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Lesbianism and The Ladder

Based on document archive "The Ladder: A Lesbian Review, 1956-1972: An Interpretation and Document Archive" by Marcia M. Gallo, 2010.

The document project on which this lesson plan is based is available by subscription only from Alexander Street Press.

Jessica Derleth
Binghamton University


Founded in 1956, The Ladder was the first monthly publication in the United States that was produced by lesbians for lesbians. Beyond increasing the female presence in the male-dominated homophile movement, The Ladder created larger awareness and visibility for the lesbian community. Throughout sixteen years of continuous publication The Ladder evolved from a modest newsletter to a nationally distributed magazine. In these years the editors, contributors, and readers tackled the issues of their time: the rise of the women's movement, the war in Vietnam, race and civil rights, and evolving medical and psychological understandings of homosexuality.


Lesson Ideas

Compare the covers of the issues of The Ladder listed below. What do the images chosen for the cover tell you about the publication? What figures and scenery are chosen? What seems to change and/or stay the same over time? Does the publication seem to be trying to portray itself in a particular way?

Read "Personal File: The Transsexual Experience" on page 25 of the April/May 1970 issue of The Ladder. What are some of the defining characteristics of Karl Ericsen's experience as a (female to male) transsexual in the 1970s? What is the author's position on the process of transitioning from female to male and how does science/medicine seem capable or unable to facilitate the transition? How does this individual's perspective relate to other transsexual experiences in earlier decades or at the present?

From early in its publication through its last years in print, The Ladder frequently opened with a statement of purpose crafted by the editors and publishers of the magazine. Compare the goals of the magazine from two different eras in the magazine: May 1957 (vol 1, no 8), p. 2; April-May 1970 (vol 4, no 7 and 8) p. 2. What stands out in each statement? How does the statement change? Are these alterations significant? What do you think would have caused these changes?

Early issues of The Ladder were concerned with societal conformity and anonymity. Consider, for instance, the November 1956 (vol 1, no 2) (pp. 2-3) where the president encourages readers to remember "that they are women first and butch or fem secondly." Also read the article "Your Name Is Safe!" pp. 10-12. Why was privacy regarding one's name so important? What was significant about the case of U.S. vs. Rumely? If you consider these two articles together what do they tell you about social, cultural, and political cultures of the 1950s?

Through sixteen years of publication The Ladder only put a woman of color on its cover twice. However, while not focused on racial inclusivity, the magazine was occasionally attentive to the issue. Consider, for instance the cartoon in the April-May 1970 issue (vol 14, no 7-8), p. 12. How does this image speak to the complex intersection of race and sexuality? Now read the interview of Ernestine Eckstein, pp. 4-11 from June 1966 (vol 10, no 9). What is Eckstein's experience as an African American lesbian? How does her experience fit with a larger history of lesbian women of color (i.e.: Combahee River Collective?

Read "Why Women's Liberation Would Like to Like Lesbians, and Why Lesbians Aren't So Sure They Like Women's Liberation" in the April-May 1971 (vol 15, no 7-8) issue of The Ladder. What are the central tensions here between the gay/lesbian rights movement and the women's movement? What does the author think they can potentially offer each other? How does this relationship play out?

While they often did not include full names, the "reader response" section of The Ladder allows us to step beyond editors and authors to glean the experiences and viewpoints of subscribers. Read the letter sent in by "Mrs. J.I., New York" to the June 1965 (vol 9, no 9) edition (pp. 25-26). As a student or scholar of history what does it mean to have her views on Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, motherhood, sexuality, or gender equality? How can you use this type of source? What are the benefits and pitfalls?

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