Salli Rasberry and Delia Moon with others at a party. An upcoming panel at the Main San Francisco Library explores the unsung contributions of women during the 1960s counterculture. (Courtesy Salli Rasberry)
Alexandra Jacopetti Hart remembers the moment she realized the '60s counterculture was bigger than just her and her friends. Alongside Ken Kesey, Bill Graham, and a handful of other hippie household names, Hart, then 25, had helped to organize the 1966 Trips Festival -- the three-day music-and-LSD gathering that’s widely regarded as the kickoff to the Haight-Ashbury’s heyday.
“It was about an hour before the opening, and we were all standing around [Longshoremen’s] Hall, and Bill Graham said, ‘I think I’ll go outside and see if anybody’s in line to get tickets,’” remembers Hart, now 78 and living in Sebastopol. “So he went outside and came back with his eyes as big as saucers, and said, ‘They’re lined up around the block!’”
“We’d all been meeting in small groups, but nobody knew about the others,” she says. “That was the first time any of us knew how big this movement might be.”
Hart is a textile artist whose work has been recognized in galleries, design courses and museum exhibits over the course of her more than 50-year career. Her 1974 book Native Funk & Flash is considered a classic in the folk art world. But the fact that her name isn’t as well-known as her male contemporaries’ isn’t surprising, according to Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, a historian and the author of the book Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture.
“There’s this huge gap in the literature about women’s roles [in the counterculture], the activities women actually engaged in, and the values that formed their work,” says the professor, who teaches at St. Mary’s College. In studying for her PhD in 20th century history, she found that often, women weren’t present in important stories about '60s counterculture -- and when they were, they were cartoonish stereotypes.
“There’s the naive, innocent victim who’s exploited by the predatory male. The earth mother. The love goddess. The hairbrained, sexually promiscuous hippie chick. And the domestic drudge, the woman who does all the hard domestic labor to sustain her family,” she says. “It was inaccurate, a complete distortion.”
Alongside Hart, the panel includes Denise Kaufman, a musician and one of Ken Kesey’s original “Merry Pranksters”; Delia Moon, an author and pioneer of the commune and back-to-the-land movements; Judy Goldhaft, one of the original Diggers and an ecological activist who went on to found the Planet Drum Foundation; and Salli Rasberry, an educator, editor and renowned sex-positive literary figure.
The aim, as it were, is to correct the record: to provide a fuller picture of what women contributed to this celebrated movement, and to highlight what their legacy means going forward, and where it can still be seen today -- which is, as it turns out, pretty much everywhere.
The concept of intersectional feminism -- that is, the understanding that women experience oppression in varying ways and degrees based on race, class, ethnicity, physical ability and so on -- was far from the buzzword that it is in 2017. Lemke-Santangelo allows that the women she’s researched having shaped art, domestic life, medicine and more in the '60s counterculture are largely white and middle-class.
That, in turn, shaped their values, and the values against which they rebelled. “In addition to wanting to create an alternative to mainstream society and culture, they were seeking to escape the confines of suburban domesticity, the kinds of structures that had governed their mothers’ lives,” says Lemke-Santangelo.
What that meant in practice was not disavowing domestic tasks but reinventing them: the back-to-the-land movement and creation of communes saw women learning how to mix cement and frame roofs; they grew their own food, raised farm animals, made raw cheese. Women also led the way in environmentalist movements like bioregionalism, and holistic healthcare fields like midwifery and alternative medicine. They built free schools, food distribution programs, youth shelters and co-ops; and brought Eastern spiritual practices like yoga and meditation into the mainstream. In a lot of ways, says Lemke-Santangelo, “They were kind of the forerunners.”
Care for the earth is one largely female-led tenet of the counterculture that is, of course, now utterly mainstream, visible in everything from the rise of vegetarianism to organics to fashion. Hart’s textile designs, inspired by nature and in some cases by Native American patterns, are now immediately recognizable from their nearly ubiquitous typical “flower child” clothing. But at the time, the artist says she was letting function dictate form.
“Before 1967, you needed to wear your skirts at a certain length; there were rules about the shape, the style... and we wanted to make everything as close to free and as sustainable as possible,” she says. “We didn’t want to throw away the jeans that had become comfortable just because of a hole in the knee, so we started patching and embroidering to increase the length of wear. It was practical! But we were also interested in self-expression... and of course when you expressed yourself a certain way -- say, if a guy wore his hair long -- we found it was useful for recognizing one another.”
Of course, life wasn’t 100 percent idyllic for women of the counterculture: while men of the '60s committed themselves to upsetting societal norms, it turns out that misogyny and deeply ingrained gender roles are a little harder to expunge from a culture than rules about haircuts. Need proof? Look no further than the iconic work of R. Crumb, whose irreverent drawings cemented the Bay Area as a center for underground comics in the '60s: his female characters appeared most often as oversexualized objects of lust or oppressive harpies -- sometimes both at the same time.
Women who defied gender expectations in the '60s faced no small amount of sexism from within their communities -- and were fairly used to not getting credit for their work.
“I always knew I was an equal, but the only people who got any notice were always the guys, the husbands,” says Hart with a tone of resignation. When the documentary The Trips Festival was released in 2007, she says, she wasn’t surprised to find that the filmmakers “didn’t pay any attention to the women either.”
“Countercultural men were sexist, and were perfectly comfortable with relegating women to subordinate and subservient roles,” says Lemke-Santangelo. “So countercultural women became feminists and resisted. And part of that resistance came out of the recognition that they were indeed performing the majority of labor that was sustaining their families and communities.” In some instances, such as women-only cooperative housing, women began “kicking the men out of their communities entirely, and claiming leadership roles.”
It’s no coincidence that this realization occurred among the first women to reap the benefits of the birth control pill, which was approved for use in the United States in 1960; by 1965, more than 6.5 million women were using it. Roe v. Wade, which further asserted women’s control over their own sexuality, passed in 1973.
Asked what she might have thought in the '70s, if someone had told her the legislation would still be under threat in 2017, Alexandra Hart says: “Unbelievable." When it comes to women's rights in the United States, she says, "Obviously progress has been made, but there’s a lot of work to do until we have equality.”
Still, Lemke-Santangelo sees the results of counterculture women’s work everywhere -- especially in her young students. “This is a generation that faces unprecedented environmental change, and I’ve noticed a deep interest in sustainability, environmental history, food politics, green housing. That’s the counterculture’s legacy as we move forward into the future.”
Hart, for her part, doesn’t sound as starry-eyed as she might once have been. But she rejects the notion of this time period as a failed experiment: “We thought we were going to change the world, we really believed that was happening,” she says.
“And the truth is, we changed the world more than we maybe thought we had, judging by the popularity of it now. I see lots of millennials looking to the counterculture for information and advice about resistance.”
And what does she tell younger people when they ask for that advice?
“You have to make it a lifestyle, and you have to make it fun,” she says. “Otherwise, you’ll burn out.”
The 'Women of the '60s Counterculture: Planting the Seeds of Liberation' panel and Q&A starts at 5:30pm on Wednesday, May 24, at the Main Public Library's Koret Auditorium in San Francisco. Free; more details here.
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