FLOWER CROWNS AND THE PUNCH OF PROTEST (part 1)
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 • 14 • 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 Instagrams 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 whether those who actually lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s see 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:
In her twenties, Leslie Ayvazian ignored the turbulence of the the ‘60s and ‘70s yet, in the words of one of her critics, “ended up largely embodying it.” She spent her youth riding motorcycles, smoking cigarettes, and having lots of boyfriends. Now, she is an acclaimed playwright and professor at Columbia University. Her play “Mention My Beauty” is about growing from that younger, lost self, into the woman she is today.
What did your life look like during your 20s?
I was the oldest one of three girls. I was given the category of the “pretty one;” my middle sister was the smart one, and the youngest was the athletic one. Although there weren’t any outspoken rules about what that meant, it definitely did give us a box as though we were not to intrude on the others’ territory. As the pretty one, I was never really sure what that bought me.
Being the pretty one in the ‘60’s and ‘70s appeared to be an interesting and valuable ticket. But it wasn’t just that I was pretty. I felt that I was also not particularly smart, not particularly coordinated. I didn’t really know what one was supposed to do about being pretty. What did that mean? Where did that get you? There was an enormous amount of struggle for a pretty girl to benefit in the world somehow, basically on her looks, which is a hollow way to go.
I developed a certain charm, I developed a certain winning personality, a swagger. I smoked cigarettes, I rode motorcycles, I got in trouble. I was very good at getting boyfriends because that’s one thing pretty can do for you. I believed that somehow getting boyfriends was an achievement.
How did being deemed pretty affect your female friendships?
I was competitive with other women. I was intimidated by them. I was afraid of the Women’s Movement. I thought that Gloria Steinem was a woman with effortless beauty and I was a woman full of effort. I was overwhelmed by the fact that someone could be as smart, as brave, as focused as Gloria Steinem. And also, have that remarkable appearance. So I didn’t march with the women in Washington.
I squirreled away in my own life going from job to job, working as a secretary. I was supposed to get married (because that’s what girls did in my day) to somebody I went to school with and he was a very decent good guy. My family really liked him. He was my first lover. But I didn’t feel that he was the lover that I had been waiting for and so I left him. In 1967, leaving somebody because they weren’t a good lover was a very radical thing to do. And I told my parents and my grandparents that’s why I was going.
Then I just went off like a gypsy and had a lot of relationships and really sort of was running in circles. Just running all the time, trying to be attractive, trying to be chosen, trying to be wanted, trying to be sparkly. In the end, it just wore me down and I suffered. But along the way, I saw this young man in Southern California and he and I ended up moving into New York City at the same time. I asked him out on a date. Then, I asked him out on another date and on our second date I asked him to marry me. He said no. He was five years younger, he had just gotten out of Harvard, and he wanted to “do the do” and I said, “No, no, no, just please marry me.” And he did. We got married in nine months and that was 41 years ago.
How did marriage change your image of yourself?
Once I married him, I basically had a breakdown. I broke down everything I knew about myself and the way I was in the world and lost it all. I became very phobic, unable to be in crowds or ride subways. There was a period in time when I couldn’t get off my bed. He, at 23, was in architecture school. He would just sit next to me building his models and doing his drawings, and over a period of time, he soothed me. It was the beginning of me moving into health.
At that point, me at the age of 29, I started in the active job of recognizing that I did not want to be defined by the patriarchy, that I needed to know what women were doing, and talking about, and where they were going. I had become a fierce advocate for women’s voices. I have done writing groups just for women for over 40 years and I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of women. I teach and do lectures and series and panels about the kind of language women use for themselves and for others and how that has been co-opted from the patriarchy and it is filled with diminishment. And how to undo that kind of thinking, how to find who you are as a person, not just as a woman, but as a person, and fill that out, test that, move into that.
My life has grown from that girl, smoking the cigarette. I also got in a motorcycle-riding accident which really threw things. I was unconscious for days. I lost my balance and my short term memory and I broke many bones and had a terrible concussion and had to recover from that. That was me living the fast life, the dangerous life, the street life. I took a lot of bumps when I was leading that life.
But it helped forge who I became, which is a woman who is willing to stand up and speak and reveal some of my inner lining, what I’ve been through, and how I’ve hit 70 years old standing in gold loafers and a music stand, talking to people, doing my show Mention my Beauty. Repeatedly, people thank me for this show.
Were you happy in your 20s?
I was a kind of happy. I wasn’t happy like I am now, because I wasn’t confident. It’s very hard to be happy when you don’t believe in yourself; it’s very hard when you’re wearing a mask and carrying around a posture and an attitude, when you’re trying to fulfill what you think you should be instead of what you are. You get stoned a lot, you smoke a lot of cigarettes, you try to talk yourself into thinking you’re happy. Was I happy then? I was lively, I laughed a lot, I was popular. I basically got what I wanted, but I didn’t know what I wanted. And what I wanted wasn’t right for me.
What was it like being young during the Sexual Revolution, the Vietnam War, the rise of counterculture, etc.?
The ‘60s were a definite parentheses time. We all knew that we had energy and beauty and hippieness and Bob Dylan and Free Love and marijuana. We all knew that we were real different than our parents. Our parents’ generations were suffering from WWII, so they were of the “shut it down and play it close to the chest” mindset. We were in the “well, we’re here now. We’re exploding into actualization,” and that includes love and drugs and big dreams, big, big dreams, and a real remarkable bravery, constant marchings and chantings and believing and uniting and collaborating and feeling like we were a community.
We had the Vietnam War that united us; we all stood up and fought back. We believed in such an ingenuous way that we could have an effect on Washington and we did. We believed we were going to change the world in every way, not just the war. We believed we were gonna stop hunger. We would have meetings about that on college campuses. We would go to different classrooms and cafes and talk about how we were going to stop worldwide hunger. What a remarkable thing! To have that kind of daringness to dream like that.
Our voices were heard so we felt very empowered and very free and things broke down between people. There was free love. People were having sexual relationships with each other; it was much more open, much freer and fluid.
Was sexism more rampant? Do you think there’s been a big change since the ‘60s and ‘70s?
Sexism was certainly part of that time, and we weren’t as alert to it as we are now. We expected our professors to be male, our doctors to be male, our president to be male. We lived like that!
There’s been somewhat of a change. There’s a great, big distance to go. We are not living in equality. We are not. We happen to be living in a time that is inviting conversation about the way women are secondary citizens in every way, have been made victims over and over by men who just don’t really respect the women they’re looking at and talking to. Or working with. Or sleeping with. Or marrying. I feel that we have made a distance that we have to hold onto.
We’re now in a period where women have chosen to be really brave. The person who had so much impact on my life, more than Gloria Steinem, was Anita Hill. When she came forward and said, “this is the sexual harassment that I have experienced.” And she, an African American woman, put herself on the line knowing no one was going to believe her. She was that brave. She was discredited. And now, women are coming forward all over the place and speaking out. I was a product of that. My professors hustled me when I was at school. And I had this motorcycle accident -- I was on crutches being hustled. I couldn’t even move fast enough to get away from them. There was nobody to go to about it. You were supposed to take it as a compliment.
Do you see more similarities between that time period and now, or more differences?
I think history does repeat itself, but I never think of us going backwards or even harkening back to the history. I think we have to be very careful and learn a lot about history and let it inform us, but we’re going forward. We’re hurtling forward. And of course there is the remarkable Dr. Ford. She is heroic. She’s had a profound impact. I feel enormous gratitude to her.
What was your favorite thing to wear in your 20s?
I wore the same thing all the time. I wore a pair of jeans, and tight tee shirts, and big, wide leather belts around my hips, and I had huge, long hair down to my waist that was very curly. We were flower children. We carried flowers, we made crowns out of flowers, we wore dresses that looked like flowers, both men and women. It was a feminine looking time. Men had long hair and fringe vests and flowered shirts. I wore my boyfriends’ clothes, we wore the same clothes and we loved that.
Speaking of boyfriends, have you kept in touch with any from your younger years?
I didn’t stay friends with my boyfriends. It was always passionate, dramatic, and over. But recently out of the blue, someone sent me a picture of my high school boyfriend. The last time I saw him, he was 17. In this picture, he was 71. I was asked to perform at my 50th high school reunion. That old boyfriend walked in the door to see me on stage -- and I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in 50 years -- and when he walked in, I was floored that he was still so handsome. I said to him, “You left me, didn’t you?” And he said, “Yes.” I said “Why?” and he said “You were a handful.”
Do you think you still are?
I was then and I am still. Only then I was trying not to be and now I try to be.
Where are you now, in terms of beauty and life?
I’m nearly 70 years old now. I look good and I’m proud of it. I believe that there is a kind of beauty that has nothing to do with patriarchal definition of beauty, but has to do with health and confidence. I have been summoning those things as I prepare to turn 70. I believe that this approaching decade will be the best decade of my life. Along with that, I’m claiming the fact that I’m still pretty, and I’m pretty as a woman my age, exactly because I’m healthy and well and confident ... I haven’t been erased.
I’m about to be a grandma. My daughter-in-law is having a baby in two weeks, so I’m just waiting and hovering. She’s having a girl; I want to be around and be here for that. I get to live in New York City in an apartment that looks out at the Hudson River and look at the storm that’s blowing in right now and the boats going through it all. I teach playwriting in the Columbia graduate school. I have an excellent life, a satisfying, really wonderful marriage, and a remarkable son and daughter-in-law. I get to do what I want to do, which is gather people and investigate what we’ve got to offer and how we give it to the world.