Over twenty thousand people are gathering at the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California. As Scott McKenzie gets ready to sing “Summer of Love,” nobody has even the slightest idea that this particular song will be the start of the cliche hippies that everyone today knows as “flower children. ” The lyrics “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair” inspired people from all over the world to come to San Francisco – with flowers in their hair – the following summer.
This became known as the Summer of Love. Everybody knows what happened next: young people engaged in promiscuous sex, got involved in exploration of the consciousness by taking various drugs, and promoted world peace. When asked to describe a hippy, an average person will tell you that a hippy would have probably been wearing a tie-dye shirt, possess some sort of jewelry in the form of a peace sign, have long hair (most likely with flowers), and will almost always be high. However, what most people don’t know is when and where the hippies originated.
The conformity of post-World War Two (WWII) time called for reform and desire for a more chaotic existence, but only a small group of individuals were willing to make it happen. This is when the “struggling writers, students, hustlers, and drug addicts” of the 1950’s first came together (Envible. com). Jack Kerouac, a legendary writer and one of the first beats, was the first to call this group the Beat Generation (Envible. com). They supported rediscovery of self through casual sex, listening to music, expressing inner thoughts in writing, and learning new things. The ‘Beat Generation’ was composed of people fed up with American materialism and close-mindedness” (“The Beat Generation”). The word “beat” carried many connotations which could all be applied to the people of this movement; it meant “beaten and weary,” it made reference to a “music beat,” and in the drug world it meant you were cheated (“The Beat Generation”). They are also sometimes referred to as the Beatnik generation, but it means the same thing “’So I guess you might say we’re a ‘beat’ generation…It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately, of soul’” said John Clellon Holmes (“Beat Beginnings”).
Without a doubt, they were the most liberal and free spirited people America had seen up until then. But despite their wide acceptance of the unusual, the Beat women were not as popular as the men. Even though women played a major role in the Beat Generation, there is little mention of them due to the sexism of the time. Yes, even the uninhibited Beats thought of women as less talented or less capable. Gregory Corso, a well-known Beat writer, alleged that it was hard for women to get away with Bohemianism as they were deemed crazy and out of their minds (“Beat Generation”).
After World War II, women were forced out of their jobs because the men were back from the front and were able to fill all the openings. The women were shoved back to their domestic responsibilities and were encouraged to have the mindset that women had to grow up, find a mate, create a home, and have a family. Those who pursued a career rather than family were looked down upon, and were considered to be out of the “norm”. Because women were supposed to inhibit their sexuality, unwed mothers were considered sinful and corrupt.
The Beat movement was appealing to young women because the Beats were tired of society’s constraints and stereotypes of what everyone’s roles should be. However, the Beat women rebelled on a much lower level than men. They were not as unreserved in sex and drugs, but the rest of society considered them to be even filthier than the Beat men (Latvala). Joan Vollmer was the most central woman figure of the Beat Generation. She had a hunger for intellectual stimulation and liked to discuss various topics that were controversial, and often challenged the status quo.
She married William Burroughs, a primary member of the Beats and a legendary author who affected literature as well as pop culture. Despite his homosexual tendencies, they had a spiritual connection that amazed everyone. He was intrigued by her intellect and love of life; “she was attracted to Bill for his brilliant mind, outrageous proclamations, and vaguely sinister air” (“Joan”). She was not an artist, nor a writer, but others credited her to have been inspiration to their work.
William Burroughs claimed that her death inspired him to continue writing, and Allen Ginsberg based his masterpiece “Howl” on a dream he had of Vollmer. Due to Vollmer’s wide interest in intellectual matters, many Beat men sought her for mind stimulating conversations about art, literature, and philosophy among many other topics (Knight 49). Why then, if Joan was so respected by the Beat men, and inspired many of them to create works which would motivate others many years later, is she never given any significant remembrance in the Beatnik movement?
Joan Vollmer was not the only woman who expressed interest in creativity and learning. In fact, all the Beat women such as Diane Di Prima, Jan Kerouac, Anne Waldman, Ruth Weiss, and many others were known for their thirst for knowledge. Many Beat women, perhaps as many as men, created works of art and literature, but very few were published or recognized. “In many ways, women of the Beat were cut from the same cloth as the men: fearless, angry, high risk, too smart, restless, highly irregular” (Knight). Perhaps one of the main reasons for this was because they still considered themselves to be less capable than men. Perhaps they knew that critics, while hesitantly embracing novels by male Beats featuring behavior anathema to that of the ideal American, would receive such subject matter scathingly if published by a young woman” (Women of the Revolution). Although these young women were rebellious at heart, the double standard was still set deep within their minds from their childhood. Joyce Johnson, also a notable Beat woman, wrote a memoir, titled Minor Characters, where she described the motivations behind rebelling, and the constraints of women which arose even within the Beat society (Latvala).
She writes, “Once we have found our male counterparts, we had too much blind faith to challenge the old male/female rules” (Latvala). Beat women were often the providers for their families. Even though this may have looked as an attempt to overturn economic gender roles and went against everything the 1950’s families believed, this was merely done so that the men did not have to worry about anything except creating more works. Male Beat writers and artists knew the allegations against them, and were quick to respond trying to cover the severity of the situation.
Allen Ginsberg was quoted saying “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius” (Ginsberg). In a way, he was saying that the women were not talented enough except for a select few. Beat women were viewed as victims of an “allegedly male-dominated and phallocentric movement” (Prefiguring the women’s movement). In many ways, the Beat women were the role models for future feminists because they believed that women were capable of more than just being good housewives.
However, unlike the trendy feminist movement of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the Beat women did not have much support. As well as being misunderstood by the proper women of the 1950s, they were misunderstood by men in their own movement; these men did not comprehend why the women were always out to prove themselves to somebody. Most of the Beat women considered the tiniest ounce of independence an accomplishment. They dreamed big and wanted to “be a responsible person comparable to a man…to live what is generally regarded as a man’s life” (Grace). The Beat Women also raised children.
Some did it the more traditional way, and others created their own methods, thus enabling their offspring to have a more open mind, maybe even paving the road to the generation of Hippies. “One woman reminisced about an orgy that she had wanted to attend in her early days of beathood. But who, she wondered, would take care of the children? The women were forced to ask this question because the men wouldn’t. The men, who after all fathered those children, were too busy glorifying Bacchus. This was the 1950’s, even for the beats, and women’s responsibilities didn’t stop. (Bonca 258) Jan Kerouac, the only child of a famous Beat, Jack Kerouac, was born to his second wife, Joan Kerouac. Jack asked her to abort the child, and she refused. When Jan was born, Jack refused to take any responsibility for her. “Forced to choose between Jack and the baby, Joan embraced her own future without hesitation, and the marriage dissolved in mutual bitterness in the spring of 1951” (Knight 88). Because Joan was so independent, she did not allow Jack to dictate her life after the birth of Jan. Although Joan was an impressive writer, she never thought she had the talent. Although she wrote constantly and tirelessly throughout her life, Joan destroyed most of it, for she viewed her writing as something private, a way she worked things out for herself” (Knight 88). Diane Di Prima was one of the few exceptions of women who were able to make their works known and published. “Whenever anyone versed in the Beat Writers was asked about where the women Beats were, ‘Well,’ they’d start defensively, ‘there was Diane di Prima! ” (Petruccelli). Perhaps the reason for her success was her careless attitude towards men; maybe she did not acknowledge their superiority, or maybe she did not give into their stereotypes.
Due to her success she was able to open her own publishing company, and in return publish works of some women. In one of her later novels, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, Diane Di Prima says, “My grandmother taught me that the things of woman go on: that they are the very basis and ground of human life” (Di Prima 3). Perhaps her grandmother’s teachings of women being the caretakers of “all the practical aspects of life” gave Diane the mindset of being equal to, if not better than, men and enabled her to push forward with her life (Di Prima 2).
Maybe the rest of the talented and brilliant women of the Beat Generation simply lacked a strong female role-model, who would have told them what being a woman is all about. Brenda Knight compiled a book of various women Beat writers and their brief biographies called Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. Her book was one of the first of its kind and brought light onto the many gifted ladies of the Beat Generation. Many of the works in this book are private letters, journal entries, and poems written in times of despair.
These works give us insight into how the women of this time felt, and how they were able to express it only privately. Knight’s book includes over 40 women writers, some of whom have never been heard of before. Although Knight admires these women, she never states that any of them are as or more important than Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (Bonca 259); however, Knight does imply that their works were just as worthy of recognition and insists that these women should have been given their credit because of the accepting reputation of the Beatniks. Knight also never calls the women “Beat writers,” but purely “women of the Beat generation. (Bonca 259). This is because much of their writing was not “Beat” at all, and this may be a reason for why they were not recognized to begin with (Bonca 259). However, the Beat movement was not all about writing and creating art; it was about making a difference and making way for a new world where everybody was accepted for whatever they had to offer to the world – this is why the women should have been recognized as the men’s counterparts, so they could take on the world together. This was the reason Knight set out to make the works of the Beatnik women known.
Before the publishing of Brenda Knight’s book, some may have argued that there were no women Beat writers simply because it was a male, predominantly homosexual, movement and women were “mere accessories” (Kerkhoff). Some may also say that maybe the women of this movement preferred not to be published, that it was their own choice to keep their writings private. This logic is flawed because the women who joined the Beats were tired of living as somebody’s shadow; they wanted to make a name for themselves, and rebel against those who held them back from their full potential.
The Beatnik men should have recognized this instead of trying to push the women back to their long-established roles as the backgrounds for men. The Beat movement as a whole planted the seeds for the hippie movement. Toward the later 1960’s, the media’s involvement in and coverage of the Beats became overwhelming: “Not only was there an enormous amount of print coverage, but television was beginning to transform mass media once again” (Klinger-Vartabedian 215). In a way the hippies were just the sell outs of the Beat movement.
The astonishing women of the Beat movement were momentous in the fact that they challenged the traditional roles of women ingrained into the roots of history much before the term “feminism” even came about. The bra-burning hippy women that came after were following loosely in the footsteps of the Beatnik women. More than fifty years later, their revolution has had its impact. Women today are living the lives the Beat women could only dream of: many have successful careers, many are successful writers and artists, and many are capable of raising children without men and most are encouraged for this, instead of being punished and deemed crazy.