Women in The Beat Generation

By Solansh Moya

The Beat Generation is known for a lifestyle that rejected conventionality and instead focused on the individual experience. The Beat writers rebelled against Capitalism and placed themselves on the fringe of society. Today, our understanding of this movement romanticizes the freedom from responsibility. It commemorates sex, drugs and the creativity in the lives of individualistic writers. If asked to list the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg would most likely be the answer. The most memorable Beats happen to be male. This isn’t strange since the Beat Generation was mostly made up of men. Thus, Beat literature speaks mainly through the male voice and their experience. Staring in the 1950s, the Beat writers established a kind of literary brotherhood. However, when thinking of these literary men one might wonder, where are all the women?

There weren’t a lot of women in the Beats and they were less successful than the males of the group. If asked to list the women Beat writers, most people would struggle, mainly because their voices have been overshadowed by the males of this movement. Due to the social norms of the time, these women writers encountered a lot of friction when dared to write about their own experiences.

In the 1950s, men and women followed strict gender roles that complied with the notion of what society deemed acceptable. Men were the sole providers and women the housewives. Men had a significant amount of power in juxtaposition to women, who were only supposed to stay home and run the household. This gender-based view gave the men of the Beat generation more freedom to act as they pleased. Beat women, on the other hand, weren’t as lucky.

Women were supposed to comply to their parent’s wishes and follow societal rules. Therefore, they didn’t have a lot of independence. This meant that if a woman wanted a literary career, the gateway was slim and limited, especially if they associated themselves with a controversial counterculture such as the Beats.

While the male Beats were looked down upon, arrested and mocked, the women got it a lot worse. If a woman decided to lead a non-conformist life, this meant mental hospitals, electroshock and being locked up in their homes, getting force fed conservative values. Some women could not stand living in such a repressive world. They were restless and wanted more than the role they were given as women.

Even among the male Beats, women were mostly seen as muses. They were pretty flowers, who sat in the background, while the men indulged in deep intellectual conversations. Joyce Johnson, one of the most memorable women Beat writers, said it best in her memoir, Minor Characters:

“I see the girl Joyce Glassman, twenty-two, with her hair hanging down below her shoulders, all in black like Masha in The Seagull—black stockings, black skirt, black sweater—but, unlike Masha, she’s not in mourning for her life. How could she have been, with her seat at the table in the exact center of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place in America that’s alive? As a female, she’s not quite part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall and their beer glasses collect and the smoke of their cigarettes rises toward the ceiling and the dead culture is surely being wakened. Merely being there, she tells herself, is enough.” 

This image of herself summarizes the experience of many women writers during this extremely male-centered literary period. It took a lot of courage for them to be there at all in such a conservative and repressive time in history. Their excitement at obtaining a “seat at the table,” exist with the knowledge that women remained apart from their male counterparts; they were seen and heard of less. However, they too loved to drink, smoke, and have sex. They were smart young women, who loved art, books and writing. Unfortunately, they were living in a world where their value was belittled. To a lot of people, the male Beats were being courageous and revolutionary and the women were just being problematic.

Women Beats had to endure being marginalized by society, but they continued to fight against conformity through their own personal experiences and their writing. They struggled and fought like the true writers and artist they were. Today, these women are getting the attention they deserve, for being brave and intelligent. Some have written books and poetry that have influenced many women writers. Fortunately, the literary world has become more inclusive.

Meet Some of the Women of The Beat Generation 

Joyce Johnson (1935-) is a fiction and non-fiction writer and editor. She has written multiple articles for several publications, like The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and many more. She also wrote several books. She is best known for, Minor Characters, a memoir about her experience in the Beat Generation and her relationship with Kerouac. It won National Books Critics Circle Award.

Diane Di Prima (1934-) is a poet, artist, prose writer, memoirist, playwright, activist, and teacher. She has written over 40 books, including Memoirs of a Beatnik, an erotic account of life as a Beat. She co-edited the literary magazine, The Floating Bear. She co-founded the Poets Press, the New York Poets Theater, and founded Eidolon Editions and Poet Institute. She also practices Buddhism and co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. She’s won several awards, including the National Poetry Association’s Lifetime Service Award.

Hettie Jones (1934-) is a poet and children’s book writer. She co-founded the literary magazine, Yugen. In 1990, she published her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, which describes her marriage to Amiri Baraka, and her friendships with several popular Beat Generation figures. She’s written over 20 books.

Elise Cowen (1933-1962) was a poet who suffered from mental health problems and tragically committed suicide. She wrote a lot of poems and kept several journals. However, most of her work was destroyed by her family after her death. Her friend Leo Skir had found 83 of her poems in his apartment and had several published in numerous literary journals. She was also included in Women of the Beat Generation: Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution by Brenda Knight and was prominently featured in Johnson’s memoir, Minor Characters and in her novel, Come and Join the Dance.

There were, of course, a lot of other wonderful women Beats, like Edie Parker, Joan Vollmer, Carolyn Cassady and many more. If you would like to learn more about the women of this generation read, Women of the Beat Generation: Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution by Brenda Knight.

Solansh Moya

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