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Copyright 2009 Carolyn Gage

Published in Rain and Thunder: A Radical Feminist Journal of Discussion and


Activism, Winter, Northampton, MA, 2009.

Woodstock: A Counter-Countercultural Perspective

This August 15th was the fortieth anniversary of the “Aquarian Exposition” known
as Woodstock. I’ve watched the movie, listened to the two-hour PBS broadcast,
read dozens of articles and essays about the festival… and it feels to me like half
of the story is missing. The women’s half. Which is not that surprising. The war in
Iraq has been going on for six years, and it was not until last year that the
mainstream media began to get the word out that approximately one-out-of-two
female US soldiers was being assaulted sexually by her brothers-in-arms. This is
now seventy years after World War II, and an anthology on the sexual abuse of
women during the Holocaust is finally, just now, on the verge of being published.

But we’re talking about a music festival here, not a war or the Holocaust. Why am
I making such a dramatic and inappropriate analogy? Because there are some
universal factors surrounding the silence of women when it comes to the issue of
sexual assault: There may be shame. There may be fear. There may be self-
blame. There may be a context in which other abuses are seen as larger
priorities.

Did the women at Woodstock really have the same experience as the men? Are
the disproportionately fewer interviews from women really representative, or
could there be a self-censoring going on?

Let’s start with what we know. We know that 400,000 people showed up at a
festival designed for 50,000. We know that the plan to hire off-duty police officers
for security was scuttled at the last minute when a police commissioner decided it
would be a set-up for violence. We know that there were no trained or
professional security personnel hired for the event. We know that drug and
alcohol use and abuse were rampant. We know that some of the drugs were
dangerous. We know that many people got lost in the crowds, and that many
people got separated from their friends, their rides, their possessions.

What else do we know? It was 1969. It was seven years before the passage of
legislation that recognized sexual harassment as a violation of women’s legal
rights. We know it was actually six years before the term “sexual harassment”
would enter the popular vocabulary. In 1969, intimidation, bullying or coercion of
a sexual nature was called “teasing,” and the problem was defined as the victim’s
supposed lack of a sense of humor.

Another term that was not in mainstream consciousness in 1969 was “date rape.”
This is hardly surprising, when one considers that the first marital rape case to
reach the U.S. court system was not until 1978, nine years after Woodstock. If

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husbands could not be held legally accountable for raping wives, how
accountable should a boyfriend be? If he was engaged, was he entitled? What if
there had been a history of consensual sex in the relationship… or outside it, on
the woman’s part? These were open questions in the minds of the majority
during those celebrated “Three Days of Peace and Music.” It would take twenty-
seven more years before the President would sign into law the Drug-Induced
Rape Prevention and Punishment Act. A woman at Woodstock whose drink had
been spiked with LSD or whose joint had been laced with psilocybin had only
herself to blame for her drug-induced disorientation and vulnerability.

There was something else about 1969. It was less than five years into what
sociologist now call the Sexual Revolution. “The Pill” had been legalized in 1964,
and, in some states, it was still illegal for unmarried women to obtain
prescriptions. Young women who were practicing birth control at the time of
Woodstock were considered rebels and pioneers, emerging from a repressed era
of chaperones, dorm curfews, and terror of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Clearly,
women using birth control were not virgins, and, in the minds of many, this made
us fair game. The technology that had given women such unprecedented control
over our biology had also ushered in an era of unprecedented sexual pressure.

The “liberated” woman was expected to have sex on demand, or else she was
“hung up,” old-fashioned, and prudish. Who can forget the iconic, anti-war poster
featuring none other than Joan Baez, with the words “Girls say yes to boys who
say no”—as if our sexual compliance was our mandatory contribution to the anti-
war effort! With few adult role models for our new freedoms, this pioneering
generation of feminists was vulnerable to the propaganda of the Left, which, at
least, was not calling us whores. With fear of pregnancy out of the way, many
women had difficulty articulating resistance to sexual pressure. In one way, our
cultural heritage was consistent: We continued to allow men to define out
reality… and our liberation.

Let’s imagine one of these young, hippy women in 1969, who found herself on
the way to Woodstock for an August festival of rock music. She is probably
traveling with friends, roommates, or a boyfriend. Maybe she is traveling with
people she doesn’t know well. She might have even hitchhiked to get there. She
has brought a tent, maybe… and she is wearing cut-off jeans or hiphugger, bell-
bottom jeans, with a halter top or a smock. Her hair is long and loose, signaling
her rebellion against the tyranny of traditional codes of womanhood, which
dictated weekly visits to beauty salons and meticulous styling.

By Saturday night, there are nearly a half-million people at Yasgur’s farm. She
can’t find her tent, or maybe it’s been stolen. She has been drinking some beer
and someone passes her a joint. She takes a toke and passes it. Her friends
went to find food, but they haven’t come back. She won’t see them again until
she gets home on Monday. It’s raining, and someone invites her to share a tent.
She is assaulted. Or maybe it wasn’t really an assault, because she might have

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been making out… just to be polite. You know… he seemed to expect it. But she
didn’t really want to have sex. Not really. But it’s a festival, isn’t it? And isn’t that
just part of being at a festival… “getting laid?” That’s what the guys were doing,
right?

Even if she feels entitled to call it “rape,” where can she report it? There is no
security at the festival. Everybody knows that. Will she report it after she gets
home? What will she say? That one of the 400,000 undocumented festivalgoers
raped her? That she was stoned and drunk? That she was sleeping in a
stranger’s tent? That she had lost her friends? Will she tell her parents? And
when all her peers tell her how lucky she was to have been at Woodstock, how
groovy it was to have been part of such a demonstration of people coming
together in peace and brotherhood… will she want to tell them she was raped…
or groped, or harassed, or ogled? Will she want to point out how the “brothers”
had a totally different experience of the festival? After all, it’s 1969 and there is a
war on. Young men are being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Children are being
napalmed. Woodstock was a statement, a protest, an alternative to corporate
capitalism and Western imperialism! It’s not about her bad date. Really, she’s
missing the point of her own experience!

How many women experienced sexual trauma at Woodstock? Hundreds?


Thousands? Impossible to know, but the silence is eerie. Thirty years later, at
Woodstock ’99, a festival only half as large, the world would read about the four
reported rapes, the harassment, the lack of safety for the women. Was
Woodstock ’99 really all that different? Or was it just that women felt more
comfortable telling the truth about it?

In 1999, there was less incentive for myth making. There was no war, no
politicized counterculture making a statement. The young women at Woodstock
’99 had been beneficiaries of three decades of Second Wave activism: These
young women had laws, they had language, and many had feminist mothers.
Some of them knew a rape when it happened and some of them knew how to
report it to security personnel, who were present at this second Woodstock.

No, I was not at either Woodstock, but I was eighteen in 1969, and I did attend
concerts and protest rallies, and I know that in the late 1960’s, my generation
was silent, for the most part, about the sexism of the anti-war movement and the
misogyny of the counterculture. I know that all of the conditions that enabled and
enforced this silence were present at Woodstock and especially after Woodstock,
and I believe that the much-touted “Paradise” so frequently referenced in the
current documentaries may have been a living hell for nearly half the participants.

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