Born Martha Altman in 1943, Martha Shelley was raised in Brooklyn, New York. Shelley graduated from City College in 1965, worked as a clerk and a typesetter until the mid-1980s, and is now a writer and medical/legal researcher for disability cases. After becoming involved in the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in the 1960s, she began attending meetings of the Daughters of Bilitis; she later became president of the New York City chapter. Because of FBI surveillance, members of the DOB were encouraged to take aliases; Altman took Shelley as a surname.
Inspired by the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, of which she was a witness, Shelley proposed and participated in a protest march cosponsored by DOB. She was also an early and influential member of the Gay Liberation Front, Radicalesbians, and RAT newspaper. Shelley produced the radio show Lesbian nation on New York's WBAI radio station. After moving to Oakland, California in 1974, she was involved with the Women's Press Collective where she worked with Judy Grahn to produce Crossing the DMZ, In other words, Lesbians speak out and other books. Her poetry has appeared in Ms. magazine, 'Sunbury, The bright Medusa, We become new and other periodicals.