The first nationally distributed lesbian magazine of its kind.
Long before Curve Magazine hit the scene and quickly became the most popular lesbian magazine in the United States, there was The Ladder.
Lesbian and feminist trailblazers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin set the ball rolling in lesbian publishing when they created the magazine in 1956. At first, The Ladder was just a 12-page newsletter typed up on a typewriter and stapled together. It featured news stories, book reviews, poetry, short fiction and letters from readers, and contributors mostly wrote under pennames or their initials. Lyon even edited the newsletter under a false name for the first few months of publication. Ultimately, she decided to set an example on the importance of not hiding and began editing under her real name.
The Ladder originally began with a run of 175 copies. By 1957, circulation had grown to 400 subscribers. By the end of its run, over 3,000 women were on the mailing list. According to historian Marcia Gallo, the magazine was “a means of expressing and sharing otherwise private thoughts and feelings, of connecting across miles and disparate daily lives, of breaking through isolation and fear.”
In 1963, Barbara Gittings took on the role of editor and the magazine became more of a political outlet, addressing such topics as homophobia and lesbian rights. But perhaps the biggest and most glaring change happened in September 1964, when two real women appeared on the cover of the magazine for the very first time. Though their backs were facing outward and their faces hidden, it was a monumental moment in lesbian publishing because previous covers had always featured line drawings of women only. Gittings recalled that by 1966, she had a list of women courageously willing to be photographed and share their name on the cover.
Sadly,The Ladder came to an end in 1972. There are a variety of explanations as to why it folded, but the most sensible ones state that the magazine founders ran out of funds and they couldn’t quite agree on the ongoing direction of the publication. Either way, the legacy that The Ladder left behind is one that is everlasting. Some notable former writers include Jane Rule, Martha Shelley and Rita Mae Brown. Despite criticism, backlash and not making any money at all, they admittedly contributed to The Ladder for the pure joy of expression and to showcase their lesbian pride.