Morley believed the museum served a crucial social function in times of war, and that it was vital to increase access especially “for those interested in art, who might possibly have a day or so in San Francisco before being shipped overseas.”11 In her Smithsonian oral history interview in 1982, she recalled what it took to sustain late-night access to the museum during World War II, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor:
At that time, the San Francisco Museum of Art had unusual hours for a museum, opening at twelve noon and remaining open until ten in the evening on weekday nights, a period that allowed attendance by those busy in the daytime, and a great many activities were carried on in the evening. The exhibition galleries were, of course, brilliantly lighted. As bombing of the city was feared, a rigorous program of blackout was imposed. As the museum’s galleries had skylights, one of the first necessities was to find a way to black them out. Otherwise, the museum would have had to close in the evening. Indeed, the authorities did issue a directive that the museum should close at dusk. However, even before the directive could be implemented, the staff found a way to block out the skylights so that a majority of the galleries could be used in the evening and it was possible to get the permission of the authorities to remain open. . . . The blackout meant, of course, curtains, and very dense ones, on all the office windows and on the entryway so that no little arrow of light, no chink, could be discovered. This made it possible to continue operating the San Francisco Museum of Art throughout the war period.12
Morley’s tenacity and creativity as a museum professional, her understanding of the civic, social and even spiritual power of art, and her commitment to the creation and nurturing of a public for the art on view, led her to question, engage with, and ultimately work around restrictions developed by the authorities during the war.
Although Morley does not show up in either Turner’s or Boyd’s accounts of San Francisco, she lived in close proximity to the social and intellectual worlds depicted in both books. She hovered on the periphery of the intellectual circles profiled in Turner’s work, corresponding with exiled Bauhaus artists in Chicago and New York, and spending time with László Moholy-Nagy during his summer teaching sessions at Mills College in 1940. During most of her time in the city, she maintained an apartment on Green Street, a very short walk from the vibrant but intensely surveilled scene Boyd describes in Wide Open Town.13
In stark contrast to Morley’s wartime museum work, there was far less possibility of the authorities recognizing the civic value of lesbian bars and nightclubs, which were routinely patrolled by the city police, the California Board of Equalization (the state’s liquor control agency), and the US military police.14 In 1938, during a routine sweep of Mona’s, Sergeant Glen Hughes reportedly couldn’t tell “which were the men and which were the women,” and Mona was arrested and charged with “keeping a disorderly house.”15 Raids, shutdowns, and public trials intensified over the 1940s and 1950s as Cold War–era conservatism took root and city agencies adopted an increasingly hostile stance toward emerging queer communities. Yet these circumstances also inspired new modes of collective action and resistance. Although gay and lesbian bars faced constant harassment, having places to gather allowed people to share strategies for subverting regulatory pressure and surveillance.
The pressures on lesbian social life escalated in the mid-1950s. A raid on Tommy’s Place in 1954, and the subsequent high-profile trial, sparked “citywide panic” over San Francisco’s growing “sexual deviate problem.”16 The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) expanded the definition of “illegal acts” that could terminate a liquor license. “Simple acts such as random touching, mannish attire (in the case of lesbians), limp wrists, high-pitched voices, and/or tight clothing (in the case of gay men) became evidence of a bar’s dubious character,” Boyd writes. “More serious behaviors such as same-sex dancing, kissing, caressing, and hand-holding could be interpreted as a violation of state or municipal laws regulating public decency.”17
At the same time, new movements were starting to emerge. As an alternative to the much-raided bars, Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights organization, was formed in 1955 in San Francisco, and a growing alliance of local and national homophile activist organizations would soon deploy a range of strategies and ideologies to “normalize the status of homosexuality in psychiatry and medicine and to curtail legal and police prosecution.”18 New publications also emerged as a result, with varied political perspectives and goals, which created imagined communities for lesbians and their allies across the United States.