The Clothesline Project is a way of giving women a voice about the domestic and/or sexual violence they have experienced in their lives. It began in Massachusetts in 1990, and refers to the way women used to hang their clothes to dry on lines, and then talk about their lives with their neighbors over the fence. The idea is to let each woman who has experienced such violence decorate a t-shirt in whatever way she wants — drawing, writing, gluing on items — to tell her story in her own way. It allows women to have a voice without having to share who they are, it helps other women who have suffered such violence to know they are not alone, and it becomes a learning experience for anyone who sees the display. North Coast Rape Crisis Team began a Clothesline Project in Del Norte County in 2004; Smith River Rancheria is in the process of getting their Clothesline Project started. Because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Awareness Month, these locally made shirts are on display at businesses and organizations in the area (usually in their windows). The colors of the shirts have meaning, which may vary slightly from area to area. NCRCT has designated red, pink, or orange as indicating a survivor of sexual assault/rape; yellow or brown as survivor of domestic/intimate partner violence; blue or green as survivor of incest and other child sexual abuse; navy as survivor of cult/ritual abuse; lavender as survivor of violence for being perceived as a lesbian/transgendered person; black as a survivor of gang/multiple assailant rape; and white as created by friends/family for a woman who was murdered. They have t-shirts in all those colors.
When a woman creates a shirt, she may donate it to the project, or keep it for herself. The shirts are usually hung locally in April, and in October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. There are also shirts created by children who have been abused. The little shirts always make my heart clench. Some women talk about their experience as they create the shirt, and how their lives changed forever. Some create in silence, letting the shirt speak for them. Some write the names of their perpetrators on the shirts, and we had to be careful where we displayed those.
Being there for a public display of the shirts is also . . . interesting. There are the people who are uneasy about the shirts, who hurry by or make thoughtless comments. Sometimes men walk by and make a show of ignoring the shirts; I used to wonder if they were victims or perpetrators (or both). I remember one woman who walked by with her three children, making a point of looking at each shirt. She looked so sad. Afterward she came up to ask about the shirts, and it turned out she did not speak English, so her nine-year-old daughter translated for her. She was experiencing domestic violence, but did not see any way out. The most difficult part of that conversation was funneling it through a nine-year-old, who was smart but unaware. In the end I think the woman and I communicated more non-verbally. She didn’t want further contact, so I couldn’t follow-up. But I still think about her.