In the final Women’s Enews history essay, a remarkable San Francisco couple tells their stories–gathered from a union of 49 years–and recalls their collaboration on two books that were instrumental in changing millions of women’s lives.

Del Martin and Lyons

As part of our Women’s History Month series, we spoke with Del Martin, whose contribution 30 years ago was marked by two landmark books: "Lesbian/Woman," written in 1972 with her longtime partner, Phyllis Lyon, and "Battered Wives," published in 1975. As Martin explains below, these books were markers in a life of activism and change–much of the latter sparked by her work.

Photo courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,Transgender Historical Society of Northern California.

(WOMENSENEWS)–We met in 1950, in Seattle; we worked together for years before I got up the courage to make half a pass at Phyllis. We moved into an apartment on Castro Street in San Francisco, on Valentine’s Day 1953.

In 1955, we founded the Daughters of Bilitis, which started as a secret social club. By the end of 1956, we realized we had to do something to get the word out. Here we were, in San Francisco, and we realized we really didn’t know any lesbians! We had to do something different. Women in the bars were–well, not afraid to go to bars, but they didn’t want to hear about joining a group.

That’s when we started publishing The Ladder, the first national lesbian newspaper. And we started a series of public discussions–we’d have speakers in, talking about issues like law, or the psychiatric discussions of us as sick. We’ve been criticized for relying on professionals to validate us, but you have to consider the time: We were considered illegal, immoral and sick. We were trying to deal with these things and to allay the fears of our sisters. Later, we learned that what we did is called "consciousness-raising," but we called it "gabbin’ and jabbin’."

Back then, there were other groups, but they were mostly male. Male domination is still a problem in the movement now.

We were also, as early as the 1950s, involved with the whole concept of lesbian mothers, because we had some in our group. We had a counselor from the school district, a woman who ran a nursery school, who would come and reassure these women that the kids would be OK. At that time, they were terrified that their kids would end up gay.

So much of it at first was education–letting the community know who we are. We spoke to schools, churches and professional groups. In 1964, we helped start the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an organization of ministers and gay people. It had started at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, which has a long history of welcoming all kinds of people. We worked to educate the psychiatric profession, and finally Dr. Evelyn Hooker at the University of California at Los Angeles came up with a statement that we were not sick, that some of us might need help, but homosexuality wasn’t an illness. Pretty soon Phyllis was working at Glide, supposedly as an administrative assistant–but more like a switchboard.

A National Demonstration on Armed Services Day

By 1966, we had 17 groups around the country organized as NACHO, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. We had a national demonstration on Armed Services Day, because of the ways gays and lesbians were being treated in the military, and a national conference called Ten Days in August. That year, we also went to the California State Fair with a tabloid-size flyer proclaiming, "Every Tenth Person is a Homosexual." When they tried to ban us, we stood at the front gate and handed them all out. Phyllis was so excited–we were getting all this publicity!

In 1968 we started the National Sex Forum, trying to promote something we called "Sexual Attitude Restructuring." We knew all along that lesbians and gay men had trouble with counselors, but what we learned then was that counselors didn’t know about human sexuality–period!

In 1972 we published "Lesbian/Woman"–another important moment in educating people about who we are.

This was all basic groundwork, the kind of education people don’t think about any more–but it’s still needed. As the movement changed, it seems like we’ve put all our energy into passing laws and court cases; we’ve just dropped the idea of trying to educate people about gays and lesbians. Then we find out, sometimes, that there are more people who didn’t understand us at all.

"I Didn’t Want to Be a Single-Issue Feminist"

In the 1970s, we diverged: Phyllis was working at Glide Memorial Church, still taking calls from people in need–and she started to get calls from women whose husbands were beating them. I then decided to work on that and published "Battered Wives" in 1975.

I didn’t want to be a single-issue feminist, and I thought this issue would pull us all together. I wanted to unite people whatever their class, race, economic status. I was so naive. We learned in the shelters that putting all these diverse people under one roof is more challenging than you think. Shared experience of violence only takes us so far; then we’re stopped by these other considerations.

My book traced domestic violence back to unequal power relations in marriage. It also asked for a lot of different changes: in laws, in policies like probation. And it talks about shelters and other services. I feel like most of what we got out of it, when all was said and done, were the social services for victims.

I’ve done public speaking on domestic violence ever since. I remember the first national hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in Washington in 1980. Two-hundred-fifty women came from all over the country and they stayed right through the two-day hearing. The congressmen couldn’t believe it. That’s when the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence started.

A lot of people forget that lesbians started the domestic violence movement. Some shelter folks get upset when I say it, but it’s true. The radical women in the 1970s were already disgusted with the system, and when this issue came up, it was something they could really get behind. Suddenly, these women who were into questioning authority became lobbyists–wanting laws changed, wanting to influence policy!

For a while, we had an ideal system in San Francisco, working with everyone who had any contact with victims–police, teachers, parents, doctors, everybody. But then police personnel change, generations change, and you have to start all over again. Just like with gay issues, education just can’t stop.

Some Lives Were Saved

We’ve saved some lives, but we’ve also lost a lot of lives. We need some new approaches–we need more emphasis on prevention. When I was serving on a crime-prevention and violence commission in the early 1980s, I used to muse that couples would be required to attend a class in family violence before marrying. I still think that’s a good idea. I also would like to see getting the PTA involved in stopping domestic violence. Violence begins at home; then it spreads to the streets, and then the world. We need more education for parents, so it doesn’t keep going on.

Everybody thinks social services are the answer. But services are no help if we don’t stop it at the root. I’ve talked to men who work with batterers, and they can get across that it’s illegal, but they can’t get them to think it’s wrong. You’ve got to get these guys early.

And any policy changes you do get–you have to make sure local governments, local police departments, local family courts are complying. We need a lot of people going to court but seeing what’s going on. It’s up to the public to be watch-dogging all this stuff

There’s so much left to do. On gay issues, there are too many states that still make crimes of sexual activities between consenting adults in private. And it’s more important than ever that same-sex couples get the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexuals.