As the 1960s came to a close, almost every issue of the underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb had sexualised images of women on its front page.1 It was not unusual for the Barb to run images of naked women or hypersexualised images of the female body throughout its pages. But at the end of the decade, even as more women in the counterculture embraced feminism, the Barb resolutely stuck to a formula that ran counter to this cultural shift. The Barb, like much of the wider movement, seemed to have a problem with sex. More specifically, it seemed to reflect a sexism that ran counter to claims that it represented a radical perspective on society and challenged old-fashioned social norms. In reality, the editorial decisions taken at the Barb reinforced gendered norms rather than challenging them. In this they were not necessarily out of line with the rest of the ‘movement’, which also struggled to see the position of women in society as something that required revolution.
Since the early sixties, women had been complaining about being seen as auxiliaries within the civil rights and student movements. In 1965, two prominent women within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Casey Hayden and Mary King, anonymously circulated ‘Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo’, to highlight the myriad ways in which women remained subjugated within civil rights and New Left organisations that claimed to be working towards undermining structures of inequality.2 Echoing the kind of ‘problem that had no name’ described by Betty Friedan two years before in The Feminine Mystique, King and Hayden sought to name the feeling of marginalisation that they believed might be shared by many women throughout the wider movement.3 The largest student group of the New Left, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), did not officially address women’s marginalisation until 1967 when, at its national convention, it finally passed a resolution on women’s liberation.4 It did so in the face of resistance from people who saw this as a side issue to ‘real’ revolution.5
Indeed, the movement as a whole was slow to embrace change or even to acknowledge that there was a problem with sexism. The social upheaval promised by the New Left and civil rights movements did not seem to include challenging normative gender relations.6 Revolutionary change continued to focus disproportionately on men and to sexualise women. The wider counterculture continued to reproduce the gendered norms of mainstream society. Even as the hippies preached disengagement from social and political realities and envisioned an alternative society where ‘freedom’ from rules would reign supreme, they failed to overhaul their understanding of gender relations. Why was it so difficult for radicals to imagine gender relations differently?
This paper argues that a significant part of the answer lies in the underground newspapers that reflected and shaped ideas throughout the counterculture. Even when the intellectual left was reluctantly considering the extent to which it systematically relegated the interests of women, the underground and countercultural press (which often distanced itself from the political drive of student activism) refused to reconstruct their concept of gender and perpetuated an obsession with women as either Madonnas or whores.7 If anything, sexism in sectors of the underground press worsened after 1967, out of step with the slow progress being made in the political left. As a result, no matter what conversations about gender were ongoing within select groups, they did not sufficiently permeate the wider counterculture, especially in the significant hippie pockets in and around San Francisco.8 This disconnect was never fully resolved, with two significant results: firstly, women within the New Left and the wider counterculture became further angered by the inability to imagine alternatives to patriarchy, thus fuelling the emergence of a distinct and separate feminist movement; and secondly, the potential for ‘deviance’ became a tool of internal resistance, feeding into the gay liberation movement, female-only communes and ultimately the decoupling of sexual imagination and a politicised counterculture by the 1970s. It was clear that attitudes within the movement were liberalised around sex; but there was insufficient radical challenge to traditional gender roles and expectations. Women did not see a narrative for change in the countercultural press.
Much has been written already about the schisms produced by the inability to resolve these problems.9 I do not propose to rehash those broader arguments in this paper. While historians and ex-editors alike acknowledge that the underground press was notoriously sexist, insufficient research has been done on the ways in which the press, its reinforcement of conventional gender roles and its fetishisation of sexuality, contributed to the alienation of women in the counterculture. This paper looks specifically at two influential newspapers of the underground press – the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Oracle – and explores the limits of the radical imagination regarding sex. The paper will argue that in deliberately or unwittingly refusing to imagine real alternatives to mainstream gender norms, the countercultural press stifled any wider attempt within the movement to address concerns around gender relations. This limit to their imagination around sexuality calls into question the very radicalism of the papers themselves. The reinforcement of heterosexism and especially the primacy of the male gaze, gave little space for any radical challenge to gender norms.
Part I: The underground press, sex and the counterculture
The development of the anti-war movement, the expansion of the student left and the recognition of a youth counterculture contributed to the emergence of an alternative press or underground press.10 The growth of the alternative press was rapid: by the mid-1960s most cities had an underground paper.11 Nationally, the Liberation News Service (LNS) and the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) took editorial lines that were anti-war, pro-New Left and explicitly opposed the political and social status quo.12 By 1966, the concept of the underground press had travelled across the Atlantic, and Barry Miles and John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins founded the International Times, which styled itself as a newspaper of resistance.13 The importance of the underground press to the radical politics of the period cannot be underestimated: they were a key element of communicating a similar set of messages to young people who saw themselves as part of a national and international countercultural movement for change.
Student organisations had long been using the tools of the campus newstrade to produce low-budget newspapers that also advocated resistance. Most notably, the New Left affiliated Students for a Democratic Society produced New Left Notes in order to shape its message and communicate with its national membership. Although there were news-style reports in each issue, the main purpose of this newsletter was to report policy news, conference proceedings and staff changes. It was never as imaginative as the presses that emerged later. By 1966, the resistance press had moved off-campus and adopted a more cultural tone; beyond the walls of the university, these newspapers began to harness much larger audiences. Mostly produced at very low cost, these publications included The East Village Other (Lower Manhattan), Fifth Estate (Detroit), Rag (Austin, TX), The Paper (East Lansing, MI), the San Francisco Oracle and The Los Angeles Free Press. These six were first published between 1965 and 1966, although their lifespans varied significantly. They were joined by a host of other locally based papers, the most influential of which were the New York Rat and the Berkeley Barb. Collectively, these papers helped to shape the political, artistic and even spiritual zeitgeist of the late sixties. By the end of the decade, hundreds of these papers existed across the country, produced in universities, high schools and communities by people who wanted to generate a voice apart from the mainstream.
There was enormous variation across this underground news landscape. Most papers were developed by small agenda-driven groups of friends and acquaintances and produced using highly accessible mimeograph technology that democratised the process of small-scale print production, but also had the capacity for larger-scale production at relatively low cost. The most successful papers, which included Ramparts and the Barb, made the bulk of their revenue through advertising.14 Circulation figures varied, from the substantial readership of Ramparts magazine – which stood at 250,000 in 1968 – to mere hundreds or thousands for some of the smaller, niche magazines with low production costs and low advertising revenues. 15 By 1970, the underground press included a growing number of feminist magazines that had been established in order to articulate a feminist agenda, separate from the rest of the movement’s print culture.
One example of this was It Ain’t Me Babe, a newsletter created by a collective of counterculture women, who sought to locate women’s liberation more centrally in the ideology of the counterculture.16 An illustration by Trina Robbins on the cover of an April 1970 issue of Babe shows a Bride of Frankenstein with a towering Afro, wearing a ‘woman power’ button, emerging from a laboratory of men associated with Black Power, the peace movement and the hippies. In this image, which echoes the artwork of Emory Douglas, Robbins captured the origins of the women’s liberation movement: created in the petri dish of a male-focused counterculture and now out to destroy the system of her masters.17 It was a powerful message from a radical newsletter, run by women who could not locate a space for gender critique within the wider underground press.
The underground press claimed to be radical, but until the emergence of women-only presses like Babe, Voices of Women’s Liberation or Off Our Backs, there was little to encourage the (mostly male) editors of newspapers that a shift in tone and focus was needed in order to address the growing perception that, where women were concerned, there was very little radicalism in the counterculture. Women simply could not see much effort within the countercultural sphere to provide space for the discussion of their cultural and political priorities. The counterculture as expressed in the underground press was beholden to traditional values about gender relations.
Part II: Ramparts and the problem that had ‘two tits, no head’
This was even the case in magazines that routinely featured women as contributors. In March 1968, the female editors of the newly-founded Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement (hereafter Voice) awarded their inaugural ‘Male Chauvinist of the Month Award’ to the editor of Ramparts, Warren Hinckle III.18 As editor, Hinckle had moved production to San Francisco and transformed Ramparts from being a fairly obscure left-wing Catholic periodical to becoming the darling of the New Left. By 1967, Ramparts was a glossy, muck-raking, anti-war monthly magazine that regularly featured submissions from notable figures like Susan Sontag, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky.19 Ramparts should not have been sexist. But Hinckle’s publishing model was partially dependent on shock impact.20 It may be that economics was able to trump ideology, but the problem was more systemic. The oppositional nature of Ramparts did not extend to challenging sexism. A clear example of this can be seen in the February 1968 issue and the editorial response (or lack thereof) to criticism of that issue.
The cover-story, written by Hinckle with his sister Marianne, explored what they called the ‘Unusual Movement for Women Power’.21 Concluding that ‘you won’t mind twisting your neck to look at the girls on the very left of the [Jeanette Rankin] Brigade, since they are the prettiest’.22 The backlash from what the Hinckles termed the ‘miniskirt caucus’ at the Voice was swift.23 More egregious even than the text was the series of glossy photos of women activists surrounding it, which the women at the Voice believed took the focus away from ideas and politics and set up the article to look like a fashion piece reminiscent of Helen Gurley Brown’s recently overhauled Cosmopolitan. In particular, they took against the cover photograph of the issue, which focused in on a woman’s décolletage, with a Jeannette Rankin badge pinned to her chest and the model’s head cropped out of the shot. Radical women were outraged by this aesthetic: this depiction of a political woman with ‘two tits, no head’ was no different to the highly sexualised imagery that permeated the grittier echelons of the underground press.24 Nor did it deviate from the mainstream cultural depiction of women as pretty but brainless.25
The ferocity of the reaction revealed the ways that women were beginning to engage in a more critical way with a press that was supposed to represent countercultural revolution. Angry responses emerged rapidly from the ranks of women associated with Students for a Democratic Society. One such response, entitled ‘Women in the Radical Movement’, directly attacked the Ramparts article and presented a critique of women’s roles in American society in general.26 Another, called ‘The Look is You: Toward a Strategy for Radical Women’, emphasised the position of radical women within the movement and proposed ways for them to challenge their ‘social-sexual roles’.27 When its authors, Bernardine Dohrn and Naomi Jaffe, submitted this response as a letter for publication by Ramparts, the editors declined to run it.28 It seemed as if the darling of the counterculture was deliberately side-lining women.
Was this a disproportionate outcry in order to generate publicity? Or can this controversy be said to illustrate a broader problem? It is true that Ramparts was better funded and had a more robust circulation than many of its counterparts in the underground press. In many ways, it is not representative of the sprawling national underground press that was run by small collectives, often producing limited runs on shoestring budgets. But the publication of the February 1968 issue and the backlash against it are significant for three reasons. Firstly, they are indicative of a broader disconnect within the radical press between stated positions on gender and the practice in editorial decisions. This disconnect mirrors a wider countercultural rift which was emergent by the end of the 1960s. But there was a specific machismo within the press that proved difficult to challenge. Secondly, the visual representation of the headless – or more specifically brainless – woman, reinforced the very societal norms that the radical press claimed to undermine in almost every other area. For women already discontented with their position within the movement, this proved that women were fair game even in the most prominent left-wing publication of the time; it strongly suggested that gendered sexual norms were embedded rather than rejected within this ‘counter’ culture. Finally and perhaps most importantly, the speed and vehemence of the reaction to the February issue of Ramparts demonstrates the significance of the underground and radical press in shaping the imagination of the left. The article mattered to women because the press mattered; it shaped the radical imagination of a movement that was itself defined by image and aesthetic.
This aesthetic was enhanced and publicised through an increasingly slick media and evolved through the decade. It was advertised in the pages of an underground press that found it difficult to balance ideology with commercial necessity. Although the hyper-commercialisation of the ‘alternative’ aesthetic was famously bemoaned by the Diggers in October 1967 – when they accused it of causing the ‘Death of Hippie’ – it played a fundamental role in shaping and communicating youth culture to a wider audience.29 Perhaps because of this, the aesthetic of sex and sexuality remained curiously rooted in traditional interpretations of gender. This aesthetic was curated through artistic expression, which often reproduced normative femininity without question. Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo makes a compelling attempt to rehabilitate the position of women in countercultural, and particularly hippie, societies by arguing that women used traditional norms of femininity in order to build power within their social circle.30 There is some truth to this; in the same way, women negotiated space within the civil rights movement and the wider New Left by working within the constraints of traditional feminine roles.31 But they did so within a cultural environment that popularised a particular version of ‘free love’, one in which the aesthetic of sexuality was defined almost exclusively by the heterosexual male gaze and which routinely depersonalised women. This is particularly notable in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, one of the most iconic depictions of LSD-fuelled hippie ‘happenings’. Through Wolfe’s eyes, as he channels Ken Kesey’s day-glo dreams, many of the central women on Kesey’s Harvester bus remain nameless, their identities replaced by nicknames given to them by the men: Gretchin Fetchin, Mountain Girl, Black Maria, Stark Naked.32 The counterculture celebrated sexuality, but not women’s autonomy.
Part III: The Berkeley Barb and the Oracle
San Francisco produced some of the most influential papers of the underground press. Home to the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panthers, the city provided fertile space for anti-establishment discourse.33 Ramparts had been published there since 1964 and was followed by papers with quite different commercial models and aesthetic priorities, most notably the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Oracle.34 The differences between these two papers clearly demonstrate variations on the struggle within the counterculture to imagine alternatives to norms in sexuality and gender relations. Both papers were very accessible: low production costs generally meant low consumer costs. The Oracle sold for 15c per issue and the Barb initially for 10c weekly (rising to 15c in August 1967, even as the revenue generated by their lucrative sexual personal ads meant the paper was turning a good profit). Circulation figures for many of these newspapers are difficult to pin down: print runs were often thousands of copies, but the ‘pass-around’ rate was high, so circulation figures often far outstripped the print numbers.35 The Underground Press Syndicate facilitated the free sharing of material between networked papers. A year later, the Liberation News Service offered another source of shared news articles and photographs for subscribing papers.
Sharing content allowed papers to craft both local and national messages: they could send their own reporters to cover local events and could use syndicated material to address national or global stories. While this served to keep costs low and encourage new startups, it also facilitated the creation of an echo chamber for contentious issues like gender. Editors were almost always men.36 The hippie was universalised as male. Most papers certainly employed female writers and illustrators, but it is not clear how much influence they held over editorial lines that were either set at the national level by the LNS and the UPS or at the local level by male editors who, like Hinckle, often played stories for revenue-generating shock value. Of the two papers considered in detail below, the Barb had much more female input than did the Oracle. Despite this, the Barb’s tone remained macho and laddish; from 1968 onwards, it is difficult to find a front page that does not feature a nude or semi-nude woman, despite the rising profile of feminist activism. As longtime editor Max Scherr famously quipped, ‘Tits above the fold. It’s how you sell papers’.37
Scherr’s attitude set the editorial tone of the Barb. First published in 1965, the Barb was a weekly newspaper, targeting the growing hippie and movement communities in Berkeley. From its humble beginnings in Scherr’s living room, it served as a vehicle for the Free Speech Movement, and eventually became an important communication tool of the Vietnam Day Committee and other local anti-war groups in the Berkeley and San Francisco areas. The first run of the magazine was 1200 copies; by the end of the 1960s, circulation was between 70,000 and 90,000 copies per week.38 With its Don Quixote masthead and its tabloid-style double-entendre headlines, the paper became a New Left and counterculture institution. As such, it is a good weathervane for West Coast countercultural opinion. It was one of the most successful (in terms of circulation and revenue) organs of the alternative press. It was also particularly notorious for its advocacy of free love, which fed the growing list of sex personals that appeared in the paper from late 1967 onwards.
A cult hit rather than a commercial success, the Oracle was printed for the first time in September 1966. The full run came to a total of 13 issues (including the first issue, which was published under the title PO Frisco). Published not quite monthly, the final issue came out in February 1968. The editorial team of the paper changed several times over its short life. Under the editorship of Allen Cohen (from issue four onwards) the paper experimented with new layouts and printing techniques. A significant proportion of the contributions were anonymous, but even among those that were not, it is rare to find acknowledged female contributors. The later issues (from issue six onwards) feature illustrations by Hetty McGee Maclise, but these were unattributed in the original copies.39 Most of the attributed content was authored by men. It is not clear how much input McGee had in editorial decisions.
The influence of the Oracle was quite disproportionate to its small number of issues: a cultural rather than political vehicle, it captured the imagination of a locality in Haight-Ashbury which was at the fulcrum of defining the counterculture. It was primarily concerned with artistic expression, and commanded enormous weight in hippie, beat and LSD circles. Indeed, LSD may have been key to the success of the Oracle: In Smoking Typewriters, historian John McMillian reminds us of the rumours that the Oracle received funding from the underground LSD chemist Owsley Stanley40. A preoccupation with the psychedelic was clear from the design of the paper, which eventually pioneered split fountain printing techniques to produce impressive tie-dyed effects.41
The editors, printers and contributors of the Oracle were deeply interested in the aesthetics of the counterculture. Unlike the Barb, this was not a political paper, nor did it seek to locate itself outside of the social scene specific to Haight-Ashbury. For Cohen, the purpose of the Oracle was to serve as an outlet for creativity and for art; he called it the ‘Rosetta Stone for hippies’.42 Together, the Barb and the Oracle provide us with a set of indicators that encourage rethinking the ways that countercultural ideas around gender and sexuality were curated and spread through the underground press.
Part IV: The Oracle and the aesthetics of sex
From the very first issue of the Oracle, the objectification of women was pervasive. After the death of Lenny Bruce in August 1966, the editor George Tsongas wrote a quasi-obituary for the comedian, who was known for a specific brand of lewd humour that resulted in a conviction for obscenity. His description of Bruce’s bar in Jackson Heights, NY, established the focus of the male gaze: ‘It was a place to swing, to pop for a drink, to search for a perfumed maiden … The sex was lousy: the women often beautiful …’.43 Beside this on the front cover was a line drawing of a naked woman draped over a sofa, with her back to the viewer, wearing a Nazi symbol on a band around her upper arm.
The passivity of the image and the subversion of femininity as fascist are striking. Years later, one of the Oracle’s editors, J. M. Brownson, would acknowledge the paper was a ‘predominantly male project in a pre-feminist era. Women’s voices were in the chorus … but not accorded sufficient recognition’.44 (Brownson was correct: there were some women in the chorus. For example, an article by a Frances R. Bell, also published in the first edition, gave an account of her experiences in jail after being arrested at a demonstration.45) But in defining the period from 1966–1968 as ‘pre-feminist’, Brownson more than hints at a problem with perspective. Already by 1968, the voices of feminism were increasing in volume. To think of 1968 as ‘pre-feminist’ is to be deaf to an already apparent cultural shift. Brownson’s statement years later smacks of defensiveness.
In the same set of interviews, The Oracle’s editor Allen Cohen took an equally defensive line in listing the number of women illustrators who were important to the paper.46 But the reality was that any ‘chorus’ of women remained largely invisible, even as the magazine championed a break from conventional sexual expression. Another story in that first issue describes ‘The craft of masturbation’, telling readers that ‘he who has conquered the craft of masturbation is free to live and love or not as he chooses. This is so because all mock living and faulty loving is in fact nothing else than camouflaged and unsatisfactory masturbation’.47 The radical imagination could clearly not conceive of masturbation as a ‘craft’ practiced by women.
For the most part the reliance on the aesthetic of sex and the focus on the female form as object or as image produced purely for a deviant heterosexual male gaze, was aimed at provoking the authorities into accusations of obscenity. This was counterculture in practice: the editors actively sought to challenge the establishment and they chose to do this by fetishising the female. For example, in the first ‘proper’ issue of the Oracle an uncredited column, entitled ‘Lick My Cock, Says Berkeley’, castigates ex-police chief Addison Fording for his public criticism of Oracle contributor Michael McClure’s play, The Beard.48 The police had shut down several productions in San Francisco and Berkeley, charging obscenity. The editorial team deliberately set out to provoke further confrontation.49 This set a tone within the paper where the boundaries of obscenity and challenges to public morality drove the visual content, which was becoming more aesthetically sophisticated as experimentation with printing techniques continued. Naked women adorned pages in most issues, often channelling exotic themes and evoking woman either as dangerous temptresses (Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cleopatra), agents of aggression (Amazons) or spiritual guides (depictions of Native American women).50
The consequence – perhaps unintended, but nonetheless influential – was that the female form became a tool for challenging authority. But it was a tool wielded by men. The aesthetic of the female body was controlled by an editorial team that reinforced, rather than reimagined, female sexuality as already understood in the very society whose norms they sought to disrupt. This was driven in part by the legacy of art censorship (especially in film and comics) during the 1950s, when a series of Senate subcommittee hearings sought to investigate the links between comic reading and juvenile delinquency.51 In response, the Motion Picture Association of America rewrote their code in order to censor sexuality and violence, and the result was that most mainstream cartoon media reflected traditional values. It is clear that the artists who produced illustrations in underground presses aimed to undercut this pervasive censorship, but the resulting sexualisation of women in cultural terms was not aimed at empowering women; it was designed to use and maintain the ‘otherness’ of the female body in order to provoke confrontation. The female body thus became an obscene provocation rather than a vehicle for corporeal liberation and sexual self-determination.
One notable exception to this rule was the dedication of issue four of the Oracle to Lenore Kandel’s Love Book, a set of poems that, like McClure’s Beard, had been seized upon by the local police as an example of pornography. Kandel was something of a celebrity in hippie circles: a friend of Jack Kerouac – who immortalised her as the character Romana Swartz in Big Sur – Kandel was the only woman to speak on stage at the Human Be-In in January 1967. The ‘Love Book’ issue reprints some of Kandel’s poetry, along with a commentary by Kandel herself on the importance of free speech on sexuality. ‘Any form of censorship, whether mental, moral, emotional or physical, whether from the inside out or from the outside in, is a barrier against self awareness’, she wrote.52 This rebuke was certainly aimed at the police, but we could equally read it as a criticism of the wider counterculture, at risk of censoring their own understanding of sexuality and gender hierarchies.
The exception of the Kandel issue does not negate the wider problem: even in this issue, most of the contextualisation of Kandel’s work is through a male gaze. Notably, Patrick Gleeson writes about the police reaction to Kandel’s work, in an article entitled ‘6 [sic] Professors in Search of the Obscene’. Gleeson locates the roots of censorship in personal sexual appetites: ‘I’m always pretty disturbed when I see the response of the police to anything that has to do with civil rights and young girls!’, he writes. ‘Young girls are interested in civil rights and the police have a kind of prurient interest in young girls. So maybe it’s not accidental that Lenore Kandel’s book is the one that is seized’.53 When the Love Book was published, Kandel was 34 years old. By casting her as a ‘young girl’ and drawing attention to the police response to her work, Gleeson was disempowering Kandel: simultaneously infantilising her and setting her up as an object of deviant desire.
This reductive approach was widespread. In the Oracle, the artistic emphasis on image meant that women were often reduced to ‘object’ rather than active subject. Even in its penultimate issue, Harry Monroe wrote about ‘The Instrument of the Womb’, in which he reaches back into antiquity to examine the possibilities of different gender orders and alternative ways of ordering gender relations.54 For Monroe, the ways that capitalism had harnessed the ‘instrument of the womb’ helped to explain modern gendered divisions. This kind of approach certainly reflected wider discussions about the intersection between class and gender, but the authority of critical comment remained heterosexual and male. Thus, even when womanhood was a central theme, women themselves remained marginalised by editorial decisions taken by male editors over the production of content. The male gaze was central; women remained in a soft-voiced chorus.
The reality is that the female voice is stifled in the pages of the Oracle. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Houseboat Summit issue, which was dedicated entirely to a rambling LSD-fuelled discussion between Tim Leary, Allen Ginsburg, Gary Snyder and Alan Watts about how to develop a psychedelic utopia in the aftermath of the success of the Human Be-In at the Golden Gate Park a few weeks previously.55 The four men met on Alan Watts’ houseboat, moored in Sausalito, California, along with a small audience. Allen Cohen, the Oracle’s editor, was also invited and reproduced the entire transcript of the ‘summit’ in the paper, including the rare audience interjections.
The conversation revealed some important splits between personalities who had a cult following in ‘the movement’. Only weeks before, Leary had encouraged attendees at the Human Be-In to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’.56 But his vision of being off-grid did not challenge sexuality and traditional gender norms, which in the course of the summit are discussed purely from the male perspective. Most notably, Snyder and Leary engage in a lengthy discussion of the benefits of group marriage.57 For Snyder, promoting an extended understanding of what constitutes family would facilitate group marriage and this in turn would privilege matrilineal descent, which he sees as the key to ending capitalism. Leary is less convinced, prompting a discussion of the meaning of ‘fidelity’. None of this was particularly novel: Emma Goldman had made a similar critique of marriage and its links to capitalism nearly fifty years beforehand.58 This discussion of marriage, family and matrilineal descent exists in a context where women are purely theoretical. The only disruption comes from a woman in the audience who makes a brief remark, which is quickly laughed off. Noted in the transcript as ‘Female VfA’ (female ‘Voice from the Audience’), this is the only indication that there were any women present at all.59
This lengthy exchange (it runs to well over 20 pages) between male luminaries of the movement reveals the limits of the radical imagination in relation to sexuality. Tim Leary, the poster child of alternative living, could not quite envisage non-monogamy as an alternative to marriage. Hung up on ‘infidelity’, a lengthy conversation between Snyder and Leary reveals, perhaps surprisingly, Leary’s moral conservatism. Did his radical imagination find it difficult to conceptualise alternatives to the sexual status quo? Accompanying the printed transcript was a line art representation of a woman, drawn in the Matisse-esque line-profile style favoured by the French countercultural artist Wolinski. Wolinski’s highly sexualised line drawings featured regularly in the pages of French alternative magazines, especially in L’Enragé, the short-lived weekly satirical quarto magazine that had a cult following with the student left in France.60 Like Wolinski’s cartoon women, representations of women in the Oracle often emphasised large breasts over any other feature. As illustrated by the front pages of the Berkeley Barb at the end of 1969, this was a recurrent theme throughout the underground press. Within a counterculture so deeply entrenched in a certain provocative aesthetic of womanhood and an editorial model that demonstrated limited ability to think past this to challenge the status quo, it was difficult for women in the movement to create space for alternative conversations around gender.
Part V: Revolting women in the Berkeley Barb
While the Berkeley Barb was driven much more by financial interest than the more artistically oriented Oracle, similar problems pertained. If anything, the Barb’s editorial line was more deliberately misogynist: women’s political and sexual autonomy were constantly sacrificed at the twin altars of provocation and revenue. In one article in October 1965, the new legal status of topless waitresses in San Francisco was compared with the activities of the Free Speech Movement (FSM), especially the women in the FSM who had been arrested and refused to post bail.61 The unnamed reporter suggested that, in order to expedite their release, the women of the FSM should attend an upcoming court case topless. The implication was that they could then plead for the same civil rights that were being sought by the city’s topless waitresses. The suggestion, while very much tongue-in-cheek, served to sexualise political women and simultaneously depoliticise their actions. If this was an isolated story, we could overlook it. But it was not. The Barb specialised in juxtaposing politics with sex. A close reading of the issues produced between 1966 and 1968 illustrates that, in most cases, the radical woman was rendered passive. The aesthetic was important: there are lots of images of women, but the active voices of women are largely absent until after 1968.
For women, the key challenge was the Barb’s editor Max Scherr. From 1968, one of the most prominent women at the Barb was Judy ‘Gumbo’ Albert, one of the founder members of the Yippies along with her husband Stew.62 Famously, Judy was nicknamed ‘Gumbo’ because her husband was Stew Albert and the joke was that gumbo went well with stew.63 In May 1969, Judy wrote an article about the women’s movement under the now easily-recognisable pseudonym ‘Gumbo’. The article was a response to a letter-writer in the previous week’s issue who had criticised a Women’s Liberation speaker at a recent ‘Free Huey’ rally in San Francisco. According to Albert, Scherr was responsible for the deliberately tongue-in-cheek headline, ‘Why the Women are Revolting’, which she objected to.64 Decades later, at a conference in Boston, Albert recalled her reaction:
Max Scherr, you are a two-faced male chauvinist pig. Before I could speak, and without looking up Max said, ‘Too busy. Don’t bother me’, and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. ‘Why the Women are Revolting’ appeared on page five of that week’s Barb. Instead of a graphic of a naked woman, a headline in three inch tall black capital letters read, PIGS SHOOT TO KILL – BYSTANDERS GUNNED DOWN. Our march for women’s freedom dissolved into the bloodshed that was People’s Park. I told myself it didn’t matter …65
It is perhaps telling that the only thing more demeaning than the graphic of a naked woman (which Albert expected) was the choice to negate its very importance through juxtaposition with something deemed much more significant. Women were not important; this was not ‘real’ revolution.
This passive-aggressive misogyny at the editorial level meant that, in most cases, the burgeoning conversation about women’s liberation was repeatedly dealt with as a sideline and a distraction. As we have seen, in the Oracle these attitudes were reinforced by the belief that the female body was most useful as an object to undermine the censors, to undermine the mainstream and to produce the ‘counter’ in counterculture. In her discussion of political pornography in West Germany, Mia Lee suggests that artists routinely used sexually explicit images in order to establish their credentials as social renegades and misfits; deviant sexuality was a proxy for revolution.66 As in Germany, part of the thrill for the Barb came from evading prosecution. But maintaining the focus of deviance on the female body ensured that any glimpses of alternative narratives for women proved fleeting. Albert herself remembered that she admired the Robert Crumb cartoon of ‘Lenore Goldberg and the Girl Commandos’ that appeared for the first time in Motor City Comics in 1969.67 Goldberg was a young Jewish woman of strong stature, who wore knee-high boots and socked it to the police, encouraging people to join the revolution or die!68 But Crumb was also known for his production of openly misogynist material for several of the underground papers.69 Trina Robbins recalls talking to one of the writers for the East Village Other (who published several of Crumb’s cartoons) and asking him to question Crumb on his hostile portrayal of women. According to Robbins, Crumb had no hesitation in admitting his hostility towards women.70 This was not unique to Crumb and reflected prevailing attitudes, but it certainly illustrates how limited the opportunities were for women to assert any control over the editorial direction of many of the main underground presses. Trina Robbins credits her reaction to Crumb and her reaction to hearing about Max Scherr’s treatment of Judy ‘Gumbo’, as the impetus for her turn towards feminism.71
Part VI: Adult adverts: A radical imagination of sex?
The Berkeley Barb made its reputation on advocating for free love. Alongside the anti-war stories and local politics sat stories about sex parties, nude protests and orgies.72 Controversially, Max Scherr used the paper to champion Jefferson Poland’s Sexual Freedom League (SFL), which had suffered a split in the summer of 1966 between those who wished to engage in orgies and those who wished to promote sexual openness and lobby for changes in the laws governing abortion and censorship.73 In the Bay area, the high profile of the ‘orgy’ splinter group of the SFL led reader Barbara Lucas to complain, in a letter/poem published by the Barb in June 1966, that the Sexual Freedom League was an arm of a capitalist system which exploited women. Her poem is anti-prostitution, anti-capitalist and calls on women of the world to rise against the ‘coarseness and brutality of the male world’.74 Her position is not unique. Indeed, Tim Leary’s previously mentioned defence of monogamy in the ‘Summit’ issue of the Oracle is echoed throughout the reactions to the Barb’s support for the SFL; a year before the ‘Summer of Love’, the readers of the Barb – radicals like Leary and Lucas – remained uncomfortable with the implications of ‘free love’. While Leary seems to have explained this through a beatnik romanticisation of ‘fidelity’, Lucas clearly saw the problem more in terms of a reproduction of capitalist flaws. Her poem foreshadowed the ideological contradictions that the Barb would display from 1967 onwards.
By late 1967, the most famous and most lucrative feature of the Barb was its personal advert section. It was so wildly successful that by the early 1970s the section was spun off into its own separate volume, Spectator Magazine.75 In Sean Stewart’s edited collection of memories and anecdotes from the underground press, Judy Gumbo Albert recalls that one of her first jobs for the Berkeley Barb was ‘doing classified sex ads’.76 For the most part, people would come to the Barb office on University Avenue and place their ads in person. Perhaps for security, but probably to ensure payment, no ads could be placed over the phone. Space for finding a soul mate or a sex mate, was limited. The maximum number of characters allowed for any ad was 204: between 22 and 27 characters on line one and up to five subsequent lines of 30 characters each. The cost was fifty cents per line or part-line, with a minimum charge of $1.77 The classified ads section was called ‘Adadada’, a word made up of a repetition of the word ‘ad’, but also reminiscent of Dadaism, the European avant-garde movement of the early twentieth century that was also accused of misogynist tendencies.78 The Adadada form was decorated with a line drawing of a naked woman, her eyes closed, arms above her head and her legs to the side, spread. There was no doubt as to the purposes of the personals section. Most of the placers of ads were heterosexual males and those who chose to give information about themselves tended to identify as countercultural, hippie or ‘movement’ types. According to Albert, while the sex classifieds generated a steady stream of income for the Barb, the real revenue came from larger full-page display ads paid for by nightclubs, massage parlours and promoters of rock concerts, all tapping into a young audience which was presumed to have disposable income.79 More often than not these ads targeted heterosexual men and portrayed naked or semi-naked women, often with long hair draping over their naked breasts.
The personal ads were not a prominent feature of the earlier issues of the Barb, but by 1968, when women were pushing a conversation about gendered power relations within the movement, the popularity of the Barb was driven by the adverts. This spike in popularity is important for two reasons. First, since most of the personal ads (as opposed to those for massage parlours or other sex work) were placed by men, it is debatable how much the ‘free love’ agenda spoke to the interests of women.80 Second, much like Tim Leary and Gary Snyder in the pages of the Oracle in 1967, many of the ads reveal a tension between those who wanted to embrace more eclectic sexual practices and those who were attached to a more traditional idea of love and relationships. There is a wide variation in language and style, from ‘man would like to meet girl for friendship, sex’ (5–11 January, 1968), to ‘male 33 quietly swings wants girl between 21–35, attractive and intelligent, who does likewise. If sex is your bag, let us frolic together. Orgys [sic] permissible’ (12–18 January 1968), to much more hardcore (and illegal) requests, including those for paedophilia and BDSM. By 1969, the number of adverts looking for gay sex had steadily increased, reflecting the importance of the newspaper to gay men living in Haight-Ashbury, which was quickly becoming an important safe haven for gay men and women.
The ads were so synonymous with the Barb that they occasionally made the front cover. The collage cover of a June 1969 issue included a cutout of a half-naked Ronald Reagan throwing a football, accompanied by the ‘ad’: ‘Need a MODEL? Try RONNIE. A groovy butch stud; well hung; versatile; leather. Available ANYTIME’.81 Without a doubt, there was certainly an extension and a liberation of the ways that sex was spoken about in public. But from these adverts, one can see the ways that (as Mark Harris in the Atlantic put it in 1967) these were ‘middle class children to the bone’.82 Despite sexual liberation, it is clear from the Barb adverts that they did not fundamentally challenge dominant attitudes towards gender roles. In amongst the adverts for swinging, young female and male ‘models’ and leather daddies, heterosexual men wanted women to clean, women they could dominate and women who would look after children. And more often than not, when they were looking for women they wanted one at a time. Yes, the scope for sexual expression was widened considerably – but the underlying assumptions about gender remained largely the same, at least in relation to heterosexuality.
The incident with the headless woman in Ramparts was not isolated: the underground press actively marginalised women and widened the gap that women in the movement experienced between reality and the promise of change. The sexualisation of women, without really questioning the methods or consequences, demonstrated that the counterculture was not all that ‘counter’. Instead, the kinds of gender roles that were evident in mainstream 1960s society, where women remained structurally marginalised, were reproduced. Much of this was due to the relentless sexualisation of women in ways that reduced their ownership of their sexuality. Men in the movement manipulated female sexuality in order to undermine women’s social and political authority. Speaking in 1991, Allen Cohen of the Oracle offered this as an explanation of the sexism within the underground press:
The attitude within the alternate culture in the sixties was still sexist but what was happening was preparing for the breakthrough of women into equality both because they were working in common with men in the anti-war movement and also, I believe, because so many people were taking LSD and realizing their tremendous cosmic unity, their potential … whether they were men or women didn’t make any difference.83
Allen’s analysis casts the underground press as a means towards equality. His is a teleological explanation: for women’s rights to be thrown into relief, the alternative culture had to be misogynist. In reality, the press was plagued with problems that rendered a sensible discussion of women’s oppression (in the movement and outside of it) very difficult or even impossible. The preoccupation around the censorship of sexuality resulted in the objectification of women and their bodies. Where expectations of participatory democracy should have yielded more active involvement in the New Left and the counterculture, the dominance of the male gaze and the male voice in the counterculture’s communication architecture – the underground press – meant that this was virtually impossible.
Women’s reactions to this problem revealed the vulnerabilities of the movement press and accentuated already visible fractures within the movement itself. The takeover of the Rat: Subterranean News in New York in January 1970 was an explosive reaction to pervasive sexism in that newspaper. The outrage in Robin Morgan’s ‘Goodbye to All That’ is framed as a response to a litany of abuses: ‘the cover on the last issue of Rat (front and back). The token ‘pussy power’ or ‘clit militancy’ articles. The snide descriptions of women staffers on the masthead. The little jokes, the personal ads … No more well-meaning ignorance’, she warned. ‘[N]o more co-optation, no more assuming that this thing we’re fighting for is all the same’.84 In similar ways, female staffers at the Barb became increasingly resistant to the publication of the sex ads: the personals section was always run by women and they made common cause with some of the female sex workers who came into the office to place ads on behalf of massage parlours and brothels. This common cause was broken after the ads were completely siphoned off into Spectator Magazine in the late 1970s. We could perhaps see this division of the business of the Barb as a microcosm of the wider movement: an inability to see past conventional patterns of gendered oppression, leading inevitably to disillusion.
Dominated by editorial personalities, operating at a fast pace, with the aid of LSD and at a time when it was easy to commodify sex, editors could score easy points against the mainstream culture by fetishising womanhood. In doing so, they missed an opportunity to imagine either gender or sexuality differently and to effect radical change without the splinters that divided the movement in the 1970s.