Handmade Feminism: Irene Lusztig’s “Yours in Sisterhood”




IN THE 1970s, my mother made all my baby clothes by hand on a heavy Sears sewing machine. Potted plants in macramé hammocks hung around our dinner table, and the closet was stacked with several thick afghans crafted by my grandmother. Somewhere, put away in drawers, were a set of lace-edged handkerchiefs, lovingly crocheted on tiny needles by my Finnish great-grandmother, who learned the technique from her own mother. The trailing end of a matriline of textile artists, I picked up some of them by osmosis, but most women of my generation did not. What would be the point, when everything can be bought more cheaply and no one has the time? Handmade fiber arts (contemporary hipster crafter movements notwithstanding), are a pastime — or a necessity — left behind by our foremothers, and so much the better. They were stuck in maternity-driven scripts of domesticity that kept them trapped at home, needle in hand. Or, if they weren’t privileged enough to be stuck at home, then who would want to go back there anyway? Right?

There are many things that I love about writer-director-producer Irene Lusztig’s new feature-length documentary, Yours in Sisterhood, which premiered at the Berlinale in February. As does much of Lusztig’s work, it raises questions about how we relate to pasts — ideas, objects, and social practices — that are always with us whether we care to notice their stratigraphy in our current landscape or not. In this case, the archive that Lusztig has taken on is a set of letters to the editor of Ms. Magazine dating from 1972 to 1980 and housed in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. Most of the letters were never published, simply because their sheer volume made it impossible. These objects, committed to paper that was often carefully chosen personal stationery, seem to belong to a world that is, like latch hook rugs, now properly seen only as history. An exhibit we might want to see in a museum, but certainly not objects that we want to touch, to let touch us, to see their relevance for our own world, and to learn how to make. And this, above all, is what I love about the film: its crafting, the skills and effort and willingness to try something new that brought it into being, are a central part of the story that unfolds, with care and subtlety, for viewers.

After reading hundreds of letters from women all over the country and recognizing that many of the issues with which they were concerned have not been overcome but perhaps only packed away from public discourse, Lusztig wanted viewers to try to handle them, too. A self-confessed thrift-store rummager and talented seamstress who sews all her own clothes on a heavy Pfaff machine, Lusztig handles history materially and viscerally. She asks us not to simply admire or condemn and thereby distance ourselves from what she found in this feminist archive, but to engage with the ongoing violence, discrimination, and, sometimes, loneliness and isolation described by the letters, as they happen right now, today. The film asks, in powerful ways, about our relationship to the legacy of our mothers and grandmothers and what skills we may have lost for the struggle — even as it continually keeps in view some of the central problems with 1970s feminism, including and especially the exclusion of women of color, working-class women, and trans and gender-non-conforming people.

To bring the relationship between past and present to life on screen, Lusztig curated a selection of the Ms. Magazine letters and over the course of three years traveled to the location from which each letter was originally sent. From New York and Los Angeles to small-town Iowa and Alabama, she cast local readers — none of them actors — to present the original letter on screen via a teleprompter. She then invited the readers to reflect on what they read while she kept the camera rolling. The result is simple and staggering, as letter readers relate to, or argue against, or reconsider issues raised by letter writers: the history of public feminism is restaged so as to create a new kind of contemporary public feminism. One that is intentional, intersectional, face-to-face, and handmade.

I got to have several conversations about Yours in Sisterhood with Lusztig (she hand-hemmed while I knitted socks) that continued over email. The daughter of refugees from Ceauşescu’s Romania, she has long been attracted to times and places undergoing dramatic political change; much of her earlier work (Lusztig has been the solo writer-director-producer of five long-form documentary films) was animated by pressing concerns about the end of the Cold War. The issues — and possibilities — raised by this new work have a similar urgency. Yours in Sisterhood had its North American debut at Hot Docs and its US premiere at the Art of the Real showcase at Lincoln Center in New York City. I believe that the film will teach viewers something important about how public feminism might change for the better through their experience as its audience. After all, the next step after learning how to appreciate an art is learning how to do it. What happens if we take to the pen instead of the keyboard? Sit together, facing one another, with needle and thread? If we make, rather than post?

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MEGAN MOODIE: Why was it so important for you to travel all over the country to film with a teleprompter?

IRENE LUSZTIG: This idea came very directly out of my experience reading letters in the archive. Initially my vision for the project was 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. But very quickly as I read letters in the archive, I felt the powerful importance of place and geography. 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 an almost equal number were from surprising and remote places, and many of those were 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 especially moved by the isolation, urgency, and desire for feminist community I felt in these small-town letters, and this made me start thinking in new ways about the relationship between geography and access to spaces of feminist activism — both in the ’70s and now.

And is this attention to location also part of how you grappled with troubling questions about race, class, sexuality, and ability that necessarily arise around this archive? I thought it was interesting to know that there may have been more diversity in the letters to the editor than we would have expected, given Ms. Magazine’s largely white, middle-class readership.

You know, since the election we’ve been hearing a lot about how bad we’ve become at communicating across geographical, socioeconomic, and other differences. So I was also interested on a personal level in the idea of meeting people in places where I didn’t know anyone or might not otherwise have reason to visit. So many of the encounters felt transformative to me — the whole experience of filming shifted my perspective again and again.

I was especially moved by many of the readings I filmed with black women, especially with Katrina, the reader in the Bronx botanical garden; Littisha, the reader in Cincinnati; and Eileen, the reader in Bowling Green, Ohio. All three women use their letters to talk back to the ’70s and to speak with extraordinary eloquence about race in the United States then and now. Most of the things they said were not surprising to me, but at a moment when many people of color are talking about the labor and fatigue that comes with educating white Americans about racism, I was stunned by the generosity of these women who spoke so graciously and at such length about difficult subjects. It feels transformative to me think about the potential that this kind of one-on-one encounter can have.

You’ve mentioned in several interviews the emotional response you had to the letters themselves, as objects. Can you talk more about that and how it relates to your process as a writer-director-producer?

I often have emotional relationships with objects from the past, and have made a lot of projects that begin with a process of touching and looking at old things. The letters were amazing to spend time with. There is so much evocative visual information in each letter: Who picked out special stationery? Whose handwriting is urgent and agitated? Who has so much to say that they are squeezing words into every corner of the aerogram? Who is pressing really hard with their pen? The editors at Ms. also made their own notes, writing directly on the letters — sometimes they wrote notes to each other in the margins or commented on the letters they found moving, funny, or troubling. In the beginning, the staffers actually answered each letter, which is also remarkable, as is the effort that went into preserving the archive itself.

When I met with Jenny, the former sex worker who reads her own 1980 letter to Ms. for the project, there was an amazing moment when she saw an editor’s margin note added to her letter (which I had scanned in the archive and brought back to her) and she realized for the first time that, even though it hadn’t been published, her letter had been opened and seen. Writing a letter is an act of making oneself visible, and I love that the object can physically manifest that.

If the letters-as-objects are so central to your process with this film, why don’t we ever see them?

A few people who saw the film as a work in progress encouraged me to show images of the old letters on-screen in the film, but — even though I love the letters — I actually felt strongly about not doing that. I’ve made a lot of projects that show archival images and objects, but for this project it felt important to insist on staying in the visual present. The drama of the film is in the present and in the ways that readers negotiate with the past in the real time. Showing the past through letters and archival images would have felt nostalgic in the wrong way — it would allow us to feel like the past is aestheticized and far away — seeing the past can ironically create a space where we don’t have to engage with it. I wanted to make an urgent film about history in the present tense, and to do that I think I needed to commit to staying in the visual now.

You and I are of the same generation — born when Ms. was at its height in the mid-’70s and often called Generation X because no one knew what we would do or care about. I started thinking that maybe Yours in Sisterhood is also a kind of generational statement. I wonder if you think we have anything particular or special to say to debates about public feminism because we remember having real pen pals but are raising children who do not know a world before Facebook. Is this also a message to us about how to make politically relevant art with a foot in each generation?

This is an interesting way to frame the project that I hadn’t thought of. I did actually have a childhood pen pal in Sri Lanka! Our epistolary friendship was arranged through an international pen pal matchmaking company. I was also part of a high school exchange program in Moscow during the last year of the Soviet Union. My classmates and I had a heady sense that we were personally ending the Cold War through forging these one-on-one friendships with Soviet peers. I guess these were formative lessons in the political power of small-scale interpersonal efforts. It’s true that I am standing in a generationally specific place when I make a project like this that looks at the feminism of my mom’s generation (even though my own mom wasn’t involved with feminist politics in the ’70s). I also think a lot about intergenerational feminism in my work in the classroom, which I take very seriously. I spend a lot of time with young women who are interested in feminism but who sometimes have a very ahistorical sense of where feminism comes from. I am definitely conscious of trying to reach across the time of these three generations. 

I know you make most of your own clothes. How does your everyday relationship to the handmade come through in the film? Are you trying to say something larger about feminist practice?

Yes, I think I do have something to say about the handmade and the politics of slow form. First of all, feminist work has always been DIY, low budget, handmade, small run, and scrappy. Feminist artists are rarely given the institutional support and budget to make work any other way; this has a long history, going all the way back to quilting and textile arts.

I think about time a lot when I make work — the span of history, the time it takes to make a work that is contemplative and thoughtfully made, the time it takes to work through a series of ideas, the time it takes to look at something (or to listen to someone speaking) slowly in real time, the time it takes to make something by hand, the notion of time travel. With this film I was thinking about how to make a form that could contain the temporality of an urgency that is not emergent. Our news cycles move very quickly, jumping from one emergency or crisis to the next; increasingly a lot of documentary work feels like it’s also expected to move at the same quick, emergent pace (sometimes the two are literally conflated as newspapers now commission “current events” documentary strands). I’m interested in resisting that speed — it’s necessary to resist that speed if you want to think about the accumulated urgency of 40 years or 100 years of history instead of about the emergency that happened five minutes ago. Maybe hand-making is one way to move outside of the time scale of the digital world.

As a sidenote, it’s funny to me to think of my work as “handmade” filmmaking when there are still many experimental filmmakers who hand-process their own film stock and work in a much more tactile way than I am able to. I haven’t hand-made my films in that literal sense since I switched to editing digitally and working primarily with video in the ’90s. I use a lot of complicated machines to make work — digital cameras and computers — and I regret that a lot of my “making” time is spent in front of a screen. I used to be a painter in college, and before that I spent my whole childhood drawing, so making things slowly by hand has always been part of my everyday life.

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Megan Moodie is associate professor of Anthropology, specializing in feminist political and legal anthropology and experimental ethnographic writing, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Moodie’s popular essays on motherhood, art, politics, and illness can be found in literary journals such as MUTHA, Hip Mama, and the Chicago Quarterly Review, as well as the public anthropology site SAPIENS.org.


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