Who Stole My Country 86 – Communal Living

My then wife and I bought a small house on Francisco Street in Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco.  I must have planned to stay, because I poured endless work into fixing the house up, stripping white paint from the redwood wainscoting in the dinner and living rooms , smashing up half the concrete driveway with a sledge hammer to put in a vegetable garden.


UC Berkeley campus 1970

But many people going through the Sixties began rethinking single family dwellings, as we called them.  In the early 1970s, at least in the Bay Area of California, the idea that every man (or family) needed their own castle seemed absurd.  What sense did it make for everyone to own their own tools .. . a gas powered lawnmower to cut a tiny lawn once every two weeks, for example.   Live together. Reinvent the basic family unit. Share tools and responsibilities. Cook dinner once a week.  Clean up once a week.  Share in child care.  It was a time of common endeavor, as the University of California campus demonstrated.

Communes sprang up in Berkeley, most with a political emphasis and revolutionary names. The Red Family on Bateman Street where Tom Hayden lived, or Red Sun Rising in several houses on Parker and Hearst Streets, or the Red Mountain Tribe on Ashby, the Fish-Clark House on Dwight, McGee’s Farm, the Circus, Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm, and the Dragon’s Eye founded by Michael Rossman among others.

My former wife and I formed a commune called Rabbit Gulch just across the Berkeley line in Oakland with two other couples, each with a small child.  There was a floating group of three or four others who lived in Rabbit Gulch on a semi regular basis.  What could go wrong?

At its best, Rabbit Gulch was wonderful.  Cost of living dropped considerably, as we shared meals, tools, home repair and baby sitting. We tore out the back wall of the house and reframed it with wide glass doors opening onto the back yard,  We put in a large garden.  We mounted a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner for 26 people all sitting in our dinning room.  We sponsored evenings of folk singing and dramatic readings of poetry.

Like most communes in Berkeley, we knew someone with a country home, in our case Danny and Hilary Goldstine who had land in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  They blasted a huge pool out of solid granite, built a comfortable house and most weekends twenty or thirty people from Berkeley would descent for a couple of days of sun and song, speculating about revolution in a naked fog of marijuana and LSD.  Michael Rossman, a frequent guest, called it “the wedding in the War,” the need to keep living and squeezing happiness out of life even in the dire times of war and repression.

Most people in this larger communal group were young, in their twenties.  They were dealing with new careers, new babies, illicit rabbit-gulchattractions and dangerous flirtations. In the nuclear families we all rejected, these conflicts would be worked out between two people struggling to accommodate themselves to one another. In a communal situation the fights quickly became public and degenerated into ideological differences. At Rabbit Gulch it frequently came down to power relationships between men and women.

In one sense, it was about time. Throughout the civil rights and anti-war movements women had played a distant role from leadership, assigned to fetching coffee, typing papers, cleaning up, tending to the sick and wounded.  Dona Mosses, who led the freedom summer voter drive in 1964 was an exception and she and others like her that summer can be credited with starting the second wave of the American Women’s Movement.

It had started over a hundred years ago with the seneca-falls-meeting-1848-granger held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.  It took women over seventy years of prolonged and sometimes brutal fighting to win the right to vote in 1920.

The struggle to empower Mississippi African Americas to take control of their own livers brought on the second wave.  Women began to insist on controlling their own lives.

They started reading Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 classic, The Second Sex, (translated into English for the first time in 1953). De Beauvoir argued that women would never become truly successful until they ended the wage gap and shared domestic duties with men. It was difficult, she said, because women feared that success would lead to angry husbands or no husbands at all. It had to do with the way they were raised. Girls were told to follow the duties of their mothers, whereas boys were told to exceed the accomplishments of their fathers.

In 1962, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which spoke for many college-educated women who felt trapped and unfulfilled. The women in Rabbit Gulch were fully employed and housework was shared, but everyone was holding “consciousness-raising groups” and Rabbit Gulch got involved.  The women told stories about family life, relationships, sex and feelings.  The men pretended to be similarly involved, but usually drank beer and played poker.

One response to “Who Stole My Country 86 – Communal Living

  1. Elsa interviewed Betty Friedan on KPFA in 1963, It was more like a duel than an interview.

    Within my own circle of friends and lovers, my memories of Berkeley in the early and mid sixties were of sexual equality — in the bed, the household, the social environment and the workplace. I grant that my experience may not have been typical.

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