Feminism then and now
An angry woman in Atlanta talks about the harassment she experiences in public spaces. An aspiring policewoman complains that the police station in her small Iowa town refuses to hire qualified women. A sixteen-year-old girl haltingly comes out as a lesbian for the first time. These are just a few of the thousands of fascinating letters to the editor – far too many to publish – that arrived at the “Ms.” magazine [US feminist magazine founded in 1972 –Ed.] office in the 1970s. These letters were written by women, men, and children of all ages, from all over the country, and from across the spectrum of sexual orientation, religious, racial, and ethnic background, physical ability, and political viewpoint. Spanning deeply personal accounts of individual problems, revelations, and political struggles, these Seventies letters are a powerful invocation of the second-wave feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’.
I spent the summer of 2014 in the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America reading boxes containing thousands of these mostly-unpublished letters to the editor. What was most striking during my archival research is that the issues covered by these letters are still the same big issues that women and gender-nonconforming people are facing today – sexual harassment, violence and assault, access to abortion and birth control, body image, workplace discrimination, gender and sexuality, race, class, and inclusivity.
Inspired by these incredible letters, in the summer of 2015, I set off on a journey to share these letters with ordinary people all over the US. I wanted to know if this rich collective archive of everyday feminist history and experience could be a catalyst for a new kind of national conversation about feminism today. Between 2015 and 2017, I filmed more than 300 readings with volunteers in thirty-two different US states. Each project participant was carefully matched with a Seventies letter sent from their own city or town and invited to read aloud and respond to their letter. I’ve filmed readings with people of all ages, gender identities, shapes, colours, and backgrounds on both coasts, in the Midwest, the Rockies, and the South, in remote rural areas and major cities. Filming these conversations with strangers alongside the election, its aftermath, the #metoo movement and much more, this project has felt increasingly timely and resonant – the stakes for how we create conversations about feminism right now feel higher and more urgent than ever.
I’ve also thought deeply about diversity and intersectionality throughout the making of this project, and it has been important to me to make sure my project reflects a very diverse range of current-day voices about feminism. Most of the letters that I have selected for the project were never published, which means that the project also creates an opportunity to give voice to many kinds of letters that didn’t get a voice in the Seventies (and to create an ‘alternative’ history of Seventies feminist conversation).
This project is about conversation, about making new connections across time and space, and about thinking of new and more inclusive ways for us to talk to each other – onscreen, online, and in person at screening events. Feminists have always understood that speaking up, listening carefully, and making space for others to speak is the most powerful way to start to build real change. (Irene Lusztig, January 2018)
Conversation with Irene Lusztig: “We reject our mothers’ feminism, start all over again”
Jennifer Shearman: What interests you specifically in archives?
Irene Lusztig: When I was a teenager in the pre-Internet late Eighties/early Nineties, any process of self-educating about underground cultures involved spending time getting your hands dirty, rummaging, and touching old objects – I spent a lot of time when I was younger in vintage clothing and used record shops looking for hidden or forgotten treasures, and I’m kind of a forager by nature. So when I first found myself in an archive it felt immediately exciting and familiar to be in a place full of piles of ephemeral things that hadn’t been thought about in a long time and were waiting to be found. There’s a sense of possibility and discovery in archival work that has always been really exciting to me – opening a box or a film can and finding a life, a gesture, words, documents, or moments that haven’t been considered in a long time. I love spending time with found artefacts and images – not exactly as a historian, but as an artist – with a kind of expansive and open looking where there is lots of freedom to think about what feels moving, uncanny, beautiful, poetic, or urgent.
Thinking about the past is also always a way of thinking about the present political moment. The past is continuously shifting and changing in relation to where we are standing right now when we look at it. So that complicated relationship compels me as well: usually when I am working with archival materials I am thinking about the past, but also working through something about the present.
Why are archives and archival research important to feminism?
A million reasons! One of the enduring problems in feminist history (since the beginning of feminism) is forgetting the work done by previous generations. The whole ‘waves’ model for understanding feminism gets at this issue very directly – with each generation, we reject our mothers’ feminism, start all over again, and in the process forget or abandon all the work that our own feminism is indebted to. I work with college students and spend a lot of my time with twenty-year-olds contemplating this problem: even though many of my students identify as feminists, they’ve never heard of “Ms.” magazine or consciousness-raising or Carolee Schneemann or the Women’s Building in LA or Mother Art or a million other historical things that are all incredibly important forebears that have made today’s feminism possible. My students don’t have to like or agree with the ideologies of all of these things (certainly intersectional feminist conversations about race and gender are in a very different place now than forty years ago), but they should know that this work was done and that they are standing on the shoulders of this work in many ways.
I’ve recently started teaching a feminist filmmaking course, and it’s been really interesting to try to think through how to teach Seventies feminism to younger feminist students. At the beginning of the course I showed a bunch of Seventies documentary work (like WOMANHOUSE, 1974, by Johanna Demetrakas) and my students hated it – all of them wrote about how the work was essentialist and overly preoccupied with unimportant questions about reproduction and domesticity. One of my former students, who worked on YOURS IN SISTERHOOD as a research assistant, once told me that she rejected everything that Seventies (i.e., white and middle-class) feminism stands for. I pointed out that the Seventies letters to “Ms.” included letter after letter from women who weren’t allowed to wear trousers to work or get bank accounts in their own name. If you’re wearing trousers and have a bank account right now, you can’t just reject Seventies feminism. You have to do the much messier, more complicated work of acknowledging those histories and building on top of them and tearing them down to build new, better, more inclusive feminisms all at the same time. It’s hard but really necessary work.
And, of course, at the same time that young feminists reject and forget the work of older feminists, the rest of the world is also continuously erasing the accomplishments and cultural production of feminist makers and thinkers. Feminist work is chronically underfunded, undervalued, inaccessible, marginalised, and relegated to archives. So part of doing feminist cultural work – for me – has always been to do the specific work of finding feminist or women’s histories that are buried, forgotten, neglected, or ignored – whether it’s my own grandmother (the subject of my first feature, RECONSTRUCTION), a discarded educational film for women (the materials of my last feature, THE MOTHERHOOD ARCHIVES, from 2013), or a letter from a queer teen in 1976 that never got published and got filed away in a box.
(Interview: Jennifer Shearman. www.dispatchfmi.com/single-post/2018/01/21/INTERVIEW-IRENE-LUSZTIG)