The Clothesline Project Airs "Society's Dirty Laundry"

by Diane Minor

T-shirts, simple T-shirts. Who among us doesn't have dozens of them in drawers or on shelves somewhere? Thanks to a group of women from Cape Cod, Mass., we will never look at T-shirts the same way again.

 They are founders of the Clothesline Project, a small core of lesbian and straight women who wanted to find a way to take the staggering, mind-numbing statistics on violence against women and turn them into a provocative, in-your- face educational and healing tool.

 Inspired by the AIDS quilt, they came up with the idea of using shirts hanging on a clothesline.
"Doing the laundry has always been considered women's work, and in the days of close-knit neighborhoods, women often exchanged information over backyard fences while hanging their clothes out to dry," says Carol A. Chichetto of East Dennis, Mass., chair of the project's steering committee.

"The concept was simple -- let each woman tell her own story, in her own unique way, and hang it out for all to see. It was and is a way of airing society's dirty laundry."

 Dozens of their shirts were hanging like banners from balcony to balcony at NOW's 1993 national conference in Boston. Others were hung at ground level during NOW's 1994 national conference in Texas, which made their messages more visible.

 "Teach me to cry and when I have learned to cry, teach me to dance so that I may dance in the puddle of my tears."

 "The only time you bought me new glasses was when you punched me in the face."

 "...raped me, beat me, and stole my pride and faith, and made me afraid ... BUT MY SPIRIT ROSE UP and I found courage and hope. I DID NOT DIE!"

 "You can batter my body but you can't touch my spirit."

The project began with 31 shirts, displayed on the village green in Hyannis, Mass., in October 1990 as part of an annual Take Back the Night March and Rally. Throughout the day, women came forward to create new shirts and the line kept growing.

 Now it has grown to more than 25 projects nationwide and internationally, with an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 shirts out there. Some of the most active projects are in areas that also have active NOW chapter and state organizations -- Massachusetts, New York, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky and the District of Columbia.

 And like NOW, Clothesline Project organizers have been reaching out to high school and college students. Chicetto says that even after 12 years of activism she is amazed at the impact the project has on young women and men. "At least 30 percent of our organizers are brand new activists who have chosen the Clothesline Project as their first step into the political arena," she says.

 As visitors walk among the shirts, they hear sound effects -- a gong, a whistle and a bell. The gong sounds several times a minute, to indicate that another woman has been battered. The whistle sounds once a minute, to indicate that another woman has been raped. The bell sounds several times a day to indicate that another woman has been killed by an intimate partner.

Tens of thousands of the shirts will be on display during NOW's April actions on violence against women. To find out how your chapter can connect with a local Clothesline Project or to start one of your own, contact the project's half-time national office at Box 727, East Dennis, Mass., 02641, 508-385-7004.

The Clothesline Project t-shirt shown above is available from the NOW Store for $16 plus shipping and handling.

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