Let the Sun Shine
Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture
by Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009, 256 pp., $24.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Lori Rotskoff
Born at the tail end of the 1960s, I missed the counterculture. Fortunately, though, I saw it on Broadway. When the original production of Hair, the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” debuted in 1967, it jolted audiences with its frank montage of disaffected hippie youth, offering a timely gloss on the generational rebellion roiling in the streets and suburbs beyond. The show’s current revival still features the swirling tribe of dropouts who vacillate between drug-enhanced ecstasy and politically charged rage.
Within the tribe, though, an undercurrent of tension divides the male and female troubadours. Hair’s women are hip to the peace movement, but given their exemption from the draft, they have less personally at stake than their boyfriends do. The show’s male protagonists can never quite banish their fear of one day ending up in body bags. They also bristle at the emotional demands of their insufficiently liberated girlfriends. With the notable exception of Dionne, who belts out the theme song “Age of Aquarius” with an air of unwavering self-possession, Hair’s female youth are more confused than confident, more flighty than formidable. Whether blissfully adrift or emotionally uneasy, Hair’s female hippies are subordinate players: giving in and helping out, hanging on and hoping for the best.
Yet in portraying women either as sensitive love-goddesses or carefree earth-mothers-to-be, Hair bathed its female characters in a relatively sympathetic light. While the show contributed to an emerging stereotype of the passive “hippie chick,” it steered clear of a harsher, more cynical view of hip womanhood taking shape at the same time. The journalist Joan Didion, for example, characterized countercultural women as superficial airheads, neglectful mothers, or household drudges lacking any shred of self-determination. On screen, television, and film, producers depicted hippie women as sexy sidekicks to hedonistic men, or worse, as hapless victims of drug pushers or street criminals.
It’s taken more than forty years for an analytical book to be published on the subject of countercultural women. In Daughters of Aquarius, Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo challenges popular stereotypes and explores the lived experiences of young women who embraced hippie life in the 1960s and 1970s. She faults commentators such as Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe—as well as more recent feminist scholars—for overlooking these women’s thoughtful participation in the subcultures they worked to sustain. Relying on oral histories, journalism, memoirs, and personal interviews, Lemke-Santangelo offers a new account of how gender ideology shaped the counterculture. Following an established tradition within women’s history, she illuminates the sources of female agency and chronicles the contributions her subjects made to their communities and to society at large.
Her first task is to tackle the question of hippie women’s subordination: did the counterculture forge an alternative set of gender norms or did it reproduce the patriarchal hierarchies of power of the dominant society? The fact is, conservative gender ideals pervaded the counterculture, says Lemke-Santangelo:
In keeping with generations of Americans hippies believed that women were essentially different from men: more intuitive, nurturing, cooperative, nonaggressive, present-oriented, and ruled by their emotions and bodies. As such, women were naturally suited to be wives, mothers, caregivers, helpmates.
Young women may have thought they were escaping the white picket-fence world of suburbia, but out on the farm they still did the lion’s share of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and childcare. While hippies embraced communal living, sexual liberation, voluntary poverty, and a back-to-the-land mentality, “their gender constructs were essentialist, heteronormative, and—at least initially—hierarchical,” Lemke-Santangelo explains.
Lest you conclude that hippie women were oppressed by this division of labor, though, Lemke-Santangelo contends that it actually empowered them. Hippie women, she argues, “translated their new-found skills, confidence, and the very notion of female difference into a source of power and authority within their own families and communities.” Moreover—and here’s the crux of her argument—women’s productive labor, their political sensibilities, their personal relationships, and their “expanding sense of their own importance” coalesced in an enterprise so generative and life-affirming that it is best regarded, in retrospect, as a wellspring of feminist consciousness. In contrast to most women’s historians, Lemke-Santangelo argues that feminism did not bypass the counterculture. “Indeed, cultural feminism, typically regarded as an outgrowth of lesbian disaffection with new left-derived feminist theory and practice, emerged simultaneously and with equal force among hippie women of all sexual orientations.” By infusing their work, their leisure, and their erotic encounters with revolutionary meaning—and by developing a “feminist vision that emphasized the dignity…of traditional ‘feminine’ values and labor”—hippie women crafted a lifestyle more “flexible, fluid, and open to reexamination” than previous observers have recognized.
Life on a rural commune required strenuous work: hauling water, harvesting vegetables, canning fruit, tending animals, quilting blankets, composting waste, and many other tasks. Women were generally confined to the domestic realm, but according to Lemke-Santangelo, they didn’t experience this as degrading or restrictive. Rather, they invested their labor with a “mission and purpose” that “made it all appear novel, challenging, and exhilarating.” They felt powerful—and that made all the difference. Thriving in a realm of voluntary self-sufficiency, they “fashioned livelihoods that were individually and socially transformative.”
Of course, they had their share of fun, too. They pursued a dizzying array of “escape routes” including meditation, yoga, travel, spirituality, and not the least, drugs. Although self-censorship has long suppressed many of the details of women’s drug experiences, Lemke-Santangelo mined oral histories and talked personally with women willing to dish. Armed with fresh evidence, she refutes the notion that female drug users were either “psychedelic disciples to more experienced, enlightened males or distressed damsels who needed to be rescued from…bad trips.” Marijuana and LSD emboldened some unhappy newlyweds to leave their husbands and join new communal “families,” while for others, drugs opened pathways to creativity and artistic freedom. Summarizing her findings, Lemke-Santangelo reports that hippie women used drugs purposefully, not just for recreation but as “catalysts of spiritual discovery and self-transformation.” This revisionist account reclaims hippie women as architects of their own lives. Moreover, it outlines the contributions they made to the larger world. Most hippies, of course, didn’t drop out of the mainstream forever. Faced with financial obligations as they entered middle age during the 1980s and 1990s, many hippie women became entrepreneurs or social activists. As cultural intermediaries “brokering hippiedom’s tastes, preferences, and practices to a broader public,” says Lemke-Santangelo, they transformed middle-class attitudes in many arenas, including childrearing, holistic medicine, physical fitness, food ways, and the environment. Hippie mothers engaged in midwifery, breastfeeding, family cosleeping, and home schooling—practices now embraced by millions of parents. Yoga has become so popular that it soon might rival baseball as America’s national pastime. And given what we now know about global warming, the tree-hugging earth goddesses of the sixties can rightfully be regarded as ahead of their time.
Daughters of Aquarius thus offers a strong corrective to misguided conventional wisdom about hippie culture. Its greatest achievement, I think, lies in capturing the voices of the women themselves. Interviews Lemke-Santangelo conducted in California with eight people in 2007 are especially illuminating. One, Kathleen Taylor, reflected:
It took a lot of courage to move against the tide, to forge deeper, more intimate relationships with our partners and children, to seek meaningful work or right livelihood, to live simply and within ecological boundaries and constraints. It wasn’t about sex, drugs, and rock and roll; it wasn’t some woo-woo spiritual fantasy; it was real women creating and sustaining viable alternatives to the unimaginative, militaristic, consumption-oriented status quo.
Another interview subject, Constance Trouble, spared no words refuting disparaging stereotypes: “I wasn’t exploited, brainwashed, duped, or oppressed. I was on a personal and collective mission of liberation and I loved almost every minute of it.”
Yet as the author herself notes, the book raises more questions than it answers. Lemke-Santangelo’s allegiance to an argument hinging on cultural feminism leads her to overlook, downplay, or overemphasize certain sources at the expense of others. And at times, her admitted affection for the counterculture eclipses the critical distance she needs to probe beneath her subjects’ exalted rhetoric.
For example, she doesn’t measure the relative significance of countercultural innovations. Her breathless catalogue of endeavors ranging from shamanism and palm reading to Tai Chi and herbal medicine clearly reflects the breadth of hippie enterprises. But should we value witchcraft as highly as organic farming or green activism? And, if Lemke-Santangelo harbors any skepticism toward tarot cards or other occult practices, she doesn’t reveal it here.
Moreover, the book doesn’t distinguish clearly enough between acts of self-transformation and those that produce real social change. The difference between narcissism and social activism isn’t lost on the author, who explains at the outset that “the counterculture’s preoccupation with self-realization—especially in its New Age manifestation—did not always translate into a broader commitment to social justice and the common good.” But threads of solipsism were woven into the counterculture from the start. So while I’m convinced that many (perhaps even most) hippies were authentically engaged in a radical social experiment, there must have been some youth who came—and stayed—for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We don’t read about them here.
Speaking of drugs, when is dropping acid a precursor to resisting social oppression, and when is it just a means to a high—and one that might interfere with childrearing obligations at that? In her discussion of hippie childhood, Lemke-Santangelo reports that some mothers used drugs so heavily that they neglected to feed their kids, help them with homework, or to take them to the doctor. (Of course, men also failed their children in this regard, so mothers shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame here.) Other children felt humiliated when the police busted their parents for growing marijuana. But by confining these anecdotes to a chapter on childhood rather than integrating them into her section on women’s drug use, she sidesteps the tough issue of drugs’ downside, casting a shadow over her argument about the positive role of drugs in women’s lives.
Finally, Lemke-Santangelo’s focus on communes as feminist bastions stacks the interpretive deck in favor of female self-empowerment. What about women who remained fundamentally disempowered? Although Lemke-Santangelo notes that Aquarian daughters suffered bruises on the emotional rollercoasters of free love and open sex, she doesn’t explore incidents in which men coerced women into exploitative sexual encounters. For example, one cult-like commune in New Mexico (not mentioned by the author) required female members to submit to men’s sexual demands at any time. Young women who resisted these overtures were branded as uptight, subjected to group intimidation sessions, and sometimes raped. Anthropologist Margaret Hollenbach offers a sobering account of this experience in her 2004 memoir Lost and Found: My Life in A Group Marriage Commune, a source that that author, despite her thorough research, overlooks.
Just as popular stereotypes ignored or misconstrued the true experiences of female hippies, Daughters of Aquarius does the same for young men. If the book served as a template for a revised production of Hair, the male characters would be relegated to the margins of the mise-en-scene. Audiences would witness women building fires, milking goats, making candles, and yes, changing diapers—all while singing in ringing tones of self-affirmation. They would toss off a few antiwar slogans, but their heartiest ballads would proclaim the virtues of living lightly on the earth. They might offer a joint to their brothers—but instead of pining away for them, they would regale them with travelogues about their spicy adventures in Nepal. They would run the show, and they would love almost every minute of it.
But even if this hypothetical musical distorted the realities of men’s lives and muted the negative vibes that some women felt, I’d still venture out to see it. Like Daughters of Aquarius, it would be panoramic in scope, novel in substance, and full of heart. No matter what our age or relationship to sixties counterculture, we remain captivated by its history and captive to its legacy.
Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian and author of Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America (2002). She teaches at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and is working on a study of feminism, childrearing, and American culture in the 1970s.