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Women of the 1960s Counterculture


Janis Joplin hippy

How did women fit into the hippy movement of the “Swinging Sixties”?

When we consider the counterculture of the 1960s, peace, love, psychoactive drugs and a handful of hippie household names like Ken Kesey come to the front of our minds. Yet at the base of this was a fight against social, political and economic convention; and a fight for issues such as liberation of human sexuality, women’s rights, civil rights and versatility of the American Dream. Also at the base of this, according to historian Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, is the “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.” Of course, plenty of women rocked in the sixties: Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Michelle Phillips, Tina Turner – to name a few. However, whilst an alternative way of life was sought after by members of the movement, women often found themselves still belonging to cartoonish stereotypes.


One such stereotype is that of the domestic drudge, the woman who works tirelessly doing household work to sustain her family. Consequently, this pushed several women into the counterculture in the hope that this alternative lifestyle served as somewhat of an escape from suburban domesticity which had governed their mother’s lives. This didn’t mean domestic tasks were renounced but reinvented in order to modernise the stereotype: 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 (advocacy for human life to be constrained largely by environmental boundaries rather than political ones), and holistic healthcare fields like midwifery and alternative medicine. They built free schools, food distribution programs and youth shelters; and brought Eastern spiritual practices like yoga and meditation into the mainstream.


To raise further awareness of this, Lemke-Santagelo moderated a panel at the California Historical Society called “Women of the ‘60s Counterculture: Planting the Seeds of Liberation” on May 24th 2017 – the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. The panel saw several women who have been celebrated and renowned for their modernisation of domesticity. It 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; Alli Rasberry, an educator, editor and renowned sex-positive literary figure; and Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, whose 1974 book Native Funk & Flash is considered a classic in the folk art world.


Many women felt lost in the ‘60s in their fixed position as housewife. Author of Feminine Mystique, Betty Freidan diagnosed the struggle women had with what was referred to as the silent question: women asked themselves at home, in the company of husband and child, “Is this all?”. Whilst the counterculture provided an exciting new dynamic at that time, it quickly became mainstream; and while men of the ‘60s would happily upset societal norms, it turns out that misogyny and engrained gender roles were harder to expunge.


Therefore, there seemed to exist an irony about the counterculture regarding its stance on women’s rights; such an irony is seen, for example, in the short-lived career of Janis Joplin. Joplin, known for her electric sound and cosmic stage, was front-woman for psychedelic rock band, Big Brother and The Holding Company. Born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin often felt like an outsider and used music as a form of self-expression. A decade and a bit later came the counterculture, a period of broken promises that led to the need of figures like Joplin to desire a sense of fulfilment. Joplin felt that commercial success would help mend the past humiliations she felt growing up as an outsider. Joplin was always susceptible in a male-dominated industry, and the fact that she felt she contributed the most to the band and merited the power for decisions puts into question the authenticity of the counterculture. Ultimately, in order for Joplin to attain success she had to make money and achieve authenticity. Her true authenticity raises the question, was the counterculture movement even authentic? Although her legacy as a rock ‘n’ roll legend shines on, she was, of course, subject to the contradictions of the counterculture. Most men wanted to rebel against the norm, yet they maintained some of the norm’s most damaging perspectives when it came to the roles of women.


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