FLOWER CROWNS AND THE PUNCH OF PROTEST (PART 3)
IN A 3-PART SERIES, WE TALK TO WOMEN ABOUT HOW ACTIVISM AND FASHION HAVE CHANGED SINCE THE COUNTER-CULTURE OF THE ‘60S AND ‘70S — AND WHAT THEY’VE LEARNED OVER THE YEARS
By Genevieve Finn
10 • 28 • 2018
Clothing is semiotic.
When President Obama eased the U.S embargo on Cuba in 2014, tropical prints and Cuban-inspired silhouettes filled the following New York Fashion Week. During the 2008 economic recession, workwear’s turn on the trend cycle illuminated an American yearning for a time when unemployment wasn’t a national blight. Now, I see ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired fashion everywhere: floral dresses on campus, fur-trimmed coats on runways, bell bottoms in my own closet. Why?
I see major parallels between today’s events and the most iconic moments of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Women’s March Instagram posts mirror vintage photos of Vietnam War Protests; the Parkland High School activists of last Spring have used their voices similarly to the youth of yesteryear; a sexuality-related revolution seems to be under way, though this time it might be a reckoning of sexual harassment and a wider acceptance of LGBTQ+, as opposed to the more general Free Love Movement of past countercultures.
Curious as to if those who actually lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s are seeing it too, I interviewed three very fascinating, very different women on what has changed and what remains – or rather, what has reawoken – between the era of their twenties and this current one. Did people really wear flower crowns and hair down to their waists? Were people really doing as many drugs and having as much sex as we’ve been told in school? Have we leapt forward in gender equality? Is the punch of protest still as potent? Leslie Ayvazian, an NYC-based playwright and professor, Jesse Cool, a Bay Area-based pioneer of the “slow food” movement, and Gerry Fleuriet, a Texas-based community organizer and homemaker, generously enlightened me:
Gerry Fleuriet was born and raised in Harlingen, Texas. She graduated from college in 1965, married her high school sweetheart ten days later, and began a life revolving around family and community service. Though she lived in several cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard – along the way earning a Vanderbilt teaching degree, helping to create an arts and education festival (RioFest) for 43,000 people, and developing South Texas’ still-in-existence Emergency Medical Service – Gerry now lives contentedly with her husband in her long-time home back in Harlingen.
What did your life look like during the ‘70s? Were you happy?
I was 28 in 1970. I was very happy. I felt very grateful to have the loving parents and grandparents I’d grown up around in Harlingen. I’d married the man I was in first grade with. He’d moved away and come back, and we were high school sweethearts. We still have a photo from first grade together where my arm is around him.
He was in the military during the Vietnam War, but he was on the East Coast, in Norfolk, Virginia. He had a naval scholarship to Vanderbilt. Had we been stationed on the West Coast and gone to Vietnam ... He was a young naval officer, and frankly, the percentage of his age group (the first and second lieutenants) that survived Vietnam was not great. I was very grateful we were on the East Coast, in a safe place. It was a time of angst, but we were cosseted in a soft and secure landing, far more than many in our circumstance. It was a good time, a positive time for us personally.
The ‘70s were about coming-of-age, for us; we were beginning our family. I was at Peabody College, which is now the College of Education for Vanderbilt, which at that time was ranked second only to Columbia as a school of education. We just enjoyed being grown ups and doing our own thing.
I was deeply grateful that my husband was then able to go to Harvard Law. We met some extraordinary young families there. It was a time of challenge, academically, for him. It was new for us to be in the Boston area, and then in Houston -- places we’d never lived before! It was a time of transition.
Then we came home. That was actually the greatest challenge for me, coming back. I had loved growing up here [in Harlingen], but having left, I really felt like I’d come out of a cocoon, that I was a butterfly now and had some freedom. When we came home, the great joy was being with mother and daddy. Mother was extremely ill. She had advanced emphysema. We bought a home right around the corner and spent every moment we possibly could with her. We were able to give the children and her the gift of time together. People were surprised at our coming home, knowing the opportunities my husband would have had other places. But it was the right decision for us. I felt really shoved back into the cocoon for a while, until I found my footing.
I found my place in Harlingen through volunteer work. Our community had a wonderful group of women, most of us not working outside of the home. These were very talented women who could’ve been running corporations. They were wives and mothers, and how they were spending their time was by helping this community get on its feet, bringing in some serious cultural things, improving the education system, working as volunteers in the healthcare system.
In the ‘70s, I was involved in helping create an Arts Festival for 43,000 people. These were women just doing this, and they became my closest friends. We established the first real EMS system, regionally, going from a profit service. The medical community learned a lot from Vietnam, including the delivery of emergency care, and so the doctors came to some of us and said, “We can keep people alive if we can get them alive to the hospital.” I worked with a group of doctors and volunteers. We were able to establish a regional system, South Texas Emergency Medical System, and it became one of the outstanding EMSs in the state, and here we are 25 miles from the Mexican border.
Sometimes in smaller communities, you can make a greater difference. I love Boston, but I always felt like Boston did not need me, and ditto for Houston. But Harlingen did. It needed all of us. Part of our goal in creating the Arts Festival was that we needed to pull this community together. We wanted to create something that was not only for the entire community, but would require volunteers from throughout it so we’d have to work together and reach out. We had over 1,000 volunteers, we all worked together, and that goal was accomplished. The festival went for 30 years. We were able to do these things -- and these were women during the ‘70s!
When we talk about women who stayed at home, I think there’s a misunderstanding about what some of them were doing. They were creating community within their communities. I’ve been on the school board for 23 years and I’ve watched how strong leadership changes everything. The ‘70s were marked by that strong volunteer effort of women, many of whom were stay-at-home moms and wives, the impact of which in this community is immeasurable to this day.
The only reason women such as I have been able to do the kinds of community organizing that we were able to do so successfully is because we had strong, strong support from our husbands and children. They were so helpful, and so sacrificial, and so proud of us. We chose to do it within the home and community environment. Our children, the next generation, truly grabbed the ball and ran with it, and are now raising children who are doing the same thing.
What was it like being young during the the Vietnam War and the rise of counterculture, etc.? How did that affect you as a person?
Truthfully, we were not ever certain why we were in Vietnam. We were not ever supportive of that war. We did what we needed to do. We lost one of our very close friends while he was in training, before he ever got over there, which was a tragedy, and my older cousin – it was ghastly what he was going through. He was a POW. He came home fortunately.
We paid close attention to the protesting that was going on. We were emotionally and mentally supportive of that, but not involved. We lived in Norfolk, Virginia, and Athens, Georgia, during the Civil Rights Movement. We had a bird’s eye view of what was going on in the South. The time of trauma for us was really the ‘60s. We invited young people from the Poor People’s March to stay in our home in Norfolk as they went through town. We went down to be supportive of the Ministers March in Tennessee. We saw things that were very upsetting. It was a very troubled time in this country.
The other great trauma that did affect us: the assassinations, one after the other after the other. The two Kennedys and then Martin Luther King. I remember, after the third, I felt the world shaking under my feet. I remember thinking something was deeply wrong. Something was deeply wrong when a president, and then a presidential candidate, and then the leader of the Civil Rights Movement were assassinated in a short period of time.
Do you see more similarities between that time period and now, or more differences?
I see a lot of similarities. One thing that Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement did do -- with all the horror and the angst and the shouldn’t-have-had-to-happen -- people really found their voices. Young people really, really found their voices, with all of the protests. As I said, we lived in the South during the Civil Rights protests. It was the young people. And the ministers. The Ministers’ March was a beautiful thing to see. It shouldn’t have been necessary, but it happened, and they stood strong and tall as they walked down that street. It was a time when this country really stood up. So yes, absolutely, I do see similarities, primarily in people finding ways to speak out. I think it’s the healthiest thing we could have.
Was sexism more rampant? And, hand in hand with that, what was it like living through the Sexual Revolution?
I was blessed to grow up in a home where education for us three girls was a given. But I’ve got to admit -- and no one person ever said this to me, certainly not my parents who thought I could go to the moon and back -- here’s the thing: even still looking back, I was part of the generation of women who felt that the only options available were to be a secretary or a teacher — fine professions but limited choices.
One of the strongest things I noticed at Vanderbilt was the nursing school. I never felt the security of thinking I could do that. I look at it now as such a loss and immaturity on my part. I still had, deep down in my heart, the feeling that I couldn’t do anything but teach or do secretarial work, even though I was going to one of the best schools in my profession and doing well. My goals for myself are never the goals we have for our children or now our grandchildren. I never felt I could do anything special, except for the special things in the home. My big interest was in being with my husband and forming a family that would be able to give our children love and support. I look back and think that during the four years we were in Norfolk, I easily could’ve gone to Old Dominion and gotten a Masters Degree. I look back and think, ‘Why on earth did I not have that goal?’ I now have become someone who strongly has that goal for anyone, women and men.
Our children have five degrees, post-college. Two Masters and a PHD for our daughter, our son, a Masters and a law degree. They both studied at Ivies and earned their final degrees at Stanford. They did so well. My joy in them is enhanced because I realize their generation took the ball and ran with it. They changed the world. My generation was about changing the world at home.
As far as the Sexual Revolution, we knew about it because we would read magazines and keep up with it that way, but I was a little removed from all that. I was a girl from a small Texas border town who married her high school sweetheart; I had not ever been in that environment. Things in South Texas came later. Drugs, the Sexual Revolution, the fashion, as well.
Speaking of fashion, what was your favorite thing to wear in your twenties?
The ‘70s were a real kick off to be independent and do whatever you wanted to do. I remember the big hair, the hot pants, the muumuu dresses, the tie dye. The skirts were either really short or really long. My hippie-type younger sister, she was at UT when they were going to cut down a tree, and she climbed the tree! She was one of the ones the news media talked about. My sister is eight years younger than I am, and she and her husband really got into it. They had the long, straight hair. My brother-in-law wore a polyester suit to his wedding with those big pork chop sideburns.
We enjoyed being who we were. If you wanted to dress the way you saw in the movies in the ‘40s and ‘50s, you could. That’s who I was. I was more traditional. My style was probably trendy in its own way because it was less flamboyant, but a little dressier. I loved to wear pretty things. I had some of the “Mexican muumuus,” long dresses with embroidery on them. I loved to get things from Mexico. I enjoyed wearing culottes, and dresses with the big shoulder pads, and a lot of ensembles. Things had to match, your purses and your shoes. I would wear polyester pants suits, which also had the big shoulder pads. The pantsuits probably did have the bell bottoms on the pants, but my bell bottoms would be part of a set in a pantsuit while my younger sister would be wearing hers in something loose and cotton, with a big belt.
It was just such a time of freedom for all of us to choose what we wanted to wear. Everybody was experimenting and happy to find their own look. All of my friends I talked to [about these memories] had such big smiles. We all were just free; we didn’t have to be like the others. That’s what I remember the most about the ‘70s: the freedom to be.