Note to readers: This essay by Lilian Calles Barger is our third installment in the Summer of Love Roundtable. (You can read previous installments here and here.) Lilian Calles Barger is an intellectual, cultural and gender historian and an independent scholar. Her book The World Come of Age: Religion, Intellectuals and the Challenge of Human Liberation is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. She is currently researching the history of feminism and the gender revolution.
Hippie Chicks: A Different Feminism
By Lilian Calles Barger
Etched into the nation’s cultural memory are the Summer of Love and the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, carrying with them images of free love, psychedelics, and rock and roll. The year was 1967, when over 100,000 young people rejected their parents’ lifestyle and flocked to San Francisco, stopping in places like Taos, Flagstaff, and Tucson on their way to join Timothy Leary and “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Their story of breaking through the limits of conventional society produced what we call the counterculture, and it still reverberates 50 years later. From our historical vantage point, the counterculture that emerged that summer marked the death of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and Fascinating Womanhood (1963) and the beginnings of a gender revolution. The summer’s intellectual and cultural history has largely focused on the men who seeded it with ideas; they included Leary, Jerry Rubin, Paul Goodman, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), Stewart Brand, and Allen Ginsberg. But, just as the overgrown branches of the counterculture are still evident 50 years later, so too its roots extend back to the early 20th century, during a migration from the East Coast to the far reaches of the West in which women led the way.
Women of the counterculture, who were often cultural creators in their own right, figure less prominently within the history of the counterculture or that of feminism. Recurring images of that hot summer include a young, guitar-strumming Joan Baez, who actually left her music career in the 1960s to devote herself to antiwar activism. Her participation in the 1968 group photo captioned “Girls say yes to boys who say no” will forever be an icon of the antiwar movement. The other woman in our cultural memory of the time is Janis Joplin, an awkward middle-class girl from Port Arthur, Texas, who turned herself into a rock/blues songwriter and singer and became immortal after her early death by a heroin overdose. Joplin was strong and unapologetically loud, and I can still hear her singing “Piece of My Heart,” expressing the opposite of the demure ladylike norms of the postwar American woman. To many women of her generation, “Janis,” the original hippie chick, became the embodiment of a self-possessed feminism. Neither Baez nor Joplin shows up prominently in the history of modern feminism, however.
Many of these musicians’ fans, ordinary women who joined the counterculture aspiring to take a trip to a more bucolic setting, remain caught in a historiographical fault line between Ruth Rosen’s liberal The World Split Open (2000) and Alice Echols’ Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975 (1989); they are considered to have been bypassed by the women’s movement. The hippie chicks of the counterculture have received little attention in the history of feminism, having been swallowed up by the history of a male-dominated “back to the land” movement, the sexual revolution, and the La Leche League.
Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo’s Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture (2009) is the only monograph to date that has given these women a place in the history of feminism. Instead of portraying them as stereotypical earth mothers, nymphs in peasant dresses, or strung-out domestic drudges—the antithesis of feminism—the author demonstrates how these women broke with both the middle-class housewife and the rising career woman to recover the value of women’s productive labor in rural America. They rejected both liberal feminism’s insistence on state-guaranteed rights and radical feminism’s rejection of gender binaries to forge their own version of female empowerment.
Lemke-Santangelo demonstrates how hippie women contributed to a developing cultural feminism. She unpacks the gender ideology of the counterculture, rife with assumptions of women as being intuitive, nurturing, cooperative, and ruled by the cycles of their bodies and emotions. Counterculture women embraced these values and turned to them as a source of power, sharing this viewpoint with cultural feminists emerging in urban consciousness-raising groups. The differing moral sensibility that counterculture feminists embraced would later become the “ethics of care” defined by Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (1982).
Rather than seeing the essentialist view of women as a liability, many counterculture women claimed their power through the creation of “woman-centered” spirituality and sexuality, in which a return to the land, an often unrealized ideal, communal living, and simple practices unseen since the 19th century offered possibilities for self-definition. Alongside men whose intransigent sexism remained very much like that of their fathers, women in rural communes took on the burden of the strenuous work and caregiving, revaluing women’s traditional productive labor, which had been superseded by industrialization. Freed from the chains of an office desk and breaking through the picket fence of suburbia, they gained confidence in their hard-won domestic and farming skills to assert the value of female difference. They banded together to rediscover skills in organic gardening, bread baking, keeping chickens, home remedies, midwifery, and nearly lost arts and crafts. Counterculture women appropriated Eastern and Native American practices such as sweat lodges, folk medicine, and spiritual rituals. Orchestrating the rebuilding of communal life, often ahead of the men, women rejected industrial food and the consumer culture that defined the lives of their mothers as a revolutionary act toward greater human well-being. Hippie women were also unlike the generations in their recent memory in developing a flexible lifestyle that allowed greater sexual expression and freedom, spiritual and psychedelic experimentation, and a sense of economic power that generated a feminist consciousness.
By the early 1980s, as counterculture communities declined owing to pressure from within and without, many women reentered the mainstream, becoming social entrepreneurs who spread the gospel of holistic medicine, yoga, natural childbirth, breastfeeding, organic foods, and homeschooling. Their heirs continue to live the ethos of cultural feminism that values female difference and asserts its power.
Living in Taos, I have had the chance to meet the feminist daughters and granddaughters of the counterculture that flooded the scarcely populated county in the late 1960s. The Summer of Love and subsequent years brought a “hippie invasion” to Taos. Society’s “dropouts,” with flowers in their hair and utopian dreams, were attracted by cheap land, Indian mysticism, and the area’s history as an artists’ colony. “Trustafarians,” as hippies were often called for their occasional reliance on daddy’s money, bought parcels of cheap land and built communal farms with names such as Magic Tortoise, Hog Farm, and the Lama Foundation (which is still in operation), an interspiritual community where Ram Dass frequently held seminars on Eastern and Jewish mysticism. While rejecting mainstream American life, they attempted to build new institutions by founding a monthly paper, The Fountain of Light; an alternative school called Da Nahazli; and a health food store. Life included sexual experimentation, drugs used for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment, and parental neglect in the form of a freewheeling child-rearing philosophy. And yes, life was fraught with problems for women. Free love often resulted in abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and women’s abandonment by their partners, leaving some to survive on welfare checks or eke out a living on unproductive land in communities where they were unwelcome. The newly arrived hippies were considered dirty and often lived without plumbing in ramshackle structures, bringing STDs and drug use to rural communities. They were resisted by many traditional New Mexican Hispanic people, for whom religion and old family connections were revered. In time, some hippies settled in for the long haul, finding ways to coexist and changing both themselves and their adopted community. Most abandoned their unconventional lifestyle by the early 1980s, returning to the mainstream of jobs and mortgages.
But there is another story to the counterculture highlighting the role women played in the creation of not only an alternative way of life but also an alternative feminism. This story links the counterculture to the early 20th century. Lois Palken Rudnick’s Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds (1984) and Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Lodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture (1996) offer a history of Luhan and her long influence in creating and attracting the counterculture to Taos. Mabel Dodge was a runaway New York socialite, art patron, writer, and salon hostess who migrated to Taos in 1917 with her third husband, the modernist painter Maurice Sterne, and Elsie Clews Parsons, living there until her death in 1962. In New York City, she was a member of the feminist Heterodoxy club and heralded as the embodiment of the “New Woman” daringly liberated from the sexual mores of the time. Her westward journey from the glamor of upper-crust parties to the dusty roads of New Mexico was a search for an authentic way of life she found impossible within the constraints of conventional society. Hosting her bohemian friends, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Foote, and Willa Cather, and drawing a multitude of now famous artists, writers, and musicians to New Mexico, Dodge sought an alternative for women of her social standing who never seemed to overcome the feeling that a woman fulfilled her innate purpose only through a man. She often imagined herself as a creative muse for men, such as her friend D.H. Lawrence. Dodge’s search for deep spiritual connections led her to consider the Taos Pueblo Indians as a true community in harmony with the cosmos and nature. This outlook was one America needed to embrace, she believed. Her desire to meld with Indian ways grew into love and a marriage to her fourth husband, a Tiwa Indian named Tony Luhan. She experienced her own Summer of Love in the sexual union with Luhan, which she believed melded the spiritual impulses of Anglo and Native American cultures.
The “ethnophilia” for the Indian way of life initiated by Dodge Luhan continued with the hippie invasion of the 1960s. A motorcycle-riding Dennis Hopper bought Luhan’s Taos home in 1970 becoming an artsy haven and crash pad for his iconoclastic friends. Dodge Luhan still serves as a feminist heroine to many Anglo-Americans, who celebrate her for both her art patronage and her daring lifestyle. As with the hippies of the counterculture, her story is a mix of deep yearning, unfulfilled dreams, and naiveté about a return to Eden. Her evolving feminism, sexual experimentation, primitivism, idealization of Indian religion (including “cultural appropriation” of local traditions, which resulted in resentment expressed toward her by Hispanics for redefining sacred santos as objects of art) make her a fitting forerunner for the women of the counterculture.
The ideational connection between Dodge Luhan and her bohemian friends searching for authenticity and the women of the counterculture is easy to miss. In both stories, women act as cultural producers paving a personally treacherous road to a new basis for feminism, not in male-defined equality or sameness, but in difference. The Summer of Love’s significance in the emergence of a cultural feminism that affirmed female difference has yet to be fully included in the history of both the counterculture and feminism.