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Remembering Del Martin, 1921-2008

August 28, 2008, 2:37 pm


I would say that I am saddened to hear of the death of activist Del Martin, except that she was 87, had been ill for some time, and lived an extraordinary and accomplished life, so I find just thinking about her uplifting. Plaintiffs in the California marriage case, (Martin is on the left with life partner Phyllis Lyon, in the above photo taken in 1972), the couple was first in line to get married when that case was successfully concluded earlier this year. Like many queer people who add constantly to kin networks soldered together with love and political commitment, I don’t think that Phyllis will be alone. Furthermore, I would say that since Del Martin is an excellent example of a woman who left no unfinished business, we might even want to pause for a celebration.

Now, just to be radically perverse, I will also maintain that there is always unfinished business in a life like Del Martin’s. Phyllis and Del were organizers, and an organizer’s work is never complete. Martin and Lyon were on the front lines of post-war anti-homophobic activism, an activism that laid the foundation for homosexuals to enter the social and political mainstream and also — for those of us who don’t care much for the mainstream — to stand on the shoulders of that movement to craft a radical queer politics as well. They were co-founders of Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, a lesbian homophile organization that worked with religious and mental health profesisonals to battle legal, social and economic discrimination against lesbians, and in 1960, Del became one of the editors of The Ladder, a newsletter that connected usually closeted lesbians across the United States and internationally in a support and information network. In 1972, the energetic pair were among the founders of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in San Francisco. The Toklas Club not only brought gays and lesbians into local politics, it created a model for formal political participation by gays and lesbians on the “interest group” model that dominated Democratic liberal politics at the time.

What people talk less about is Martin’s significance as a feminist: in 1963, the couple joined the National Organization for Women, becoming the first lesbians to publicly identify with the organization. In 1981, Martin published a pathbreaking book, Battered Wives, that addressed questions of domestic violence that were beginning to provide a central focus for political feminism. Analyses by Martin and other feminists like Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon would provide a literature for cultural feminist activisms that would coalesce and become visible in the 1980′s in anti-pornography, anti-rape and battered women’s shelter movements.

Martin’s life work is too extensive to review here. But you can read about in Marcia M. Gallo’s excellent history of DOB, Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. Martin saw GLBT rights as part of a larger human rights movement, something that is worth remembering as we move forward into what will almost assuredly be a new chapter in American political history.

Crossposted at Cliopatria

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