Film Resurrects Letters From Feminists Past—But to What Effect?

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Film Resurrects Letters From Feminists Past—But to What Effect?

Eleanor J. Bader

A new documentary follows women's responses to Ms. magazine's coverage and catalogs their concerns about police violence, sexual harassment, and lesbian visibility, among other issues.

When Ms. magazine first hit the newsstands in July 1972, 300,000 copies sold out in eight days. Within weeks, 26,000 readers had subscribed. As the first U.S. magazine created, owned, and operated exclusively by women, it gave voice to a wide range of feminist concerns, from welfare rights to the imperative for legal abortion; Ms.’s inaugural issue came out mere months before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Readers were immediately engaged and wrote hundreds of letters to the editor, eagerly expressing their fears, concerns, demands, and ideas about what it would mean to create an egalitarian world for women. And although the magazine ran a smattering of letters in each issue, most went unpublished and are now stored at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.

Filmmaker Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood, a 101-minute self-described “performative documentary,” presents more than 25 of these warehoused messages, with a coterie of diverse women reading letters written between 1972 and 1980. The letters respond to articles and themes about discrimination, sexual harassment, competition between women, police misconduct, marital inequality, domestic violence, loneliness, coming out, homophobia, sex work, and the mistreatment of women in prison, among them.

As you’d expect, some of the notes are extremely moving. This is especially true of four letters that are read by the women who wrote them, and it is powerful to see these now middle-aged adults reflect on the past from their perch in the present.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Still, Yours in Sisterhood often flounders. The film opens with a 13-year-old girl from Quincy, Massachusetts, reading a 1973 letter about conforming to gender norms. There is no introduction, no way to know what provoked the writer to send this letter, and no way to process the contemporary reader’s evident discomfort with being on camera. Had the film offered a brief overview of the project or told viewers what the filmmaker wanted us to understand about the magazine and its impact, it would have framed the documentary and given meaning to what we see and hear.

The film would also have been stronger had it told us how and why particular women were chosen as readers and if they are supposed to be the modern-day equivalent of the original writers. Instead, we’re simply thrown in, with no way to parse the significance of the heartfelt communications to which we’re privy. What’s more, since some—but not all—of the readers are asked to react to the missive they were given, the film lacks consistency.

At the same time, there is no escaping the reality that many of the issues that rankled women in the 1970s still nettle us today. But there has also been progress.

A woman named Claudia reads from two letters that she, herself, wrote in 1976 as a 16-year-old high school senior on the cusp of coming out. In her letters, she describes herself as “an abnormal social creature,” and her writing is as much a confession as it is a plea for understanding and acceptance. The notes also reveal several faulty assumptions that were, at the time, widely accepted: first, that she’d never have a long-term partner, and second, that she’d never have children.

Neither proved true: Claudia notes that her oldest child is about to turn 20, and, even more remarkable, she says, the concept of lesbian parenthood is no longer anomalous.

Other writers take Ms. to task for excluding lesbians from its coverage of relationships. For example, an unnamed writer from Somerville, Massachusetts, wrote in response to a 1974 “Is Romance Dead?” article to berate the editors for the exclusively heterosexual focus of the piece. “The paucity of articles about lesbians, coupled with the lack of any gay consciousness angers me,” she wrote. “I am a loving but angry lesbian and I will no longer be ignored.”

The person who reads the letter zeroes in on today’s reality, that Ms., like most media outlets, has been negligent in providing nitty-gritty information on transgender relationships, including articles that go beyond trans coming-out stories to discuss navigating daily life when you or a partner are post-transition.

Then there’s race and racism. Letters by numerous Black women and Latinx women—then and now—condemn police violence and the lack of attention to women of color who have been brutalized by law enforcers; all call on Ms. to feature stories about these atrocities.

Take another letter, written in 1979 by an unidentified white woman from Greensboro, North Carolina. She talks about her marriage to a Black man and outlines the vulgar comments and heckling both she and her mate experience. Nearly 40 years later, the reader admits that, like the letter writer, she is in an interracial relationship, and despite some advances, when the Ku Klux Klan marched in North Carolina to celebrate President Trump’s election, she realized the depth of racial prejudice. “It makes me really sad,” she told Lusztig. “People assume it has gotten better but it is not the case. There is still a lot of attention to our differences.” Although this woman’s response can be construed as naïve, her pain is palpable and her desire for media to help alleviate racial bigotry is genuine and compelling.

Another emotionally gripping exchange takes place over the telephone, with an unseen and unidentified woman who is incarcerated in the Indiana Women’s Prison, reading a 1975 letter from a prisoner held in the same facility decades before. The note describes the indignities faced by women inside, from having to ask for permission to use the bathroom between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., to the lack of medical care.

“It is mind-boggling that every situation is still the same,” the modern-day reader told Lusztig. “It’s pretty ruthless. It’s like they want you to be completely broken. The human who wrote this letter was reaching out to be heard. It is just so hard to get someone to listen to you in prison.”

Ms. of course was expected to both care and be willing to listen. In fact, although it is no longer the sole—or even the most important—feminist publication to address misogyny or promote feminist diversity, it has played an essential role in exposing sexism and in celebrating women’s achievements. Yours in Sisterhood reminds us of this and underscores the fact that throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Ms. provided a lifeline to thousands of women throughout the United States, bringing them news and opinions that were otherwise unavailable. That said, because the editors of Ms. were not interviewed in the film, it is impossible to know if and how the letters influenced coverage.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of political and social contextualization in the film, it presents a vivid portrait of feminism’s reach and the role Ms. has played in promoting social change. This makes it worth seeing, despite its flaws.