A still from the film Forty Years, courtesy NOW!
In the video, a woman stares at the camera and says, “Virtually all women, but particularly younger women, are subjected to being pawed in public places…obviously this is an incredibly humiliating experience for us.” This sounds like a commentary on Donald Trump’s behavior this election. But it’s not—it’s a woman reading aloud a letter sent to Ms. magazine in 1974.
Filmmaker Irene Lusztig is collecting video of modern-day women reading aloud from the Ms. letters section from 1978 to 1980 for a film called Forty Years. What’s striking about the letters seen in an 11-minute excerpt of the film that was published last week is how relevant the letters seem four decades after they were first written. It’s both depressing and enraging, says Lusztig, how these letters about sexual harassment and assault could easily be describing the Republican presidential candidate. “Many of the men I know have been really quiet on social media around all of these issues of sexual assault and harassment…or else they seem surprised and shocked to learn that so many women have a story to tell about assault,” says Lusztig via email. “None of the women I know are surprised.”
Lusztig is a feminist filmmaker whose long-term projects, like The Motherhood Archives, often focus on gender and history. Forty Years is part of a larger still-in-process project called “Yours in Sisterhood”—so far, Lusztig has recorded roughly 200 people in 13 states reading letters from the Ms. archive. In our era, where conversations about feminist issues happen on platforms all across the internet—and are often quickly lost as the digital ephemera of Twitter and Facebook isn’t archived—it’s interesting to reflect on a time when media outlets for feminist voices were extremely scarce.
“The letters feel like an encyclopedia of the entire women’s movement and the entire ‘70s,” says Lusztig. “Everyone from everywhere in the country—urban, rural, gay, straight, trans, conservative, radical, working class, fat, thin, able-bodied, disabled, etc.—who had anything to say about women’s issues were all sending letters to one place to have one big, noisy, complicated conversation together.” While conversations about feminist issues are both more mainstream and in some ways more disparate than they were in the ‘70s, the issues these letters focus on would be familiar to anyone growing up today. “Violence towards women—structural and physical–is ordinary and ongoing,” says Lusztig. “It is ordinary and ongoing now, it was ordinary and ongoing in the 1990s when I went to college, it was ordinary and ongoing in the 1970s when hundreds of letters from all over the country poured into the Ms. magazine office each month, and it was ordinary and ongoing long before that.”