The Countercuture

*In the 1950s, the Beatniks had rejected the conformity of materialistic middle-class suburban life.  Rejection of mainstream society continued in the 1960s, particularly as increasing numbers of people came to oppose and openly protest the Vietnam War (and thus the government’s policies). 
*They began to see a generation gap between themselves and their parents (sometimes known as the silent generation, who grew up during the Depression and World War II, and understood hardship, appreciated hard work and success, and trusted authority), feeling that the differences between their two age groups made it impossible for them to communicate.  This gave rise to the saying ‘never trust anyone over thirty.’  Some people under thirty began creating a new culture completely different from the one around them--a counterculture.
*The counterculture valued youth and doing what felt good.  They were called Hippies and said they wanted peace, love, and freedom.  Many of them opposed the draft (many of them were draft-age), experimented with drugs, and practised free love.  They listened to new types of music, wore different types of clothes, and lived unconventional lifestyles.  Furthermore, because these were the Baby Boom generation growing up, their sheer numbers made Hippie music, clothing, and other interests important parts of the economy--America could not afford to ignore them.
*Hippie clothing tended to be loose, and often colourful.  Clothing was often hand-made or at least altered as a rejection of materialism.  Hair tended to be worn long and loose.  Men and women might wear love beads (long necklaces, often with hand-made beads).  The (stereotypically) peaceful, colourful, drugged people who lived this way were also sometimes called flower children.  Of course these were stereotypes--many young people in the 1960s and 1970s embraced some parts of the counterculture without taking part in others.

*While some members of the counter-culture turned away from traditional religion, many more sought enlightenment and a rejection of materialism through religion.  Some turned to eastern religions such as Buddhism, whereas others looked to the teachings of Christ to reject materialism and violence.  They were sometimes known as the Jesus People or as Jesus Freaks, and they organised youth groups, college Bible studies, and were a major part of the creation of contemporary Christian music.
*Some Hippies set up communes--large houses or small communities, often in the country, where they could live together and share their interests and resources.  Some people in the commune might make everyone’s clothes while others might cook.  Some members might work traditional jobs to support the others.  If they were in the country, they might grow most of their own food.  In many cases, members of communes also practised free love.
*Free love was the idea that people should be able to have sex without being married and without being criticised for it.  Sex was just one form of affection, and was something to be shared, not stigmatised (although some feminists said ‘free love’ was just a plot by men to make women who said ‘no’ feel guilty). 
*Free love became much safer after the development of the birth control pill (first sold in the US in 1961).  Later, the birth control pill would also allow more married women to work, as they did not have to worry about having to leave their job to raise unexpected children.  This freedom (and its abuse) is often known as the sexual revolution.
*For many Hippies, drug use was also an important part of culture.  Marijuana and LSD were thought to expand the consciousness and allow new spiritual insights (many Hippies were very spiritual—some wanted a return to the peaceful teachings and sharing life of Christ, others explored Eastern Hindu and Buddhist meditation).  Timothy Leary, a Harvard researcher (until he was fired) told Americans to ‘tune in, turn on, and drop out.’
*For many young people in the 1960s and 1970s, music was their favourite medium of expression.  The Rock and Roll of the 1950s developed in several ways during the 1960s.
*Folk rock was primarily acoustic (while other forms of rock that developed in the 1960s favoured electric instruments).  It was a mixture of rock, country, and traditional folk music.  It often had messages of peace and environmentalism.  Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were among the most famous folk rock musicians.
*Other rock music was focused on protest.  Protest songs were found in the Civil Rights movement, when unions went on strike, and particularly in the anti-war movement. 
*As the drug culture spread, psychedelic rock grew (primarily in San Francisco) out of more traditional rock music—even the Beatles and the Beach Boys began recording psychedelic rock.  It tended to openly or covertly glorify drug use and to create wild music that seemed like it had been inspired by drug use.
*Hippies gathered to share their ideas (and everything else) in the Summer of Love on the West Coast, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood of San Francisco, in 1967.  This was sometimes seen as the purest expression of Hippie culture.
*The most famous music festival of the 1960s took place in 1969.  It was supposed to be held in Woodstock, New York, a place popular many artists and musicians, including Bob Dylan.  Instead, it ended up being held over 40 miles away when local authorities decided they couldn’t handle the anticipated crowds, which were expected to total 50,000 concertgoers—and ended up attracting at least 500,000. 

*The 3-day festival rapidly grew beyond its organisers’ control, as music fans poured in, camped in the fields, and openly used drugs and explored free love.  People ended up covered in mud and some even went naked, rejecting such materialistic things as clothes.  The concert’s clinics were overwhelmed with minor injuries and serious drug overdoses, although no reliable reports of crimes were ever made, suggesting that the spirit of peace and love really did prevail.  Future festivals could not compare to this experience. 
*Furthermore, many famous musicians died of drug and alcohol abuse, and the optimism of the Hippie movement faded into more violent protests and irresponsible behaviour in the 1970s.  That in turn led to a backlash from the hardhats.

*The Hippies were not the only Americans to experience a sexual revolution, even if it was more quiet in America's suburbs.  A declining economy in the late 1960s and in the 1970s, as well as a desire a new experience, a new purpose, or simply more independence led many women to seek work outside the home. 

*Several things made this change possible.  Since 1961, the birth control pill had made delaying or even avoiding childbirth possible, at least in most places.   Massachusetts and Connecticut still had laws banning the use of any contraceptives, however.  This was challenged, however, by an organization founded in part by Margaret Sanger, called Planned Parenthood, which set up clinics in Connecticut to distribute birth control devices.  When Connecticut tried to shut one of these clinics down, it was challenged, and in 1965 the Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticut discovered in the penumbra of the Bill of Rights a right to privacy, and also considered marriage to have an ancient right to privacy, so that no state could ban the use of birth control—at least by married couples (access to birth control was guaranteed for unmarried people in 1972).

*This right to privacy was held to go much further in the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade which legalised abortion throughout the United States on the grounds that abortion was a private decision between a woman and her doctor.  Moral opposition to this decision contributed to the growing conservatism of many religious Americans.

*Laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed discrimination based on sex, and in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order requiring employers on federal contracts take 'affirmative action' to ensure that more women and ethnic minorities were hired.  Lawsuits against companies that did not follow these and other laws led to increasing numbers of women getting jobs and getting better treatment in their jobs.

*In the 1960s, some women began to organise themselves to demand full equality.  Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, was a founding member of the National Organisation for Women, a feminist group founded in 1966 to 'take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.'  NOW also supported women's access to abortion and has repeatedly demanded (and sometimes gotten) federal legislation and funding to oppose domestic violence and to protect rape victims

*Another prominent feminist was Gloria Steinem, who began writing magazine articles about the mistreatment of women in the early 1960s, including one about working as a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club, a job she took so she could describe what it was like.  She later founded the magazine Ms. to promote feminist ideas.  Although she did not originate the phrase, she helped popularise the feminist slogan 'a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.'

*Some feminists, including the members of NOW, wanted to do more to guarantee women's equality by enshrining it in the US Constitution through an Equal Rights Amendment, which stated Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.  It had been introduced in Congress as long ago as 1921, but had been suppressed until finally passed by Congress in 1972. 

*This pleased many women, but not others.  For one thing, although women did have legal and social restrictions, women also received some special protections under the law, which the Equal Rights Amendment would also have done away with--Eleanor Roosevelt and most New Dealers had opposed it for example, as did the League of Women Voters (formerly the National American Woman Suffrage Association) and women in the AFL-CIO. 

*In 1972, as the Vietnam War was still raging, one of these protections was an exemption from the draft (and exemption from combat duty for women who volunteered for military service).  Many Americans opposed the idea of their daughters being drafted to fight in Southeast Asia.  Other privileges included the right of a dependent wife to collect her husband's Social Security.

*The most visible spokeswoman for the STOP ERA campaign of the 1970s was Phyllis Schlafly, who spoke against it as an attack on women and on traditional society.  Although five more states ratified the Amendment after she began her campaign against it, five states (including Tennessee) rescinded their ratification of it, and ultimately it failed with 35 of a necessary 38 states ratifying it before the deadline of 22 March, 1979.  In 2017, 2018, and 2020, three more states chose to ratify the ERA, bringing the total of ratifying states to the necessary 38 (if the deadline and the decision of some states to rescind their ratifications were ignored, as some members of Congress have proposed). 

*During the first half of the Twentieth Century, less than 20% of women worked outside the home.  At the end of World War II only 25% of women worked (and most of them were young women without children; in 1950 only 10% of women with children 6 years old or younger worked).  By 1980, 60% of working-age women had a job, including 50% of married women with children.

This page last updated 14 May, 2021.
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