The work of friendship: the new communities of Melbourne’s 60s and 70s counterculture

Over the past decades, romantic partnership, parenthood, and marriage have been increasingly under question as the pathway to adult happiness, stability, and fulfillment. Commentators have pointed to a commitment-phobic dating landscape; economic factors making it harder to buy a house; and from a feminist perspective, the ways in which romance has been inaccurately hyped in Disney films and rom-coms and the difficulties, emotional labour, and loss that can come with marriage and parenthood.

The sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s made it more possible to eschew or delay these things. The consequences of these movements have been endlessly discussed and scrutinised in social and political commentary. By contrast, relatively little has been said about the effects of this revolution on how think about and experience friendship and community. Much like the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s, friendship has been having a quieter, but no less profound, emergence of its own.


With changes to sex, love and marriage came a need to rewrite the nature of adulthood itself. Delayed marriage (or no marriage at all) and the prolonging of what is understood as youth became more common, corresponding to rising levels of university attendance, and, less tangibly, an increased societal shift towards self-exploration and psychological fulfillment. For women, the underlying tenet of feminism that one could be much more than a housewife and a mother necessitated time to explore the world of work, study, or creativity.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, communities of progressive young people formed in urban spaces, often those close to universities. In Melbourne, the suburbs of Fitzroy and Carlton in the north and Prahran and St Kilda in the south slowly became hubs of leisure, activism, and countercultural experimentation. The existing migrant, Indigenous and working-class populations of these suburbs were a drawcard for young progressives wishing to leave behind the staid, parochial, anglo-saxon blandness of their upbringing.

In Trendyville (2014) — an exploration of these changes to Melbourne’s urban space —  urban historians David Nichols, Renate Howe and Graeme Davison describe how the migrant cultures in Carlton aroused a community-minded, libertarian mindset in the non-European people who moved there: ‘the immigrants’ spaghetti bolognese, pizza and souvlaki’ in Carlton ‘seemed like an invitation to a larger world … the opportunities they found in them for play, gossip and conviviality, daily inspired uptight Anglo-Saxons to do likewise.’

A cosmopolitan, urban way of life was emerging, in many cases involving the displacement of already marginalised communities by a progressive middle-class (the clearly problematic aspects of which are, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay). These suburbs became home to countercultural experimentation in the form of communes, activism, intellectual pursuit, and experiments with love, sex and polyamory. This led to the creation of new venues and nightspots catering to countercultural hedonism and new waves of independent theatre, comedy, poetry and literature, and music. Sharehouses were the nucleus of this lifestyle, and are affectionately depicted as the backdrop to several defining urban-Australian movies — for example Dogs in Space (1986), Monkey Grip (1982) and the later He Died With a Felafel in his Hand (2001). In these sharehouses, and in cafes, pubs, music venues and public spaces, young people created for themselves quasi-families.

Many of the counterculturalists I interviewed as part of my doctoral research — all of whom lived in inner-urban suburbs such as Fitzroy, Carlton, and Prahran in the late 1960s or 1970s  — gushed about the communities they found there. The relief they felt at leaving behind their families and the (majority) conservative social context of their upbringing was palpable, even thirty to forty years later. And many had minimal or strained interactions with their families once they moved to the inner suburbs — much of the time because of their progressive politics or morally looser lifestyles. The generation gap at this time was profound.

Counterculturalists told me of their joy at bonding with like-minded left-wing intellectuals; of meeting others who enjoyed strange, second-hand and ‘exotic’ clothing; of inspiring new connections with fellow actors and musicians; of drinking claret and rambling about their personal philosophies and emotions. Away from their blood relatives, they found an ideological home in one another.

In her memoir The Address Book, singer and actress Jane Clifton — former frontwoman of the all-female punk band Stiletto — reflects on her sharehousing experiences during the 1970s. The aesthetic of Stiletto was anything but staid and traditional Australian family values, and this was reflected, too, in the way in which Clifton lived. She writes:

We established the Orphan’s Christmas dinner, which would become a custom in our group for years to come. Most of us had rejected the traditional notion of Christmas along with the so called ’bourgeois’ trappings of family life.

For Clifton and her peers, blood ties were an old-fashioned and even politically problematic way of finding social sustenance.

Friendship communities also fulfilled psychological, as well as political, intellectual, and creative needs. The first interviewee for my PhD was Lara, who lived in Marxism-inspired communal houses in Sydney and Melbourne from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. She told me that she first encountered Marxism as a teenager and that — as a child who was very much raising herself after her mother’s passing —  the community of leftist politics gave her ‘some succor and meaning.’

Lara’s sharehouses in Carlton, Malvern and Caulfield were oriented around activism and endless house meetings. All her time was devoted to making rosters, communal child raising and housework, discussing new relationships, and going to conferences and consciousness-raising groups. Her devotion to politics was all-consuming, and housemates tended to let other aspects of their identity fall to the wayside. ‘We all pretended we didn’t have parents. We were just sort of formed from nowhere.’ This way of life gave Lara a feeling of belonging after a somewhat lonely childhood. ‘As a sort of lost child looking for a home in a community, I really appreciated that, and I still appreciate that.’

With the emergence of sharehousing came an evolving set of cultural expectations and mores. Even the unstructured sharehousing, where housemates might appear and disappear with no real warning, entailed learning to live in new ways. In ‘Perhaps This Will Be My Last Sharehouse’ Fiona Wright reflects on how she was the first one in her family to explore this lifestyle, concluding:

‘I learned here a kind of living, a kind of community, that is different from a family – more independent, more loosely bound, but no less connected or intimate or kind.’

In Meanjin, Guy Rundle addressed the radical novelty of the sharehouse, reflecting on his experiences living in Carlton in the late 1980s. He writes that this era of sharehousing produced a particular culture, ‘an evolving ethic and aesthetic’, and a new type of community. It became standard, he says

to have a share house budget, not to have separate food, to cook and eat together. Many share houses didn’t have televisions … the stretch between Carlton, Parkville, the western side of Fitzroy and the southern end of Brunswick felt like a large village.

But of course, these sharehouse communities were not necessarily a progressive, supportive and open-minded utopia. Romantic ideas about sharehousing in the 1970s can be quickly dispelled by listening to any of the well-documented tales of sacrifice, unhappiness, sexism, abuses of power, and easily abandoned or fleeting friendships. Further, the intellectual and progressive posturing that could be found in these communities may have obscured the bigoted or problematic behaviour that lay within them.

There are endless stories of countercultural women feeling pressured to provide men with sex lest they be seen as ‘square’. There was also pressure in some circles to engage in partner swapping and polyamory, which sometimes entailed participants hiding their jealousy or desire for emotional commitment. Writing about Helen Garner’s early novels, literary critic Bernadette Brennan argues that the

new patterns of living that they establish offer, particularly for the women, a sense of liberating possibility beyond marriage and childrearing, but that freedom is coupled with compromise and loss.

In our interview, Lara emphasised the extensive work that went into unravelling societal conditioning in the polyamorous communal homes she lived in.

We spent a lot of time sitting around working out… the impolite term at the time was mind fucking … where we were trying to work out how not to be jealous, all that internal exploration of alternative ideas.

She recalled the difficulty of these experiments and their ultimate failure.

Do you know how much success we had? Zero. We were very well intentioned. We did a lot of thinking and talking and I still think to some extent it was worth doing. But I think it was dangerous.

Another interviewee, Mary, said that many of her collective houses

involved multiple relationships that nobody was meant to get the slightest bit jealous about, which did not work in the end.

She told me about a time when, sitting at the dinner table with her six other housemates, she suddenly realized that everybody in the household had become deeply unhappy due to the jealousy and insecurity that had become part of their daily lives. ‘We were meant to be really happy.’ She sums up, ‘it was all too difficult in the end, to be, to honor it, because I guess … [pause] commitment works.’ (This is not to say that Mary is right — but that perhaps the counterculture had not yet developed the emotional and intellectual scaffolding needed to explore these matters in the way contemporary polyamorous communities seem to. Perhaps their eagerness to pursue radical politics meant that the political cart was put before the emotional horse.)

There are also tales of self-interested, neglectful housemates and experiments with resource-sharing that just didn’t work. Helen Garner’s 1974 feature in countercultural magazine Digger, ‘The end of a collective: Good buzzes weren’t enough to make me stay’, reports on tensions around sharing space and childcare in a conscious, political collective in Carlton. One housemate pointed to the perils of sharing resources: ‘No one thought of anyone else’s needs. It got to the point where you had to hide food if you wanted to have breakfast’. The feature discussed a child, Rani, who was cared for by all the inhabitants. One interviewee felt that Rani’s mother was not present enough for their parenting duties, telling Garner that ‘kids shouldn’t lose their parents in a collective situation — they should get more.’

Despite the problematic politics and relationships that still thrived in progressive sharehouse communities, these communities contained in them inherent radical potential. In these spaces, one could be exposed to new people from different backgrounds, expanding your experience of the world and encouraging an open-mindedness towards non-traditional lifestyles and pathways through adulthood. Regardless of their pain or pleasure, they cemented friendship as a key form of social sustenance and belonging.


Feminist activism and the ‘personal is political’ ethic, too, played a role in the evolution of friendship in this era. Towards the end of my interview with Lara, we began to talk about our personal lives — mapping our relationship histories, touching on mental health, drinking and nightlife, our friendships, her son, our sharehouses, my upbringing. There is a pause. ‘My mother’, said Lara, ‘would never have spoken to her friends about any of this.’ Experiences and emotions that were once intensely private — or even shameful — have, in the past forty years or so, had a sort of coming out of their own.

Reflecting on our conversation, I recall watching footage of feminist consciousness raising groups in Brazen Hussies, a 2020 documentary about Australian feminism in the 1970s. The excitement, understanding and connection I could see on the faces of women when they shared their experiences of oppression, frustration with the patriarchy and the private details of their lives, perhaps for the first time, felt familiar. It is one I’ve seen on couches, in beer gardens, and over dinners my entire adulthood.

Consciousness-raising groups intended to raise awareness amongst women of the everyday ways in which patriarchal oppression manifested in their lives – but the other work they did was to create bonds between women, strengthening female friendship as a place of safety and understanding.  It strikes me that in the current day, a thorough dissection of intimate relationships, friendships, careers and life-choices — and in relation to political and social structures like the patriarchy — is the work of friendship. Worlds that were previously private, have for both men and women become more public, and politicised.

This feminist work, together with the growth of sharehousing, and leisure culture and its public communities, laid the groundwork for friendship to become a fundamental part of Melbourne’s urban culture — as it did in many cities around the world. Slowly, friendship communities have begun to pose a challenge to the primacy and desirability of the nuclear family. Libby Angel’s recent auto-fiction Where I Slept, set in the artistic communities of 1990s Fitzroy, depicts a Christmas lunch in the communal squat in which Angel’s protaginist lives. Twenty years after Jane Clifton’s parallel rendition (described above), Angel writes in a chapter called ‘Orphans’, ‘nobody talks about their families. What is there to say?’

The love stories of close friendship have been increasingly celebrated in millennial-oriented pop culture. TV shows like Fleabag, Insecure, and Broad City have been lauded as works that very successfully explore the passions, complexities and pains of female friendship. Dolly Alderton’s 2016 memoir Everything I Know About Love, later made into a TV show of the same name, traverses the British author’s experiences with sharehousing, friendship, and dating in London. Alderton concludes with a sort of ode to the love she’s experienced with her close female friends: ‘Nearly everything I know about love, I’ve learnt from my long-term friendships with women.’

She writes about an exchange she had with her best friend.

‘You’re too hard on yourself,’ she said. ‘You can do long-term love. You’ve done it better than anyone I know.’

‘How? My longest relationship was two years and that was over when I was twenty-four.’

‘I’m talking about you and me,’ she said’

While they have their unique conflicts and complexities, the communities we find through sharehousing, work or creativity, and from university or school, continue to nurture us through and beyond the optional turmoil of romantic love, the blood ties of family, and the legal bindings of marriage. The urban counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s played a historically significant role in establishing these friendship communities as a key social institution —  communities that have the potential to be just as profound, transformative, and fulfilling as romantic love. The profound ways our means of finding social sustenance, along with continuing shifts in the nature of adulthood itself, suggest this revolution is yet to reach its zenith.


Image: a still from Everything I know About Love

Molly McKew

Molly Mckew is a writer and musician from Melbourne who submitted her PhD in history in 2019. Her research explored the countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s in Melbourne and she has been published in The Conversation, Overland and Archer magazines.

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  1. Wonderful work Molly. I lived through this massive societal revolution. 1968 global revolution on western uni campuses sparked by Marxist philosophy. The sad thing is this generation eventually grew up, married, had kids and became the new middle class. Echoing their parents lifestyles. Many of the radical leaders at Melbourne Uni were from wealthy private schools and comfortable homes in leafy suburbs. Of course most returned to this life.
    Our idealism of changing the world melted back into capitalist lifestyles.

  2. Thank you.
    Great article.
    Especially about the women remaining friends for decades.
    Women I shared houses with have been like the Sisters I never had. Kind, loyal, inspiring. Great to my children.
    Surviving the 70’s & 80’s chaos, drug use and lack of stability, we now find ourselves very close.
    I met my oldest friends for lunch a while ago. For my Birthday.
    I took another couple I met recently.
    How did you meet asked my new friends?
    Well 50 years ago. I was on a train headed back to Northern NSW.
    They were going to a court case. Busted for dope.
    6 of us shared a hotel room in Sydney.
    We hit it off immediatley.
    My friend’s husband usually told the story like this… that was the first time I ever slept with Beth.
    I laughed and told new friends.
    I’d like to stress that I’ve never slept with my best friend’s husband.
    He said with a cheeky grin
    you know Beth
    It’s not too late.
    ( this was a significant Birthday and I was worried about being a Granny and getting a Senior’s Card)

  3. So interesting to see a time and place I lived through transposed into academic research – thank you. It’s a valid and influential paradim to articulate, but no mention however of the opportunities for university study led by Whitlam’s education policy. Such a cross section of women in my Melbourne uni course due to this, bringing every background together and creating a heady mix of philosophies in those share houses, tutorial groups and counter-cultural collectives. So many of these women are still my best and deepest friends. Something worked – long live the revolution!

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