The thumbnail of Retro Reports’ mini-doc for The New York Time, “The Fight Over Women’s Bodies,” is a still shot of women dressed in red robes and bonnets a la the concubines in The Handmaid’s Tale protesting proposed cuts to reproductive health funding outside of the National Capitol in Washington.
The scene isn’t set in 1985, when Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel in which the government strips women of their rights and assumes control over every aspect of their reproductive rights was first released. It’s a photo from this exact year, in which protests across the country have featured gatherings of such handmaids—standing in solemn recognition that the fight for women’s bodily autonomy is more urgent, and Atwood’s warning more timely, than ever.
“We were dealing with a system that was antithetical to getting good medical care and being treated like full human beings,” said Judy Norsigian, co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, described in the documentary as “an owner’s manual for women,” says on-screen. Norsigian is referring to the early 1970s, when abortion was illegal in most of the United States. Clips bleed into one another of people marching in the streets to protest the lack of reproductive rights, much like the clips shown early from mere weeks or months before. Norsigian’s landmark book emerged, in part, due to that struggle—the women who helped create Our Bodies, Ourselves “began researching and writing to dispel myths about women’s health and sexuality and to empower women to have agency over their own bodies.” What they wanted to do “was underscore the importance of body knowledge.”
Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was translated into more than 30 languages, was deemed controversial and banned in certain schools and libraries across the country. But the book still set off a revolution, and its radical assertion remains true: “If we’re [going] to be effective players, personally in our lives, politically in the community,” Norsigian says in the video, “we have to be strong in our core, and that comes from understanding how our bodies work.”
Retro Report’s short points out that “a lot of young people are becoming aware as [Norsigian] did in the 1970s, that personal is political.” Shows like The Handmaid’s Tale are at the center of that boom in awareness and activism. Pop culture that zeroes in on how patriarchy and sexism impact women and their communities is undeniably an integral form of protest against the Trump administration’s hard push, according to the documentary, to make the United States a “dystopian future of forced surrogacy and the subjugation of women.”
From the heartbeat bill that anti-abortion lobbyists are floating past the White House, to the administration’s tireless effort to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration continues to pose and embolden extreme threats to women’s lives and freedoms. In the face of such challenges, Retro Report’s look back reminds us how imperative it is that we fight like hell to move forward—and that the media takes the fight as seriously as we do.