As a sociology professor who studies victimization and as Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program (WGS) at Indiana University Northwest, I am interested in creative strategies to promote awareness about gender violence as well as ways to empower and engage our students.
For the past four years I’ve been coordinating an annual event at our commuter campus in Gary, IN, called The Clothesline Project. This is part of a national project initiated in 1990 by a group of women in Cape Cod who, taking their cues from the AIDS Quilt Project, wanted to create visual expressions of gender violence and. They came up with the idea of hanging t-shirts on a clothesline since, traditionally, women would wash and hang their clothes to dry on a clothesline and engage in conversations about taboo subjects with their neighbors. Thus, the Clothesline Project was born; it represents “airing one’s dirty laundry” through breaking the silence about violence against women.
I had originally heard about the Clothesline Project from a junior colleague. We began and we co-coordinated the project on several occasions since 2010. Yet, it wasn’t until 2013 that I really began to grasp the breadth of gender violence that many of our students had experienced. This understanding came over time, and largely out of my courses. I teach Women and Crime and Deviant Behavior, as well as Principles of Sociology, and, before I earned my PhD I was the Research Coordinator for the Center Against Sexual Assault in Phoenix. As a result, I integrate readings and discussions about victimization into my classes.
The Exhibit Process
Over the years I have found that many women in my courses are surprisingly open about discussing their personal experiences with gender violence. Early in my career, I had distributed “unscientific, anonymous, voluntary surveys” about abuse and hand-counted the data that reflected shockingly high abuse rates. Female colleagues shared that they had also heard student assault stories. Then, at our 2013 WGS research conference, more than two-thirds of student papers focused on personal experiences of gender violence, which became my catalyst to do something on campus to bring attention to this issue. The project had to be visible to as many people as possible with the intention of engaging, motivating, and empowering those who participated. I sought diversity funding from the university for supplies, and I put a call out to students to make T-shirts. Ever since, we’ve had substantial student participation, media attention and support from the university administration.
This is how the Clothesline Project works on my campus: In September we invite students to “break the silence against gender violence” by making t-shirts that will be hung as a collective exhibit in a high traffic area—on our campus, the cafeteria lobby. We provide guidelines indicating shirt colors that represent different types of violence. For instance, red/pink/orange represent sexual assault; yellow denotes physical abuse; blue and green symbolize child sexual abuse or molestation; purple corresponds to violence due to sexual orientation; black indicates violence due to political beliefs; and, finally, white shirts memorialize victims who died of violence. To protect individual’s privacy, we ask that creators avoid using real names on the shirts, and that they hide their own names inside the collar to retain anonymity. This strategy is an important part of the project as it encourages students to speak out and break the silence, while, at the same time, their personal identities remain unknown. Students are informed that their shirt will be hung with the others and publicly exhibited during October, Domestic Violence Awareness month, and this seems to be a “clincher” in recruiting t-shirt makers. It is my intention to facilitate students’ empowerment and growth, and to stand in awe of what they create.
A few years ago I began asking students to comment on the process of making a T-shirt and what that meant to them; their statements, such as, “I can finally free my demons” or “it was such a release!,” were revealing. In addition, I collected anonymous stories that explained the shirt designs, which were pinned on the bottom for observers to read. In fall 2014, I hosted a community reception for the exhibit where we screened a documentary film, held a discussion, and sought audience comments. Attendees affirmed the need for creating awareness about gender violence and they acknowledged the power, beauty, and simplicity of the project. Recently, viewers’ comments were added to a growing database of stories, reactions, photos, and transcriptions of the t-shirts collected over the years. I coded data into seven major categories including awareness, empowerment, and connection, and then presented early findings at sociology meetings. I am currently assembling the data for a journal article.
The theoretical framework for the project is feminist in that it seeks to put women’s experiences at the center and encourages women’s (and other marginalized) voices to be heard. Further, it is designed to lead to consciousness-raising and heightened awareness about violence against women. Bex Lempert (2003) makes clear the activist pedagogy of the sociological imagination in this context. What students once perceived as a “personal or private problem” as they make their individual t-shirts (and tell their stories) becomes transformed into a “public issue” when the shirts are hung as a collective representation of the kinds of violence experienced. The exhibit is a colorful, visually stunning expression of gender violence that attracts attention and lets students know that they are not alone, that their personal biographies intersect with greater structural forces in society—forces that support a culture of violence, or “rape culture,” that targets women and marginalized groups. The project not only allows students to express themselves in a personal way, it appears to have the power to initiate a healing process. One student wrote:
“The Clothesline Project forced me to put myself out there, let my testimony be heard. It sheds a light on subjects that were once taboo or brought shame to speak about. It has opened doors and allowed healing for many.”
Finally, the students’ t-shirt creations help to raise awareness and connect them with other t-shirt makers as well as survivors who remain silent. As another student commented:
“A FANTASTIC idea! [It] effectively brings attention to an important matter. Not only does this enlighten others who may not be affected by abuse, but it brings a sense of closeness to those who have. Kudos!”
The Clothesline Exhibit is certainly not the end. I will keep searching for meaningful activities to supplement the t-shirt making process and will host a group of high school students in the fall. The students will observe, discuss, and write reflections about the exhibit as well as creating their own t-shirts. The goal of this effort is to add to our project to encourage the high school students to take their shirts and experiences back to their high school to “grow their own” projects.
Rex Lempert, Lora. 2003. “The Clothesline Project as Student Production: