Clothesline project gives voice to survivors

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Starting next week, Parrish Beach will be lined with brightly colored t-shirts as part of The Clothesline Project (CLP) at Swarthmore. Each shirt color will represent some type of sexual violence such as assault, rape, and domestic violence. The shirts will be decorated anonymously by students, faculty members, and staff who are survivors, and by friends and family members of survivors or victims of sexual violence. “These types of violence are pervasive in society and the world, and affect many in our campus community.” Belanger explained in an e-mail.

According to co-organizer Veronica Lim ’07, the project had been organized at Swarthmore many years ago, but had not continued. She revived the idea when she spoke to organizers of Woman’s Month last year. “I had just started working for an organization in Philadelphia called Women Organized Against Rape, which was planning the project for their Sexual Violence Awareness Month event, Take it All Back. I thought it would be a great idea to start the dialogue of sexual violence on our own campus.” she said in an e-mail. Lim contacted Belanger and Patrick Rock ’09 to bring the idea to Assistant Dean of Gender Studies Karen Henry. According to Lim, it had been three years since there were any campus events about raising sexual violence awareness on campus. Says Belanger “At the time, I was co-chair of Feminist Majority. The Clothesline Project had actually started in my town so I was familiar with it and loved the idea.”

According to CLP’s website, the project took place for the first time in October of 1990 in a small Massachusetts town. The catalyst for the project was the statistic that according to the Men’s Rape Prevention Project in Washington D.C., 58,000 soldiers died in the Vietnam war while 51,000 women died as a result of sexual violence during that same time period. A small coalition of women’s groups wanted to find a way to take this statistics and turn it into a “provocative, in-your-face educational and healing tool”, says the website. The idea to use t-shirts was inspired by the visual power of the AIDS quilt. “These t-shirts are a way to ‘air society’s dirty laundry’ and give voice to stories that are often silenced.” said Belanger.

Lim said that last year’s response was very good. Over 50 shirts were decorated. “There was a lot of informal dialogue around the Clothesline while it was up, and many viewers expressed wanting to have a more organized space to express their thoughts and feelings.” she says. In response to that request, the organizers have expanded the project this year. There will be “a discussion, an opening with readings, the Handprint Pledge, and possibly a luncheon.” says Belanger. “The Handprint Pledge has to do with the role masculinity and language can play in sexual violence.” says Belanger. The pledge is a commitment on behalf of men to not be complicit in violence against women, and acknowledge the power of language and innuendo in perpetuating violent attitudes towards women.

The organizers are also looking for submissions of poems, passages, stories, and songs that can either be read by the submitter, or another person. “We are hoping the combination of reading the shirts and hearing these things will be powerful and healing.” says Belanger. Other events include a campus-wide Ring discussion on sexual violence and other issues raised by the CLP. Eventually, the organizers would like to run a workshop on how friends and family can support survivors.

“I hope that people will be more aware of the magnitude and depth of the sexual violence problem in our world.” says Belanger. “I hope people will be more sensitive to it when they realize that on a campus as small as ours, with that many shirts, they probably know someone who has been touched by it. I hope that expressing it may bring healing for some people or may encourage them to seek out support.”

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