These are the words of activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. They are describing a time, fifty years ago, when a handful of lesbians challenged the widespread demonization of female same-sex love by American religious leaders, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, and lawmakers. The two women still insist that they did not intend to start a revolution. In September 1955, when Martin and Lyon accepted an invitation to meet with three other lesbian couples in San Francisco, the main topic of conversation was forming a social club for “gay girls.” Out of their discussions grew the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first national lesbian rights organization in the United States.

The story of DOB provides a unique example of women's activism during a time in contemporary U.S. history often portrayed by historians as socially and politically quiescent. DOB's particular style of mobilizing lesbians—what historian...

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