Women of the Counterculture: An Overview
By Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo

While a growing body of historical literature has enlarged our understanding of the sixties counterculture, few studies have documented the experience and contributions of its female participants. Indeed, “hippie” women remain hidden behind a veil of popular images that emerged during the sixties and still prevail: the unwitting, innocent victim of male debauchery, the air-brained, promiscuous hippie chick, the earth mother, and the sexually exploited domestic drudge. In Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture, I offer a corrective to these stereotypes by examining their actual lived experience.

Alexandra Jacopetti Hart

Most hippies, I argue, joined the counterculture with the intention of creating a utopian alternative to mainstream American society—a society which they regarded as overly competitive, militaristic, authoritarian, atomistic, environmentally destructive, consumption-driven, and morally “uptight.” However, women had an additional incentive to “drop-out:” escape from the “mind-numbing” nuclear family-based, suburban domesticity that circumscribed the lives of their mothers. In their effort to fashion livelihoods that were individually and socially transformative, and minimize their participation in the “straight” labor force, many hippie women opted for communal living or rural self-sufficiency.

Within these alternative spaces women performed a disproportionate share of the domestic labor needed to sustain their families and communities. Indeed, the counterculture’s division of labor—as many outside observers noted—was strikingly traditional. However, women’s actual tasks, the arena in which they labored, and the sense of mission and purpose that informed their work, made it all appear novel, challenging, and exhilarating. Many, particularly those who moved back to the land, had the additional satisfaction of mastering new skills such as composting, organic gardening, animal husbandry, canning, brewing, cheese making, quilting, midwifery, and alternative medicine. Moreover, the rigors of rural life demanded flexibility when it came to gender roles. As Roberta Price so eloquently stated, “I can mix cement, blow dynamite, bank a fire, use a chain saw, split wood . . . ride bareback, hunt mushrooms, start fires, frame roofs, cure bacon, punch cows.”  In the process of learning these new skills she “memorized the shapes of three thousand clouds, calibrated a hundred sunset reds, catalogued one hundred eleven rainbows, and watched five babies slide out into life.” In the end, she noted, “my life is fuller, happier, more real” because of her utopian experience.

Judy Goldhaft

In addition to their communal and family-centered labor, women created a host of alternative institutions that included schools and childcare centers, clinics, free food and clothing distribution programs, food coops, arts and crafts cooperatives, runaway youth shelters, and experimental art and theater venues. Some engaged in small-scale entrepreneurship, producing vegetarian cookbooks, guides to sustainable living, and handcrafted clothing, textiles, bead and needlework, utensils, and furniture. Still others opened natural food restaurants and hip clothing boutiques, or set up shop as herbalists, astrologers, massage therapists, midwives, and doulas. Regardless of their choices, they sought to work that harmonized with and reinforced countercultural values of cooperation, autonomy, creativity, environmental sustainability, and spiritual fulfillment.

As they established “right livelihoods,” women simultaneously pursued spiritual enlightenment. Drug experimentation, chiefly with psychedelics, was but one expression of their desire for transcendence. They also explored a dizzying array of alternatives that ranged from yoga and meditation to Native American, Wiccan, Goddess-centered, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Wanderlust, yet another expression of their spiritual longings, took them across the world in unprecedented numbers. When they returned, they shared their appreciation of nonwestern spiritual and healing practices, arts and crafts, clothing, and foods with their hippie peers.  Soon Americans more generally acquired a taste for the “exotic.” While their experimentation with spiritual alternatives certainly had historical precedents, their drug use and largely unsupervised travels were completely out of the ordinary. Never before had such large numbers of young, middle class women taken their search for self-realization in such radical directions. It was here, I argue, that women experienced the unfettered, no-holds-barred freedom normally reserved for men.

By the early 1970s, hippie women responded to the sexism of their male counterparts by articulating a feminist vision that emphasized the dignity, if not superiority, of female values and labor. Viewing themselves as inherently peaceful, cooperative, nurturing, and in tune with their bodies and nature, they cast themselves as the true representatives of Aquarian ideals. This assertion, backed by their concrete, economically tangible contributions to counterculture experiments, allowed them to demand greater authority within their own families and communities and to extend their influence well beyond the 1960s, profoundly altering the social, political, economic, and cultural landscape of America.

Denise Kaufman

What, then, was their legacy? In the long term, hippie women went on to craft and promote New Age spiritual alternatives that provided Americans with a veritable smorgasbord of options and fostered a greater degree of tolerance for religious pluralism. By the early 1980s counterculture women also dominated the holistic healing movement, outnumbering male practitioners in every field from yoga, massage, and aromatherapy to biofeedback, nonwestern “wisdom” traditions, and creative visualization. These, too, became lifestyle options for mainstream Americans.

Their influence was even more profound in the home birth and natural mothering movements, where counterculture women established practices as midwives, doulas and childbirth coaches, and created networks, advocacy and support groups, mail order businesses, websites, and retail establishments. As a consequence childbirth and rearing practices, once limited to the counterculture, are now as popular as yoga and meditation.

Salli Rasberry

Their most enduring legacy is in the arena of environmental sustainability. Counterculture women mastered the art of simple living and creative reuse, resurrected sustainable agricultural practices, championed ecofeminism, bioregionalism and earth-reverent spirituality, established school gardens, land trusts, environmental organizations, recycling programs, and farmers’ markets, and promoted the health and environmental benefits of organic, locally-sourced foods. In sum, they undeniably reshaped how Americans worship, find personal fulfillment, heal and nourish their bodies, relate to the environment, give birth, raise children, and conceptualize self, family, and community.

 

 

The quote from Roberta Price comes from her memoir, Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004, p. 345. All other content, and its corresponding citations, is drawn from my book, Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture, University Press of Kansas, 2009.

 


Join Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo and the California Historical Society at the San Francisco Public Library Koret Auditorium for an engaging conversation centered on the rich stories of women from the 1960s Counterculture. Hear stories connected to why and how they created or participated in the counterculture, on sexism and misogyny and how they responded, and suggestions and thoughts for future generations.

Register HERE:

 

Send this to friend