“This magazine is not meant to preach to the converted – it’s for everyone,” editor Mary Peacock grandly announced to the L.A. Times in a 1971 article1 about the launch of Ms. Magazine, the first national, mass-circulation feminist magazine in the US. Released as a 40-page insert embedded in New York Magazine, the first preview issue of Ms. appeared in December 1971 with an accompanying statement by New York editor Clay Felker proclaiming his optimism about a new kind of magazine “devoted to women – not as role players, but as full human beings.”2 Inside this preview issue, in her first editorial column for Ms., “Sisterhood,” editor and co-founder Gloria Steinem set an agenda for a unified, national, mass feminism built on a foundation of women bonding over shared experience, self-discovery, and understanding in ways that “leap barriers of age, economics, worldly experience, race, culture – all the barriers that, in male or mixed society, seem impossible to cross.”3 Public response to the preview issue was overwhelming: the magazine received mailbag after mailbag stuffed with a total of 20,000 letters from readers.4 The avalanche of letters – far more than could possibly be published – continued throughout the ‘70s.
Spanning deeply personal accounts of individual problems, revelations, and political struggles, these ‘70s letters form a powerful invocation of what became the second-wave feminist slogan “the personal is political.” Popularised by the publication of a 1969 memo by New York Radical Women founding member Carol Hanisch, this phrase originally emerged in defence of the political value of the sharing work done in consciousness-raising groups where women exchanged intimate stories about everyday oppression and discrimination. Arguing persuasively that these kinds of formalised collective women’s conversation spaces constitute “a form of political action” (as opposed to inward-facing and narcissistic talk therapy), Hanisch advocates for collective, small-scale personal storytelling as a radical political project with the potential to powerfully expose entrenched patriarchal structures (an idea that we have seen a recent return to with the social media-based #MeToo movement).5
I spent the summer of 2014 in the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, where thousands of these ‘70s letters to the editor of Ms. are now archived, reading boxes of mostly-unpublished letters to the editor.6 As I made my way through the “Letters to Ms. 1972-1980” collection, I quickly discovered that the letters have a kaleidoscopic narrative richness; neatly bookended between the magazine’s founding preview issue and Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, the temporal constraint of the manuscript collection makes a perfect window for contemplating the complex and compelling histories and legacies of the US women’s movement in the 1970s.
Out of this immersive research came a feature-length film, Yours in Sisterhood7 – a performative documentary created over a series of nine road trips across the US which took place between 2015 and 2017. Travelling with a camera and a portable teleprompter to the big cities, small towns and remote rural areas where the archival letters originated, I invited a wide range of volunteer project participants to create spontaneous performative readings of archival letters sent to Ms. from their own towns. As I embarked on this project, I wondered what might be revealed in the complicated and slippery space of inviting strangers to act out and respond to 1970s feminism 40 years later. How might we re-engage or learn from the complex and unresolved legacies of ‘70s US feminism? And how might these letters create a space to reassess the status of public feminism today? In the archive, I was immediately struck by the uncanny quality of dated language describing completely contemporary problems (my younger project volunteers struggled to pronounce words like “chauvinist” and a number even found the honorific Ms. itself unfamiliar), and I wanted to know what it would feel like – both for project participants and for future viewers of the finished work – to embody or listen to these historic voices. Could this complex collective archive of everyday feminist history and experience be a catalyst for a new kind of national conversation about feminism right now?
My interest in ‘70s feminism – and specifically in ‘70s feminist conversation – precedes my time in the Ms. archive; another, earlier point of origin for thinking about this work is with my long-standing interest in a group of feminist documentary films made in the United States in the 1970s. In 2006, while searching in the now-closed Donnell Media Center at the New York Public Library for films about maternity and feminist conversation, I discovered a treasure trove of relatively obscure feminist documentaries of the ‘70s – none of which had ever been screened or mentioned to me in any of my years of film school training. At the time I was starting to make creative work about maternity (work that eventually became my 2013 film The Motherhood Archives)8 and was searching for role models, precedents, and a sense of possibility at a moment when new motherhood felt frightening and lonely and the kind of expansive, complex feminist conversation I craved felt absent. Alone in a library projection room, I watched feminist documentaries like the collectively produced San Francisco Newsreel Collective consciousness-raising project;9 Jim Klein’s and Julia Reichert’s Growing Up Female;10 Geri Ashur’s portrait of a working-class woman Janie’s Janie;11 Joyce Chopra’s autobiographical documentary self-portrait Joyce at 3412 (made in collaboration with Claudia Weill).
I’ve returned to these films again and again over many years, screening them for my students, colleagues, and friends, in classrooms and projected on bedsheets from loaner prints on my beat-up yard sale 16 mm projector. I love many things about this group of films, but mostly I love that the main subject of all of these films is simply women talking to other women. There’s something affecting about the struggle for language – in cinematic real-time – contained in these intimate filmic artifacts of the ‘70s women’s movement. Women ask each other basic questions: Are you happy with the conditions of your life? Do you feel fulfilled? Ambivalent? What defines your sense of self? What are you struggling with? For a moment in history, the stakes of these questions and answers seemed high enough – and cinematic enough – to be recorded on celluloid and elevated for public display.
Echoing Carol Hanisch’s validation of the important work done by women in consciousness-raising groups, film scholar Julia Lesage, writing in 1978 about the foregrounding of dialogue in this body of feminist documentary work, rejects the possibility that the kinds of conversations documented in these films are “merely examples of female introspection,” instead claiming women’s conversation as an “urgent public act” and “form of subcultural resistance.” Lesage emphasises that these films were made using non-hierarchical and collaborative methods, through a process of personal identification between maker and her on-camera subjects, and with a consistent commitment to centring women’s on-camera, direct address, personal storytelling (all legacies of ‘70s feminist filmmaking that I’ve deliberately worked to take up in my own creative practice):
Such an organisation serves a specific social and psychological function at this juncture in history. It is the artistic analogue of the structure and function of the consciousness-raising group…an act of naming previously unarticulated knowledge, of seeing that knowledge as political (i.e. as a way of beginning to change power relationships), and of understanding that the power of this knowledge was that it was arrived at collectively…Feminist documentary films, like consciousness-raising groups, strive to find a new way of speaking about what we have collectively known to be really there in the domestic sphere and to wrest back our identity there in women’s terms.13
Towards the end of the 1972 film Joyce at 34, Joyce Chopra, the protagonist/filmmaker who is documenting her own experience with pregnancy and early motherhood, invites a group of women over for a consciousness-raising session. Sitting on the couch, Chopra smiles (politely? uneasily? empathetically?) while one of her guests launches into an impassioned speech about why she doesn’t plan to have children:
The idea of having another person take over my life…the way a child takes over the life of every woman I know who has a child! I don’t want that to happen to me! And…I just think about myself reading child psychiatry books and…making dinners for this child…and birthday parties…and everything that I see…I feel like I look at the women I know who have children and I think, my God, they have missed…they are the ones who have missed…I don’t know any women who would say, “I don’t love my child” or “I wish I didn’t have this child.” They all love their children. They’re all happy with their children. But to me…what they have to be happy with…is terrifying!14
The film then cuts to Chopra, topless and on her knees, singing and leaning over the bathtub where she is bathing her infant daughter. We are left to wonder: Is she happy? What has she lost? Should we be terrified by her happiness? Does she find it terrifying?
This cut from the shared space of conversation to the private space of domestic labour generates a moment of deep ambivalence that is allowed to resonate onscreen; I find it very moving. I love that Chopra allows us to experience with her this quiet moment of profound uncertainty – something many women feel but rarely talk about.15 And I especially love that the friends she invites over are not all other women with children; she’s not hosting a mummy group (which somewhere along the way has become the dominant contemporary format for conversations about motherhood). The conversation is expansive, inclusive, and permissive of the intrusion of a non-maternal voice. I admire the generosity of a feminist cinema that allows a voice not personally identified with maternity to take centre stage for an extended amount of screen time in a film that is ostensibly about motherhood, allowing for an expanded and complex discourse about maternity and reproduction. The first time I see this film in 2006, during my own pregnancy, it feels incredibly hopeful and unlike anything I’ve seen on film before.
A decade after my transformative encounter with Joyce and her friends, while my work on Yours in Sisterhood was already underway, I began a university talk about my feminist filmmaking practice by showing this excerpt from Joyce at 34. As I revisited the consciousness-raising scene to prepare for my talk, the conversation rearranged itself in front of me: the scene that I had remembered as a celebration of difference suddenly felt fraught with an unsettling sameness – Joyce and her friends are all white, well-spoken, presumably educated and middle-class. Like a cinematic rabbit-duck illusion, their gathering toggles unnervingly between a utopian space of inclusive conversation between women who have children and women who don’t and an exclusive conversation among privileged white women.
I experience a similar dissonance in the classroom when I teach ‘70s feminist films. My undergraduate students – many of whom identify as feminists – have never heard of Ms., Off Our Backs, consciousness-raising, or the ERA, but they have heard of white feminism, and they understand its point of origin to be in ‘70s second-wave feminism. At the beginning of my feminist filmmaking course at UC Santa Cruz, I show Johanna Demetrakas’ 1974 film Womanhouse,16 a film documenting the landmark feminist art event staged by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro with students in the Feminist Art program at CalArts. After the screening, my students write in their weekly response blogs about how the work is outdated, essentialist, and overly preoccupied with unimportant questions about reproduction and domesticity. “When I saw Womanhouse,” one of my students objected, “I felt as though there was no space for people of color, and that’s what made it feel most dated to me…many feminist movements were centered around middle-class women fighting for fair wages and orgasms, the same way white feminist movements operate today.” Another student similarly noted that “many of the issues they were tackling were strictly white feminist issues. Although they affect all types of women, I saw no criticisms about class, race, or sexuality.”17
And yet, after class, a student came up to me to ask where the Womanhouse building is and whether it’s been memorialized. (It actually got demolished shortly after the Womanhouse show and now seems to be an anonymous apartment complex—we checked on Google maps). In her introduction to her oral history of feminist documentary practice Women Of Vision, Alexandra Juhasz writes of “a recurring cycle of feminist knowledge and action: feminists exist and are forgotten, make their work and see it disappear, are remembered and get lost, are rediscovered, erased, and rerepresented yet again…across ‘generation,’ ‘wave,’ or merely time we need feminist memories to enable possibility and politics, even as such memory fades under the influence of individual and institutional amnesia.” These two contradictory impulses expressed by my students—the outright dismissal of ’70s feminism as something that has nothing to do with right now and, at the same time, the sense of loss at learning about a cultural and political history that has vanished (not unlike the outrage I felt projecting films in the Donnell Media Center—why had I never seen any of this work before?)—get to the complicated, messy, and important heart of the work I think we need to do when we look back at ‘70s feminism as creative practitioners, researchers, and feminist thinkers.
In her 2005 article “Telling Feminist Stories,” feminist theorist Clare Hemmings reflects on these same questions, calling attention to the reductive and problematic ways that dominant received narratives of feminist progress or loss from the 1970s to today have been consolidated over time:
Western feminist theory tells its own story as a developmental narrative, where we move from a preoccupation with unity and sameness, through identity and diversity, and on to difference and fragmentation…A shift from the naïve, essentialist seventies, through the black feminist critiques and ‘sex wars’ of the eighties, and into the ‘difference’ nineties and beyond, charts the story as one of progress beyond falsely boundaried categories and identities. A shift from the politicised, unified early second wave, through an entry into the academy in the eighties, and thence a fragmentation into multiple feminisms and individual careers, charts the story as one of loss of commitment to social and political change.18
It is my own ambivalent double viewing of ‘70s feminist conversation, with its overlapping and unresolved spaces of admiration and critique, that has most productively animated my own recent filmmaking practice. As I worked on Yours in Sisterhood, I challenged myself to use ‘70s consciousness-raising strategies of generous speaking and deep listening to create a filming method that also allows for difference and dissonance, acknowledging the impossibility (or undesirability) of a single, unified feminist sisterhood.
Born in 1974 and schooled in ‘90s campus feminism during my college years, I position myself self-consciously in between generations and feminist waves when I make work about the ‘70s, bridging the span of time between my 73-year-old mother and my 20-year-old students. In the archive, the material affect of the letters to Ms. feels deeply familiar. I recognise stationery decorated with Joan Walsh Anglund inspirational artwork, drawings of yarn God’s eyes, and psychedelic flowers, the tissue-thin feeling of aerogram paper, the references to Free to be You and Me – a staple of my elementary schools and summer camps. The archival materials resonate deeply with the remembered visual and cultural landscape of my childhood in a late-‘70s, progressive, affluent, predominantly white Boston suburb.
Many of the letters that I read in the Schlesinger archive are breathless, excited, and thankful – a kind of literal enactment of the “exhilaration of growth and self-discovery, the sensation of having the scales fall from one’s eyes” described by Gloria Steinem in her inaugural “Sisterhood” editorial.19 “One of the reasons I enjoy Ms. so much is that the letters I read there each month provide me with a sense of overwhelming relief, because I find each month that there are other women struggling with some of the same problems as mine,”20 a Virginia waitress wrote to the magazine in 1974. “Thank you people of Ms. for communicating, so I can grow, understand, and communicate too,”21 gushed a recent college graduate writing from Massachusetts. Women wrote to complain about their oppressive marriages, dismissive doctors and condescending bosses, their experiences with harassment and gender-based violence, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and innumerable “click” moments22 of awakening to the realities of everyday sexism. Children and teens wrote to Ms. to complain about sexist teachers, gendered curricula (including widespread complaints about mandatory home economics classes for girls), discriminatory sports team policies, and offensive toys (“please help tell Mattel that not all girls are intrigued with makeup and sewing,” implored one young letter writer).23 Letter-writers mailed in examples of sexist advertising, credit card and bank rejections, and insulting office memos and etiquette manuals. Collectively, these letters form a kind of imagined community of feminist sisterhood.
At the same time, I found myself drawn to other kinds of letters – letters that are critical or even angry, letters that expose the fissures, cracks, and limitations of this imagined community. Over the course of the 1970s, as Ms. increasingly came to be seen as the face of establishment US feminism, readers used their letters to the magazine to actively negotiate the language, stakes, and boundaries of feminism, generating what scholar Amy Erdman Farrell calls “a counterdiscourse of feminism.”24 In my research, I encountered powerfully argued letters from women of colour and working-class women who wrote about feeling marginalised and inadequately represented by the magazine: “It is difficult for me and many black women to relate to, or find much interest in a 98% white magazine. Inform your sisters from all cultures what’s happening and give us something to relate to, by including more black women in advertisements, articles, and the humorous side to Ms.,” wrote a St. Louis reader in 197925 in a letter echoing the sentiments of my students in 2017. A Ms. reader from a working-class community in Southeastern Massachusetts commented, “Too often, I have met women from upper-middle class backgrounds who have had ample cultural and monetary advantages I did not. I’ve come to resent their self-confidence and sense of security which directly resulted from their backgrounds, due especially to my living in a culturally depressed area.”26
Similarly, I found critical letters from readers with disabilities, and I was surprised to find a small handful of letters from transgendered readers as well:27 “Very often, in the sisterhood, I am, too, made to feel like such an unwanted outsider. Please, let me stay with you! I, too, am a woman; don’t thrust me out into the dirt, into the midst of the male chauvinist pigs!” pleaded a Minnesota transwoman in a 1977 letter to Ms.28 I found a single poignant letter from a former sex worker who described her life experiences in detail,29
and a letter from an empowered 26-year-old stripper who offered to write an article about the exotic dance scene “from a feminist perspective,” adding, “I can see you all shaking your heads and muttering, ‘How can she consider herself a feminist when she’s letting men ‘exploit’ her so?’ It goes deeper than that.”30 As a contemporary feminist reader looking backwards from a present where questions of identity, inclusion, and representation feel urgent and central, I find these lone, dissenting, outsider voices in the archive uncanny, prescient, and extremely moving.
In the archive, I made a wide selection of potential letters to work with in my project, creating a generous database of over 800 letters that felt representative or typical of recurring themes and issues, letters that felt exceptional and important (including every single letter I found from readers of colour, readers with disabilities, and transgendered readers), letters that moved me, surprised me, or made me laugh, and – importantly – letters from every US state, from large cities, small towns, and remote rural areas. While my earliest vision for the project had been that I would choose a single large, diverse city, like New York, and shoot the whole project in a quick, concentrated way in a single place, as I spent time reading in the archive, I quickly understood the powerful importance of place and geography as idiosyncratic, local, specific, accented, and disruptive (very much in opposition to the unifying and nation building rhetoric of public feminism in the ‘70s).
Many of the letters were from the kinds of places I imagined to be hubs of feminist conversation in the 1970s, like New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, Los Angeles, or Chicago. But other letters were from surprising and remote places, and these were often the letters I found myself wondering about at the end of each research day: Who was the sassy female bartender in Bronson, Kansas – a town with a bar, a library, one restaurant, and two churches – who found a copy of Ms. and took the time to write about her snappy comebacks for deflecting rowdy bar patrons? Who was the woman who left home to live on a feminist farm commune in Mid-Coast Maine? Or the queer, closeted woman in remote, Upper-Peninsula Michigan who was reaching out for support? And who might their counterparts be in these same small towns today? I felt strongly compelled by the isolation, urgency, and desire for feminist community I felt in these small-town letters, and this led to generative thinking about the relationship between geography and access to spaces of feminist activism – both in the ’70s and now. While the logistics, time, and cost of filming in all 50 states would have been prohibitive, it felt important to commit to filming in every region of the Continental US (my broad regional categories were: California, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, the Southeast, the Midwest, New England, New York, the mid-Atlantic, the Rust Belt, and the Rockies).
My project rules for filming Yours in Sisterhood were simple and very consistent: Each letter would be read on camera in the city or town where it was written, by a reader from the same place. Each reader would be paired with a letter and invited to read from a portable teleprompter – a technology strongly associated with broadcast news and political speeches which felt ideal for exploring ideas of every day public address. Each reader would read without prior rehearsal over however many takes were necessary to create a reading that the participant was happy with – a technique that generated a kind of extended real time listening practice wherein readers would slowly let words enter their bodies through repeated re-reading. Each reading would be filmed outside, as a way of framing people inside of visually distinct regional landscapes as I travelled, as a meditation on the ordinariness of the suburban streets, strip malls, and office parks that constitute large swaths of the American built environment, and as a way of showing public space as a visual context for thinking about public discourse. And lastly, after my first few weeks of test shooting, I added the final rule that each participant would be invited to respond to their letter on camera, in whatever way they wanted and with minimal prompting.
In the summer of 2015, after months of logging and mapping hundreds of letters, I made a quick project website, a simple Google form to collect volunteer information, and tentatively posted on Facebook: “L.A. friends, I need your collective help! I’m starting a new project about 1970s public feminism this summer where I film volunteers reading ‘70s letters to the editor of Ms. Magazine from a teleprompter…I need all ages, shapes, and kinds of people to do readings. It takes 30-60 minutes to do a reading, depending on how long the letter is, and I will come to wherever you are.” Over the next two years – alongside the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s unprecedented presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s victory, the 2017 women’s marches, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a palpable renewed energy around public feminism in the US – I filmed readings with 306 project participants in 32 US states. While I had no idea what to expect from my first Los Angeles casting query, the project seemed to strike an immediate chord: dozens of strangers quickly signed up to read letters, many writing lengthy, intimate, and emotional stories of their own on my online sign-up form. Volunteers spontaneously described struggles with body image, sexuality, self-confidence, motherhood, cancer, ageing, histories with rape and abuse, and much more. My daily reading of new sign-up form contributions surprisingly mirrored my experience of reading the original letters to Ms.
The practice of spending time with so many generous and revealing strangers’ voices intuitively suggested a process of matchmaking, of consciously and carefully pairing up strangers today with strangers from the ‘70s around shared concerns, identities, and histories (a process that eventually expanded beyond the volunteer pool gathered via Facebook to more active outreach looking for specific types of readers): in Los Angeles I invited Karen, an auto mechanic, to read a letter from a female auto mechanic in the ‘70s. Sofy, a queer teen in Athens, Georgia, read a letter from a closeted high school lesbian and reflected on the ongoing challenges for young LGTBQ people in the South. In Richland, Washington, an anti-nuclear letter sent to Ms. in 1975 was read by Trisha, herself a nuclear activist and a Richland born Hanford “downwinder” who grew up in a contaminated landscape dominated by plutonium production. After her reading, Trisha explained that, just like the original letter writer, she too lost her parents to nuclear exposure-related cancers and could easily have written a nearly identical letter herself. In seeking out these kinds of matches, I understood myself to be inviting participants to take seriously the possibility of sisterhood across time.
At the same time, I quickly realised that the people who were volunteering to read for my project largely reproduced the problematically narrow demographic of Ms. readers, and the social media outreach I relied on to draw participants into the project exacerbated the reproduction of sameness. The overwhelming majority of project volunteers were self-identified feminists, white, educated, middle-class, and over 40 – people old enough to remember Ms. fondly and with enough leisure time to casually spare an hour for a stranger’s experimental art project. Indeed, many volunteers wrote with effusive sentimentality about their personal histories with Ms., whether they were charter subscribers themselves, or women closer to my age who were daughters of feminist mothers: “I’m old enough to remember the launching of Ms. It would be a thrill to be part of this,” wrote one volunteer reader. “My mother was a bra burning feminist in the 1970s…Sounds like a great project!” enthused another. “I remember holding [my mother’s Ms.] magazines and trying to read them when I was really little because I knew it was the bible to my mom,” a 41-year-old woman recalled.
Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia as “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed…a romance with one’s own fantasy.”31 Taking up Boym’s language, I would argue that the unified sisterhood of feminism is quintessentially a home that has never existed, and that nostalgia is an unproductive lens for looking critically at the ‘70s – one that, using Boym’s subcategory of restorative nostalgia, “builds on the sense of loss of community and cohesion and offers a comforting collective script for individual longing.”32 Hemmings, too, addresses the role of nostalgia in feminist thinking, noting that ”we can long for a lost unity of experience and purpose (now), because we did not understand its effects (then). Nostalgia smooths away the rough edges of this particular history; an innocent essentialism can be seamlessly integrated into a feminist progress narrative, recuperated as loss.”33 While it would have been easy to embrace the outpouring of warm enthusiasm for Ms. and to create a straightforward homage to ‘70s feminism in my film, it felt important to me to push back against the impulse (including my own impulse) to romanticise the feminist past.
Over time, I worked to make increasing space for diversity, difference, and disagreement in my project – both to accurately reflect the complexity of dissenting voices that I found in the archive, and to capture the energy and anger of intersectional feminist voices right now. I tried to hold myself accountable to actual population demographics of big cities rather than reproducing the demographics of the number of published letters by self-identified women of colour in the magazine (around 2% throughout the ‘70s) or the even smaller percentage of unpublished letters by women of colour that I found in the archive.34 In minority majority cities like New York, Washington, DC, and Detroit, that meant doing substantial additional outreach rather than relying on the original pool of volunteers who signed up. As well, I grew interested in using casting as a form of intellectual labour to interrogate, contradict, or expand on qualities of the original letters and their writers. What might it feel like for a Black reader to read a letter written by a white writer? For a transgendered man to read a letter about masculinity written by a cisgendered man? For a conservative factory worker in West Virginia to read a letter by an aspiring writer yearning for intellectual community?
In Tucson, I invited Kayli, a young Black woman, to read a letter about feeling like other feminists don’t take her seriously because of her appearance – conventionally attractive with blonde hair and blue eyes. Kayli responded over email before we met that she “wouldn’t mind at all reading a letter from a woman who looks completely opposite from me…I have also actually dealt with feeling judged based on the way I look and finding my feminist community in Tucson so I don’t think it would be a problem at all.”35 In Somerville, Massachusetts, I invited Cai, a Deaf, transgendered man, to perform a letter written by a lesbian who felt excluded and under-represented by Ms. While a lesbian woman today might feel that mainstream representation of queer women has improved, I was curious to centre the idea of feeling marginalised and excluded rather than casting literally. Lauren, a queer Black woman in Birmingham, read a 1976 coming out letter from a lesbian who complains that “being a gay woman in the south is like having been black in the early 60s.”36 While she related to many aspects of the letter, Lauren took issue with this line, noting that “a person can be both things: you can be black and gay. I’m standing here, a black gay Birminghamian. And number two, I understand the impulse, especially if you’re from Birmingham, I understand, you know, this horrific thing is happening to me, what’s the most horrific thing I can reach to, to compare it to?…But it doesn’t grasp intersectional feminist issues to make that easy comparison.”37
Performing someone else’s words can be an emotional experience of empathy, embodiment and identification, but can also be a troubling experience of dissonance or an empowering space for critique and resistance. In Cincinnati, I filmed with Littisha, a Black scholar who asked before filming if she was allowed to disagree with her letter when responding on camera. I reassured her that it was fine to talk about anything she wanted. Littisha’s letter was sent from a Cincinnati reader in 1977 who writes about attending a NOW convention in Detroit and about her feelings of distress around emerging (and unspecified) divisive dynamics in the women’s movement. The writer notes an upsetting “political chasm on the third and final day of the convention” threatening the group’s productive work around ERA ratification and other “emergency issues facing us all.” The letter ends with a plea urging women to “confront our differences with honest dialogue and an agreement to disagree on many issues.”38
Littisha responded with her own meditation on sisterhood, race, and the problem with “agreeing to disagree.”
As I prepared to read the letter, I started to think about who the letter writer might be. And the first thing that immediately came to my mind was that the letter writer was not a woman of color. And mostly because of this notion that we should just agree to disagree. When the agreement to disagree is rooted in my oppression as a woman of color, it’s really hard for me to just get on with it, and to talk about emergency issues, because my oppression, to me, feels like an emergency issue, as I would imagine many other women of color felt at that time. I would imagine the political chasm on the third day that she talked about had to do with some kind of racial inclusivity or other issues of inclusivity – possibly even class. I was sympathetic to the writer because I understood the point she was trying to make, but I feel like it was a little bit misguided. And what does it feel like to have those words in your body? It felt a little bit violent! It did. It felt like, I can’t be repeating this because I don’t agree with it. Like, it’s totally counter to my safety as a person, what she’s suggesting; that we just move on with it…Like, how do we decide what issue is an emergency issue, as people who occupy multiple marginalized identities? It felt really hard to read; and to feel convincing in reading it. That felt really weird and hard to do. Yeah.
My title Yours in Sisterhood is taken from a commonly-used complimentary closing that ‘70s readers used to sign their letters to Ms. Over the course of my film, the words “sister” and “sisterhood” are invoked repeatedly, in shifting contexts, and in ways that I hope accrue to trouble, complicate, or problematise the word itself: “Dear Sisters, I am thirteen and going into the eighth grade,” reads Maya, the opening performer in the film; “Join me – try to become a sister of freedom!” exclaims Bess, a reader in suburban Connecticut, performing a poem shared by a young Ms. reader; “You are no sisters of mine,” declares PJ, a gun aficionado standing at a shooting range in central New York, reading a hostile letter sent by a pro-gun Ms. reader. “Your magazine belongs to greenhouse people, pseudo-intellectuals, and pseudo ecologists. You do not speak to me”; “We’re all sisters, like [the letter writer] said,” remarks Madeline, a Christian-identified reader in Minnesota, after performing her letter. “We need to come together, and the only way to really make change happen, I think, is building that community and loving everybody and embracing our differences.” Madeline’s response cuts to a roadside church landscape in Bowling Green, Ohio, under which we hear the opening words of a letter that excoriates the magazine for publishing a racially insensitive children’s story: “There’s always been this tension between black and white feminism,” the film’s next reader, Eileen, begins in response to this letter. Sisterhood calls up utopian ideals of women working together to uplift each other, but, at the same time, points to kinship ties and biological reproduction that the ideologies of US racism have utilised to make women separate from each other.
As I worked to develop the more complicated set of practices that I’ve come to call “critical casting,” and as I increasingly centred ideas of difference in my work, my project questions became more complex: How can I use casting as a space of intervention, to contest, broaden, and push at feminist categories and boundaries? How can feminist filmmakers and feminist activists achieve true inclusion and not simple tokenism? What should I do with the many conservative, racist, homophobic, and anti-feminist letters that I found in the archive? Which kinds of conservative letters are productive to re-voice and by whom? Is it possible to propose a feminism that is capacious and generous enough that we can listen to people with whom we fundamentally disagree? Can sisterhood include women who love guns? Christian feminists who oppose abortion? What are the limits and blind spots of feminist empathy, both in the ‘70s and right now? What happens when we are invited to look at gaps between reader and writer onscreen – when rather than a seamless “good” performance we see stumbles, mistakes, and “bad” reading? Who is good at reading and why? What happens when a written text becomes a spoken text? What is the difference between the slow temporality of letter writing and reading, and the excessive, fragmented, and overwhelming temporality of the Internet, where many of our feminist and political conversations now take place? What is the difference between the desire for imagined community expressed in the letters to Ms. and the loneliness of a woman at her kitchen table writing a letter to a national magazine in 1975, or the loneliness of a woman in 2016 standing in a strip mall parking lot performing a letter for my camera? My film does not presume to answer these difficult questions, but I hope it invites viewers to consider these questions with me.
Occasionally, as I’ve screened Yours in Sisterhood to audiences at film festivals, I’ve been asked why I didn’t choose to end the film with Deena Metzger, feminist writer and former director of the creative writing program at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles. One of only four women in my film whom I invited to read their own letters to the magazine, Deena, wrote to Ms. in 1977 to share her experience with learning to accept her asymmetrical body after a unilateral mastectomy. She also enclosed a copy of her “Warrior Woman” photograph – an inspirational image of herself posing topless with a tattoo over her surgical scar that circulated widely in cancer communities at the time. “Though the disease has taught me to preserve time, it has also taught me how important it is to share what helps us all survive. In sisterhood, Deena Metzger.”39 Deena concludes her reading with a long moment of silence, followed by a wide shot where she holds a framed copy of the Warrior Woman poster, her present 79-year-old body and her past 41-year-old body bound together in one frame. For many viewers, it is an emotional moment in the film to linger on this image of an iconic ‘70s feminist (standing in front of the pitch-perfect Ladies of the Canyon backdrop of her Topanga Canyon property). It’s an image that reflects on the passage of time, the resilience of the mind and body, and the power of Deena’s generous sharing. I understand the desire for that to be the concluding moment of the film.
But instead of ending in the Topanga hills, the film moves to a series of landscapes filmed in front of the old Indiana Women’s Prison complex in Indianapolis, with a final letter recorded over the phone read by Brittany – who spent four years incarcerated in the same prison system as the original letter writer from 1975. If Deena is gesturing towards the past and can be read as closing a circle of feminist sisterhood across time, Brittany’s reading – foregrounding unresolved feminist issues around mass incarceration and the invisibility of both the present-day reader and of the unpublished archival letter – more urgently points to the work that still needs to be done to make more robust, intersectional, and inclusive future feminisms. The prison letter is an invitation to listen across difference: It troubles the idea of sisterhood, centres the margin, refuses closure. It is the only letter I found in the archive about issues facing incarcerated women sent from prison, and to me it feels exactly right to end the film here.
In her conclusion to “Telling Feminist Stories,” Hemmings asks us to consider “how might feminist theory generate a proliferation of stories about its recent past that more accurately reflect the diversity of perspectives within (or outside) its orbit? How might we reform the relationship between feminism’s constituent parts to allow what are currently phantom presences to take shape? Can we do feminist theory differently?” (41) To these important questions I add my own questions about how we might “do” feminist filmmaking differently as well: how can younger filmmakers take up rediscovered legacies, forms, and methods of ‘70s feminist films like Joyce at 34 and build on them with generosity, respect, and admiration while also pushing back at past blind spots and pushing forward to open our feminist conversations wider? In the ending of my film, rather than privileging one feminist topic (women and mass incarceration) over the other (breast cancer and women’s health), I see this sequence of two concluding vignettes as working in concert to do exactly this kind of work: to acknowledge the work of past feminists while reminding the viewer of other historic feminist voices that have remained invisible, to undermine the viewer’s desire for narrative closure, to keep things messy and open, to not let Deena’s “In Sisterhood” letter closing be the (literal) last word, and – ultimately – to stay alert to unsettled questions of who gets to be a sister.
- Sally Quinn, “Instant Sisterhood from ,” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), 19 December 1971. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. ↩
- Clay Felker, “Editor’s Letter: What Is Ms. and What Is It Doing in New York?” New York Magazine, 20 December 1971. ↩
- Steinem, Gloria. “Sisterhood.” Ms., spring 1972, 46-49; Rpt. in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. By Gloria Steinem. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983. 112-118. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980: A Finding Aid, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, October 1981. ↩
- Carol Hanisch, “The Personal is Political,” February 1969. ↩
- Each month between 1972 and 1980, Ms. was only able to publish around 15-20 letters total, and while this published letters section ran longer than those in other peer magazines, there was only room to publish a fraction of the many letters that arrived in the mail. Published letters tended to focus on specific responses to articles in the magazine, which excluded many compelling but off-topic personal stories readers sent in. It is an unusual practice for a magazine to make unpublished letters to the editor available to researchers in the way that Ms. did, but Ms. editors recognised early on that the huge number of letters sent to the magazine collectively constituted an important social history of feminist conversation. In 1981, Ms. made an initial large donation of letters to the Schlesinger followed by a second even larger donation processed in 2001 (Letters to Ms., 1970-1998, MC 568) which I did not fully research for my project. In addition to the library donations, Ms. editor Mary Thom also created a collected published volume of letters to the editor (including many previously unpublished letters) in 1987. ↩
- Yours in Sisterhood, directed by Irene Lusztig (2018; United States: Women Make Movies), DCP. ↩
- The Motherhood Archives, directed by Irene Lusztig (2013; United States: Women Make Movies), HD Video. ↩
- The Woman’s Film; The Woman’s Film, directed by Judy Smith, Louise Alaimo, Ellen Sorin (1971; United States: California Newsreel), 16 mm film. ↩
- Growing Up Female, directed by Julia Reichert and James Klein (1971; United States: Reichert Klein Productions), 16 mm film. ↩
- Janie’s Janie, directed by Geri Ashur and Peter Barton (1971; United States: Odeon), 16 mm film. ↩
- Joyce at 34, directed by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill (1972; United States: New Day Films), 16 mm film. ↩
- Julia Lesage, “The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film,” originally published in Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3 (Fall 1978): pp. 507-523. Reprinted in The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism, Jonathan Kahana, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 668-679. ↩
- Joyce at 34. ↩
- I have collected experiential and affective narratives from many different mothers over the course of eight years of work created between 2006 and 2014 that explicitly deals with maternity, maternal feelings, and maternal language – work that also deploys some earlier iterations of these consciousness-raising/‘70s-film-inspired ideas, including the 2013 feature-length film The Motherhood Archives, the 2011 web-based Worry Box Project and a 2014 short film called Maternity Test. Based on this extensive interviewing/collecting of women’s maternal stories, I feel comfortable making the claim that many women indeed feel maternal ambivalence as well as strong social pressure not to speak openly about less-than-positive feelings about motherhood. ↩
- Womanhouse, directed by Johanna Demetrakas (1974; United States: Women Make Movies), DVD. ↩
- Both of these student responses were written as part of a weekly blog post assignment in Film 176 (Special Topic: Feminist Filmmaking) at UC Santa Cruz in fall 2017. ↩
- Steinem, “Sisterhood,” 112-118. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1974, MC 331, folder #12, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1974, MC 331, folder #5, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Originally coined by Jane O’Reilly in her article in the inaugural issue of Ms., “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” “click” quickly became a popular ’70s shorthand to invoke a moment of revelation in which sexist and oppressive patriarchal structures became suddenly visible. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., undated, MC 331, folder #2, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Amy Erdman Farrell, Yours in Sisterhood: Ms. Magazine and the Promise of Popular Feminism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 168. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1979, MC 331, folder #196, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1976, MC 331, folder #72, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Overall, I did not find many letters from readers who self-identified as transgendered in the archive, but there was a small flurry of responses (three letters sorted into one archival folder) to the February 1977 issue of Ms., which featured a story on transgendered tennis player Renée Richards as well as Gloria Steinem’s notorious “If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit Change the Foot” editorial (much criticised in trans communities). Ms. did publish one of these transperson-authored letters on this occasion (as well as several additional responses from cisgendered readers) in the June 1977 issue. Aside from this cluster of topical letters, I found four additional letters readers who identified as transwomen or cross-dressing men, all unpublished. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1977, MC 331, folder #126, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- While I only found one letter in the archive from a writer who identified herself as a former sex worker – Jenny Wrenn, who reads her own letter to Ms. in my film – a second letter from a former sex worker was published in the magazine in January 1977, in response to a series of Ms. articles on prostitution including an article on COYOTE and a profile of an ex-madam called “On September 30 1975, I turned my Last Trick,” both in the September 1976 issue. I should note that many of the published letters that I read in the magazine were not included in the 1972-80 archival collection. Some may have been included in the later 2001 donation of letters, also housed at the Schlesinger (that I did not work with for Yours in Sisterhood), and others might have been thrown away: The online finding aid for the 1972-1980 collection states that “because the files of letters were voluminous and repetitious, they have been weeded to approximately half their original volume. No attempt has been made to preserve a representative sample of letters…” Because of the somewhat haphazard organization across these two collections, it is difficult to make any conclusive statistical claims about letter writer demographics; but I think it is safe to say that sex workers were not writing letters to Ms. in large numbers. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1978, MC 331, folder #160, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2002), p. xiii. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Hemmings, “Telling Feminist Stories,” p. 121. ↩
- Ms. made a significant effort to publish writing by Black women throughout the ‘70s: Alice Walker was a regular contributor, and Ms. also published work by Ntozake Shange, Angela Davis, Michelle Wallace, and Jamaica Kincaid, among others. Technically, Ms. overrepresented women of colour in their published letters section – I found only 20 letters from self-identified Black women out of several thousand in the 1972-1980 archive, so the 2% published rate in the magazine is definitely higher than the percentage received in total. That said, it seems clear from the archive that, despite efforts made by the magazine to be inclusive, the magazine’s readers were largely white. ↩
- Kayli Botiz, email correspondence, 2015. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1978, MC 331, folder #169, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Lauren Jacobs outtake from Yours in Sisterhood, Birmingham, AL. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1977, MC 331, folder #126, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Letters to Ms., 1972-1980, unpublished letter to Ms., 1977, MC 331, folder #147, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. ↩
- Hemmings, “Telling Feminist Stories,” p. 130. ↩