a performative documentary project based on letters to Ms. magazine, 1972-1980
An angry woman in 1973 reports that her boss won’t allow her to wear a pantsuit to work. In 1974, a self-proclaimed “liberated man” struggles to remain open-minded when confronted with his wife’s lesbian affair with a family friend. In 1975, a young woman writes about the difficult experience of having a hysterectomy and another woman tells a painful story of leaving her own children to pursue a new life of feminist self-fulfillment. A sixteen year old girl in 1976 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 beyond!) 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, the letters describe moving narratives of divorce, abortion, rape, and discrimination (alongside lighter but equally heartfelt debates on topics like masturbation and what do about female body hair). Collectively, the letters feel like an encyclopedia of both the 70s and the women’s movement–an almost literal invocation of the second-wave feminist slogan “the personal is political.”
YOURS IN SISTERHOOD is a performative, participatory documentary project that is inspired by the breadth and complexity of these letters. Since the summer of 2015, I’ve been traveling around the country with a camera and portable teleprompter to communities where the original letters were written. In each location, I invite strangers to create spontaneous performative readings of individual letters as well as to respond to the tone, language, and content of their chosen letter and to talk about its relevance to their present-day lived experience.
YOURS IN SISTERHOOD will be a feature length film, an extended series of short “reading of the day” webisodes, a gallery installation, and an interactive web-based archive of all of the letter readings that are recorded. What might be revealed in the slippery space of inviting strangers to act out and respond to 1970s feminism in 2017? 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 for contemporary viewers to reassess the status of public feminism today? In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the stakes for how we talk and think about feminism, intersectionality, sexism, and misogyny are higher and more important than ever.