which were said to be based off mutual revolutionary spirit and convenience.[xxix] Furthermore, American family life was idyllic, especially for the wife. The American wife was liberated from work due to her husband’s financial support on one part, and to her wealth of convenient household appliances on the other. This perfect American vision of marriage was aggressively extolled as the result of capitalism. Marriage and the home were in a sense a cultural battlefield. Yet, this model makes it evident that marriage was necessarily heterosexual, and homosexuals, both male and female, therefore suffered pressures to find an opposite-sex spouse. Unmarried women were seen as selfish and contemptuous of the American way of life.[xxx] The fear of subversion also created the image of the closeted lesbian wife, who, much like undercover communist agents, would destroy the institution of marriage from within, and by extension, American civilization.[xxxi]
Children, and their relation to their mother, were also held as a sacred element of the American family. Unlike their communist counterparts, American mothers could spend time with their children and indulge in motherly love.[xxxii] To Americans, motherhood was the most valued aspect of a woman’s life.[xxxiii] As opposed to communist children who were held hostage to a destructive system and trained in a corrupting ideology, American children had to be shielded from deviant ideas and educated in American values to allow such values to endure.[xxxiv] Lesbian mothers especially were understood as problematic. Mothers who turned to lesbianism “no longer cared for any more children” and were understood to be revolting against their roles as wives and mothers. People believed lesbians scorned the family, badly influenced impressionable children, and thus contributed to American society’s destruction.[xxxv]
In the first volume of The Ladder, it is repeatedly observed that many readers are faced with the problem of family and marriage, especially if the lesbian in question discovers her sexuality when she is already married and/or already has a child. These are especially central and important questions to The Ladder’s readers. On the question of marriage, while published opinions differ, it is concluded by most readers that if a lesbian is already married, she should let her husband know but not act upon her desires.[xxxvi] One short story published in the periodical concludes with the lesbian protagonist being instructed by her lover to return to her husband, and to try above all to make her marriage work.[xxxvii] Divorce was also understood as a sign of failure in society and constituted a badge of disgrace; to divorce because of one’s lesbianism only exacerbated that stigma.[xxxviii] Marriage was thus too important an institution to renege if one wished to remain respectable, as the lesbian assimilationists wanted.
A similar conclusion is reached concerning the question of children. As children and their relationship with their mother was held in such high esteem, so too does The Ladder consider the children to be of foremost importance when considering one’s lesbianism. During a group discussion, it was agreed that “children need strong contact with both male and female figures to balance out their life”,[xxxix] thereby accepting the heterosexual model of the family as normal and healthy. This follows assimilationist strategy, as respectable lesbians are women first and thus cannot provide masculine influence. If the lesbian does have a child within a heterosexual marriage, then “in order to provide security for the innocent” child, she must “build a life contrary to her own desires”.[xl] Though lesbianism is grounds for losing custody of children,[xli] this is never used as a reason to justify the assimilationist discourse. The children’s well-being was the foremost concern. Respecting the primacy of marriage and of children, even at the expense of the lesbian’s happiness, was considered inevitable if assimilationist lesbians were to respect expected gender performance and solidify their image as respectable women.
In conclusion, lesbian assimilationist discourse centered largely on respecting gendered conventions regarding dress, society, and family as prescribed in the dominant ideological discourse stemming from the Cold War in the United States. Adhering to this image would allow others to tolerate the lesbians in their society. In truth, performing the female gender as dictated by Cold War discourse was a coherent strategy for living relatively free from harassment. Despite justified criticisms concerning their exclusionary rhetoric, it might simply have been the best strategy for this specific group of women to give themselves a chance to be overlooked as lesbians, and to live a safe life regardless of their choice of partner. Performing the female gender to the best of their abilities would lead to the individual acceptance of the lesbian, because their strategy showed they could minimize the damages their existence inflicted upon American civilization. After all, while they were homosexual, “they [were] women first”.[xlii]
Belmonte, Laura A. “‘The Red Target is your Home’: Images of Gender and the Family”. In Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War, 136-158. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
Breines, Wini. Young, White and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. Boston: Beacon Books, 1992.
Bronski, Micheal. “Nine: Visible Communities/Invisible Lives”. In A Queer History of the United States, 176-205. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011.
Cutler, Marianne. “Educating the ‘Variant,’ Educating the Public: Gender and the Rhetoric of Legitimation in The Ladder Magazine for Lesbians”. Qualitative Sociology 26 no.2 (June 2003): 233-255.
D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority inthe United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Esterberg, Kristin G. “From Accommodation to Liberation; A Social Movement Analysis of Lesbians in the Homophile Movement”. Gender and Society 8, no.3 (September 1994): 424-443.
Gallo, Marcia M. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006.
Gutterman, Lauren Jae. “Another Enemy Within: Lesbian Wives, or the Hidden Threat to the Nuclear Family in Post-War America”. Gender & History 24, no.2 (August 2012): 475-501.
Gutterman, Lauren Jae. “‘The House on the Borderland: Lesbian Desire, Marriage, and the Household, 1950-1979”, Journal of Social History 46, no.1 (Fall 2012): 1-22.
Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Stieglitz, Olaf. “Is Mom to Blame? Anti-Communist Law Enforcement and the Representation of Motherhood in Early Cold War U.S. Film”. In Inventing the Modern Family: Family Values and Social Change in 20th Century United States, edited by Isabel Heinemann, 244-264. Frankfurt: Campus, 2012.
 Discourse is to be understood as a group’s systematic scheme of thoughts, ideas, attitudes, beliefs and practices. The dominant discourse in such a group can be understood as its truth and reality in a historical moment. Thus, “American Cold War discourse” here defines the way American society understood its world, what they believed and discussed about it, and how its members acted or were expected to act as a result.
 The range of activities to be planned is firstly laid out in; The Ladder 1, no.1 (1956) 3. Thereafter, the “Calendar of Events” indicating upcoming activities for the Daughters of Bilitis appear in each publication of the first volume of The Ladder.
[i] Del Martin, “Message”, The Ladder 1, no.1 (1956): 7.
[ii] As seen in; Micheal Bronski, “Nine: Visible Communities/Invisible Lives” in A Queer History of the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2011), 176-205.
[iii] Kristin G. Esterberg, “From Accommodation to Liberation; A Social Movement Analysis of Lesbians in the Homophile Movement”, Gender and Society 8, no.3 (September 1994): 424-443; Marianne Cutler, “Educating the ‘Variant,’ Educating the Public: Gender and the Rhetoric of Legitimation in The Ladder Magazine for Lesbians”, Qualitative Sociology 26 no.2 (June 2003): 233-255.
[iv] Most notably; 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) 274 p.
[v] Marianne Cutler, “Educating the ‘Variant,’ Educating the Public: Gender and the Rhetoric of Legitimation in The Ladder Magazine for Lesbians”, Qualitative Sociology 26 no.2 (June 2003): 238-239.
[vi] Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, “JFK on the containment of Communism, 1952,” accessed September 26, 2016, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/fifties/resources/jfk-conta....
[vii] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) 92.
[viii] Ibid. 80, 82, 110-111.
[ix] Ibid. 131, 134-135.
[x] Laura A. Belmonte, “‘The Red Target is your Home’: Images of Gender and the Family” in Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) 136.
[xi] Wini Breines, Young, White and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties (Boston: Beacon Books, 1992) 49.
[xii] “The Positive Approach Editorial”, The Ladder 1, no.2 (1956): 8.
[xiii] D. Griffin, “The PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE”, The Ladder 1, no.2 (1956): 3.
[xiv] 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) 99.
[xv] “PSYCHOTHERAPY vs. PUBLIC OPINION”, The Ladder 1, no.5 (1957): 9.
[xvi] Griffin, “The PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE”, 2-3.
[xx] “Is Our Editor BURLY?”, The Ladder (January 1958). Quoted in: Cutler, “Educating the ‘Variant’”, 242.
[xxi] Griffin, “The PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE”, 2.
[xxii] Belmonte, “‘The Red Target is your Home’”, 149-151.
[xxiii] “ON GROWING UP”, The Ladder 1, no.11 (1956): 6.
[xxiv] Cutler, “Educating the ‘Variant’”, 246.
[xxv] Belmonte, “‘The Red Target is your Home’”, 137; Olaf Stieglitz, “Is Mom to Blame? Anti-Communist Law Enforcement and the Representation of Motherhood in Early Cold War U.S. Film” in Inventing the Modern Family: Family Values and Social Change in 20th Century United States, Isabel Heinemann (Frankfurt: Campus, 2012) 252.
[xxvii] Stieglitz, “Is Mom to Blame?”, 249.
[xxviii] Breines, Young, White and Miserable, 48-49.
[xxix] Belmonte, “‘The Red Target is your Home’”, 142.
[xxx] Breines, Young, White and Miserable, 50, 53-54.
[xxxi] Lauren Jae Gutterman, “Another Enemy Within: Lesbian Wives, or the Hidden Threat to the Nuclear Family in Post-War America”, Gender & History 24, no.2 (August 2012): 478-479.
[xxxii] Belmonte, “‘The Red Target is your Home’”, 144-145.
[xxxiii] Breines, Young, White and Miserable, 54; Cutler, “Educating the ‘Variant’”, 245.
[xxxiv] Stieglitz, “Is Mom to Blame?”, 255.
[xxxv] Cutler, “Educating the ‘Variant’”, 246. Gutterman, “Another Enemy Within”, 480.
[xxxvi] Luther Allen, The Ladder 1 no.10 (1957): 26. L.N. The Ladder 1, no.11 (1957): 27-30.
[xxxvii] Jo Allyn, “THE ELEVENTH HOUR”, The Ladder 1, no.11 (1957): 16-18.
[xxxviii] Lauren Jae Gutterman, “‘The House on the Borderland: Lesbian Desire, Marriage, and the Household, 1950-1979”, Journal of Social History 46, no.1 (Fall 2012): 11.
[xxxix] Jean Peterson, “FIRST IN A SERIES”, The Ladder 1, no.7 (1957): 9.
[xl] Nancy Osbourne, “One Facet of Fear”, The Ladder 1, no.9 (1957): 6.
[xli] Gutterman, “Another Enemy Within”, 482-483.