Yvonne Pepin-Wakefield rests on the porch of her cabin in Oregon, reading aloud the words she wrote to Ms. magazine in 1975. A self-dubbed independent “mountain woman,” Pepin-Wakefield speaks on the frustration she felt as a teen going to the hardware store, where employees would question what she was doing with “men’s things.”
These frustrations, along with those of many other women of different situations, are showcased in “Yours In Sisterhood,” a documentary film by UC Santa Cruz Film and Digital Media associate professor Irene Lusztig. This anthology of women’s strife is told by women reading predominantly unpublished letters submitted to Ms. magazine, the first mainstream feminist magazine. Unlike Pepin-Wakefield, however, many of the women onscreen did not write the letters themselves, instead sharing the hometowns, characteristics or qualities of the women who originally wrote to Ms. in the 1970s.
“Black or white, democrat or socialist, lesbian or straight, we are all women suffering mutual oppression from political, cultural, social and economic forces,” one of the women in the film reads from a 1977 letter. They are read by a laudably diverse group of women, their occupations ranging from police officers to sex workers, their ages young and old and in between. These readers are of all body types and religions, and many are women of color and LGBTQ+-identified.
The visual aspects are second to the impactful stories these women had to tell, as the backgrounds are typically bland, but still match whichever narrative is presented. The most impactful of these settings is a prison, where the woman reading speaks through a phone from behind bars. Viewers never see her face, a choice that only adds to the emotion relayed by the 1975 letter from an incarcerated woman on the unlivable conditions of her environment.
The end of each individual story is capped with an uncomfortably long shot of the woman standing in front of the camera, holding the same expression for what feels like an eternity. The viewer is given a chance to fully take in the presence of each woman, though the effect is partially lost in the unexpectedly long staring contest.
Many of the stories are captured in one full take — no stumbles or pauses in reading the letters edited out — which gives the documentary an organic feel. By keeping some of the flaws and awkward moments, the individual and genuine personalities of the women are on full display. Rather than show them in an airbrushed light, everything is real — the documentary’s strongest staging choice.
Among tales of catcalling, discrimination, society-enforced sex standards and sexual harassment, the letters by women of the 1970s tell truths that are not much different from those of the women of today. “Yours In Sisterhood” shows that women have faced the same struggles for many years — we have not come as far as we may think.