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Documentary premiere highlights lesbian couple’s groundbreaking custody case

Married couple featured in doc hold panel discussion on International Women’s Day

Catharine Stimpson, left, and Elizabeth Wood star in the film "Love Letters," directed by Greta Schiller. The documentary, about a lesbian couple's custody case in the 1970s, premiered Friday, March 8 at Western Washington University's Performing Arts Center. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ava Ronning News Intern

Through love letters and a challenging custody case, a lesbian couple’s legacy lives on through film, archives and continued work. 

A new documentary, “Love Letters,” is the story of Catharine Stimpson’s and Elizabeth Wood’s life, love and custody case during the rise of feminism in the 1970s, supported by a community of women who made it possible for them to do the nearly impossible: for lesbians to achieve custody of their kids. 

Stimpson, a renowned feminist scholar from Bellingham, is now dean emeritus professor at NYU, and Wood is an influential musicologist from Australia who now has an international research fellowship established in her name. The couple, now in their 80s, first met in 1977 when Wood came to New York to study on a Fulbright Scholarship, and they have spent their life together in New York ever since. 

At a world premiere screening Friday, March 8 at Western Washington University, presented by Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival, the university announced the gift of Stimpson’s personal archive, containing personal and familial history, and Stimpson’s work for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. 

The documentary was made with the couple’s personal archive and used animation to bridge gaps between footage and life. Director Greta Schiller said she used animation to show the couple’s experience to their kids, and to recreate moments as closely to what happened as possible. Schiller had actors read lines from the court transcript during these scenes, and Wood helped Schiller choose some of the music to reflect the feeling in pivotal moments. 

Catharine Stimpson, left, Elizabeth Wood, second left, and Greta Schiller, right, discuss inspirations for the film after the premiere. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

Schiller first encountered Stimpson from afar at feminist events Stimpson was speaking at, or when Stimpson was writing for magazines that Schiller read. About 25 years ago, they ended up living in the same small town in Long Island, New York. In time, Schiller would become close with the couple.  

Their extended friendship gave the director an “extra sense of responsibility to them and to myself to represent the story in a way that would … reach both older audiences, [and] younger people, so it has a very fast pace, a modern pace and structure,” Schiller said. 

Stimpson hopes “Love Letters” inspires people to “live life authentically and respond to it at this particular moment in time when there are often forces that try to compress us into one mold of existence,” she said, adding that she is still fighting for democracy and human rights. 

“I think, in a number of issues about race, sex and gender … They may have to continue to be fought for, but you can fight for them and live for a happy ending, a personal happy ending,” Stimpson said. “You can fight for it, you should fight for it, so don’t despair.” 


The couple now reside on the north fork of Long Island, New York. Wood is working on an essay in musicology, and Stimpson is writing about academic freedom and the American writer and feminist Gertrude Stein.  

“Love Letters” is currently available for libraries, schools and universities at gooddocs.net. Viewers can also go to Schiller’s website, jezebel.org, to sign up for an alert when the film is available for home streaming. 

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