An angry woman in Atlanta talks about the harassment she experiences in public space. An aspiring police woman complains that the police station in her small Iowa town refuses to hire qualiﬁed women. A sixteen-yearold 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 ofﬁce in the 70s. 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 70s 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2014 in the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America reading boxes containing thousands of these mostly-unpublished letters to the editor.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 over 300 readings with volunteers in 32 different US states. Each project participant was carefully matched with a 70s 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, colors, 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. As a point of departure, my project asks: What might be revealed in the complicated and slippery space of inviting strangers to act out and respond to 1970s feminism in 2017? What roles do conversation, talking, listening, and embodying have to play in building new spaces of political action? Which bodies and voices are excluded from mainstream feminism and how can we create new, more inclusive feminisms? Is it possible to create a space of feminist listening that is capacious and generous enough to include both radical and more conservative voices—a space that can hold both identification and disagreement? What kind of cinematic form can contain the temporality of an urgency that is not emergent? And what can we learn from the archive about using feminist strategies to deal with global crisis?
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 listen 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.