Women of the Counterculture in 1970s Vermont
by Cyndy Bittinger

Editor’s note: Cyndy Bittinger, a commentator on VPR, arranged for the speakers for this year’s women’s history month and gave the first commentary of the series on counterculture women in Vermont, which can be heard and read at VPR online along with the others.

“It was a turbulent era, in which we rejected the status quo of our childhoods, and searched for—or created—new definitions of community.” So said Liz Blum in her Vermont Public Radio commentary about being a young woman in the 1970s. As part of women’s history month, Blum, along with commentators Verandah Porche and Melinda Moulton, wrote and recorded their experiences as participants in the back-to-the-land movement.

Vermont, made more accessible by Interstates I-89 and I-91, was the beckoning country for these women, who were part of a wave of 100,000 young people, migrating to Vermont from 1967 to 1973. With cheap land and no formidable building codes, it was relatively easy to throw up a geodesic dome and move in.

Verandah Porch in her early 20s at Total Loss Farm in Vermont and today.

Blum, now the county chair of the Vermont Progressive Party, was named for labor activist and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She says, in her commentary, that she saw herself as a "revolutionary part of a global liberation struggle. We were interested in sexual liberation and changing our roles at home and in the world." Porche, a poet, performer, and essayist from Guilford, remembers coming to Vermont, at age 23. She and her companions arrived "fresh from riots in Washington, DC, we could see a future in the open fields, woods, rickety house, barn, and outbuildings." She and some 10 others formed the commune Total Loss Farm, named on a whim. Moulton, now the CEO of Main Street Landing in Burlington, arrived in 1973 with the father of her 1-year-old child, seeking to establish a self-sufficient homestead. Forty-four years later, they still live in the stone house they built by hand near Camel's Hump.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop into Vermont

It was feminism's second wave, and women were rejecting traditional society and all that went with it. The political firestorm in the nation, fueled in part by the Vietnam War, drove some to a rural setting: they wanted to reject participation in the draft for their male friends and a political structure that did not seem to include them. Few women were even in politics during this time period. Women also wanted to reject the norms of a society that allowed them to get a college education but kept them from obtaining substantial jobs once they graduated.

However, the back-to-the-land movement meant going very far away from the middle-class ideal of a good education, a good job, and upward mobility. The new settlers rejected materialism and chose voluntary poverty—farming and building homes and taking care of children without amenities. They got minimal jobs to keep the communes afloat. Manual work had to be done, and each commune determined how to structure that.

Women assumed new leadership roles in projects to promote "renewable energy, alternative schools, art collectives, community gardens, farmers' markets, food coops, day care centers, and women's networks," as authors Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, and P. Jeffrey Potash highlighted in their book Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont, discussing this era of Vermont history.

Yet personal exploration was also part of the experience. By eschewing the norms of the national society, they could set up new roles for women more easily than their sisters back in traditional settings. The communes provided female solidarity and consciousness raising, which quickly energized the young in cities across the country where the personal often became political.

Stories of the Counterculture

Moulton and Porche joined Euan Bear, Bridget Downey-Meyer, and Louise Andrews for a roundtable discussion about their experiences in the 1970s counterculture in late March. The discussion, presented by the Vermont Commission on Women (VCW) in partnership with the Vermont Historical Society, was held at the Vermont History Center, Barre, in late March. Moderated by Amanda Gustin, public program director at the Vermont Historical Society, the talk was live-streamed and recorded and can be heard online (go to http://women.vermont.gov/node/741 and click the link). Vermont Woman newspaper later interviewed Bear, Downey-Meyer, and Andrews.

Downey-Meyer was a member of the collective Mount Philo Inn from 1969 to 1973, in Charlotte, Vermont. She came to Vermont at age 23 as a single mother and worked at Adult Basic Education in Burlington. Her colleagues in the antiwar movement bought the inn, and she lived there and in other group housing situations for years. Most were Vermonters, and the women were trying "not to live lives determined by men."

Bridget Downey-Meyer in Charlotte, Vermont, early '70s and today at the Chittenden Food Shelf.

"We spent more time... on our personal evolution," she said. "It was exhilarating!" She established and worked at the People's Free Clinic for years.

Andrews was a member of Earthworks, a commune in Franklin, Vermont. She came to Burlington from Madison, Wisconsin, with a husband who would teach at UVM and two small children. Her family joined three other couples to form a farming commune without any farming background.

It was "all new and wonderful" to her. Their commune did try to "equalize the roles of men and women" with a sharing of chores and farming with horses. Their focus was on preparing vegetables from their garden for meals and using animals for food as well. In summer the whole enterprise could swell to 35 or 40 people.

Appliances were not used, and television and radios were not turned on. They also joined with other communes to form a kids' collective to teach their children in an alternative setting. And they organized female conferences to exchange ideas. They were seeking a new culture and alternative energy sources.

Bear went to Colby College in Maine. After coming out as a lesbian, she helped form the second gay student organization in Maine in 1974. She then traveled to Vermont in 1977 with friends and joined the Red Bird collective in Burlington. As she said, she wanted “to find a safe place and a way to be real in the world.” She helped build a house without power tools and camped out on the land. She and the others had no amenities, such as running water or electricity. In the summer there would be 20 to 25 women working in crews. She built a raised fireplace and learned vegan cooking.

After the collective split up, she joined with others to write CommonWomon, Vermont’s first women’s newspaper, and met her partner, whom she has been with for 37 years. She went on to write and edit for newspapers and small presses.

Freaks, Radicals & Hippies

At the Vermont Heritage Galleries in Barre, Vermont, the exhibit Freaks, Radicals and Hippies: Counterculture in 1970s Vermont is currently on display. The exhibit, which opened in September 2016, covers this important era, noting that “from communes to organic agriculture, progressive politics to healthcare reform, alternative energy to women’s and gay rights, no aspect of Vermont life remained the same after the dramatic changes that occurred during the 1970s.” The research for this exhibit began three years ago with surveys and community forums funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services federal grant.

There is a map with the communes dotted up and down with certain ones explained. Newspapers from the era are on display, and a geodesic dome caps it all off with simple living writ large.

The exhibit has listening stations where you can hear people who were part of the movement tell their stories. These oral histories are vital: the Vermont Historical Society has recorded the stories of 66 people and put them in a digital format for listening on the web. Access them online at digitalvermont.org/vt70s.

The exhibit will be up through December 2017. The Vermont History Center, located in the historic Spaulding Graded School building at 60 Washington Street, Barre, houses several galleries that highlight Vermont stories and the collections of the Vermont Historical Society. The museum is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 802-479-8500.

Each woman has stayed in Vermont and continued to make contributions to progressive enterprises. Bear lives in Bakerfield and just became the town moderator. Andrews was at the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. for 22 years and is pleased the Vermont Women's Health Center (now merged with Planned Parenthood) is still going strong. Downey-Meyer worked for years in the People's Free Clinic. She now helps with her family's apple orchard and volunteers locally.

Relevance Today

Bear was at the women's march in Montpelier on January 21 and enjoyed seeing the "young women standing up for their right to control their own bodies and their choices about childbearing and sexual health...I'm not alone, either as a rural lesbian or a member of a minority culture in a struggle for respect and wholeness against a tide driven by the status quo."

Andrews takes solace in so many institutions coming out of the women's movement in Burlington and sees how Bernie Sanders's campaign activated people. She "felt supported and valued in the women's movement."

Downey-Meyer sees Vermonters as "a rare breed of independent thinkers and actors." She continued, "As much as we at Philo supported and cared for each other, there was a common belief that each person was responsible to make his/her own path."

The women who came to Vermont to create a new culture certainly changed themselves, and when one looks at the many organizations developed in the 60s and 70s in Vermont, one sees the major contributions they made.

They have a legacy that brought many back to the land and emphasized human values that matter. That message still resonates today. In her commentary, Moulton says, "We still fight for human rights and civil rights and the protection of the planet—just as hard as we did when we were young. In fact, it seems we're fighting harder than ever, since the stakes have only gotten higher."




Cyndy Bittinger, writer and historian, teaches Vermont history and women’s history at the Community College of Vermont. Her books include Grace Coolidge: Sudden Star and Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History.