Lives on the Line, The Birth of the Clothesline Project

A Global Movement to End Violence Against Women

By Rachel Carey-Harper


The First Display

Mary Zepernick and Laurie Gates continued to ask me to come to a meeting of the Cape Cod Women’s Agenda.  In the winter of 1989,  I rather reluctantly decided to go.  It was all I had expected and more.
(NOTE: Throughout this book, I name the women involved because I feel that it is important to contradict the anonymity that women have historically experienced.]

At a meeting in June 1990, Elenita Muniz had just returned from seeing the Vietnam Travelling Wall, a 3/5 scale of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC that was being brought around the country at this time.  She stated that in the same period, there were more women killed in this country by men who supposedly loved them. Where was our wall? [NOTE:  Later, we learned that this was incorrect. Actually, the Men’s Anti-Rape Resource Center figured that 51,000 women were killed in the U.S. by the men who supposedly loved them during the same period that the war was waged against Vietnam, where 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed.]

First Clothesline Poster

During the month that followed, an idea took shape in my mind and gripped my heart. I have a vision of a multi-colored clothesline telling of pain, promise, and survival. I have a dream of an artistic endeavor with the emotional impact of the Vietnam Wall and the pathos and interconnectedness of the AIDS quilt.

The dream was of a project with three purposes.

  • One, that it helps with the healing process for people who have lost a loved one or who are survivors of violence against women.
  • The second purpose is to connect women who have survived.
  • The third purpose is to inform everyone of the devastating effects of sexism.

The idea is that the Clothesline Project weaves itself into the process of transformation from victim to survivor to thriver. It provides a unique opportunity for women to give testament to their personal experience of violence. We hang shirts on a line with other shirts in a massive statement of solidarity. Using the creative process within each of us, we share and, to some extent, purge a horrendous experience.

Everyone agreed to distribute brochures to local mental health agencies, police, etc. Wherever we thought women would see it.

We waited. We waited two weeks. We waited one month. We wondered if any shirts would come. Then the first package had arrived, and she was sure that there was a shirt in it. We both felt great excitement as she opened the bulky manila envelope. What color is it I asked. Blue, she said, with a red rose and what looks like an identification card attached. It was a profound moment of intense joy, extreme sorrow, and powerful anger. It was the first of many times that these three contradictory feelings swirled through my being. We both were crying.
Interested in art that combines more of the senses than just the eyes, I suggested that we incorporate sounds that describe how often rape, battering, and murder of women occur. We decided to strike a gong every 10 seconds for a woman being battered. We rang a bell every 3 minutes for a woman being raped. We blew a conch shell every 15 minutes for a woman killed. (Later, this changed to a whistle for rape and a bell for murder).
As an artist, I still marvel that artistic ability, however someone defines it, has absolutely nothing to do with the depth, beauty, or power of the shirt. I marvel that the innate creativity that is within each woman can be accessed by such a simple method. Each shirt is radically different. Each has an elegance, a radiance. Some are very simple magic marker, some very intricate designs, all made an emotional impact.


The Next Displays

It was not easy to live with the Clothesline hanging in my studio during the following week. To get from one end of the room to another, I had to bend over and walk under the line. The shirts brush the back of my head. It was a constant reminder of the physicalness of the violence.

I was constantly aware of the strength, beauty, brilliance, and power of women. I was constantly aware of the horror of their experience. I was constantly aware of the possible implications of the Project on a scale far beyond Cape Cod.
In many situations and circumstances, violence against women is marginalized. When the nation needs a scapegoat for its economic problems, and even for all the crime, for all the drugs, it turns on women.  The welfare mother is especially targeted for derision. This is one area where racism (many people erroneously believe that most welfare people are of color), sexism, ageism, and classism are in one nasty bundle.

“Scold’s Bridle” an instrument of punishment and public humiliation.. An iron muzzle in an iron framework  enclosed the head with a bit slid into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue, often with a spike to silence the wearer from speaking causing extreme pain and physiological trauma to scare and intimidate.

This is not so different from what happened in the Middle Ages and into the 1700s. The common belief during that time was fostered by weekly sermons in both Catholic and Protestant services, by public arrests, condemnations, and executions. Clerics wrote that women were evil, dangerous, weak, and sexually depraved in much the same way that welfare and/or teenage mothers are denigrated today. Thomas Aquinas, whose life set an example for piety, said that there were three reasons why someone should be burned at the stake: 1) they were heretics, 2) they were witches, independent women, or 3) they were homosexual.
There is a tendency to want to deny that violence against women is an issue that has or could affect every woman today and our daughters tomorrow. There is a tendency to say that sexism doesn’t exist or isn’t an important issue.

From Wikipedia “The scold’s bridle was overwhelmingly used on women, often at the request of husbands or other family members.  This prevented speaking and resulted in many unpleasant side effects for the wearer, including excessive salivation and fatigue in the mouth. For extra humiliation, a bell could also be attached to draw in crowds. The wearer was then led around town by a leash…. This was intended to humiliate them into “repenting” their “riotous” actions. A spike inside the gag prevented any talking since any movement of the mouth could cause a severe piercing of the tongue. When wearing the device, it was impossible for the person either to eat or speak [sometimes] included an adjustable gag with a sharp edge, causing any movement of the mouth to result in laceration of the tongue.”

Of related interest but not part of the book

Lives on the Line, The Birth of the Clothesline Project

A Global Movement to End Violence Against Women

The Problem with White Women

Much has been written about how white women perpetuate and/or support racism. Present day examples include behaviors such as voting for and thereby electing Trump, acting in ways colloquially describes as being a “Karen”, using our white fragility and tears as weapons of oppression or calling the police on POC for ordinary things like having a picnic. Historic reasons that could be useful to consider include, and go beyond, white privilege and supremacy.  While this oppression is real, at the same time there is a reality within each of us that can lead us all toward redemption, the energy of hope.

White women and women of color are divided by certain historic reasons besides the various conflicts that come from our basic differences and oppression.  Activist white women such as Lucretia Mott who founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and Susan B. Anthony, worked closely with black men to get the right to vote for males of color and men were involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Frederick Douglass, the only African-American at the Seneca Valley Convention, was one of the thirty-two men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments.

However, once men of color got the right to vote, many deserted the cause of getting the vote for women because the law did little to change reality that went way beyond the right to vote including lynching. Although at the time, even more then today, woman were being killed by domestic violence, Douglass explained “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”

While Anthony and Douglass remained life-long friends, many white suffragettes such as Cady Stanton developed alliances with southern whites knowing they had an additional overt agenda to disenfranchise all people of color.  Meanwhile all carried the embedded racism of their time and many of the activist women, even those in the middle class, were able to do their activist work because at home there was a woman of color cleaning their house and caring for their children.

Historically there were important reasons for the collusion and participation of white women with violence against women of color and even other women of European descent.  During the burning time in Europe, which lasted 200 years, from 1500-1700, women who didn’t conform to the patriarchy were hunted, tortured, raped and executed.  Some records show as many as nine million women were murdered during this period although more conservative estimates put the number at 60,000 killed.  *1.

Contrary to popular belief these women, for the most part, did not participate in practices associated with witchcraft. Most were not herbal healers or engaged in Wicca rituals. They were ordinary women, sometimes people who expressed opinions or insisted on their own sense of agency.  They were tortured and killed with the justification that women by our very nature were too weak, vulnerable and stupid to escape the influence of the devil.  This justification was written into the confessions composed by the priests and executioners.  These were read aloud at weekly sermons and public executions. *2.

This indelibly wrote in the subconscious of everyone that women deserved violence and cruelty because we were spiritually depraved.  There were a death penalty laws in much of Europe against being a witch.  In Germany special prisons and courts were built including in one town an oven where in a 9-year period over 1,000 females, including 2-4 year old girls were killed. However, it isn’t only the actual deaths that had an impact but the cultural shift as women developed ways of protecting themselves, sometimes by implicating another woman. Another serious impact that is currently being investigated with both Jewish and Native American holocaust survivors is that trauma can be genetically passed down through intergenerational transmission of trauma effects.  *3.

 (Washington | Saturday, April 8, 1995. Clothesline Project, a collection shirts depicting violence against women. Note: In this country during the same time period, the same number of women were killed by people who supposedly loved them, as soldiers killed in Vietnam. ) Click here to see “Lives on the Clothesline” for more information.
The system of privilege benefiting one race and gender is like a neurosis that seeks to avoid pain at any cost.  A phenomenal amount of energy is required to maintain and protect this system. This energy is wasted. To overcome this dynamic, each of us must understand our own potential for violence. We must develop systems of support that will help us constructively process our feelings and look at how we internalize the sexism and racism around us.  It’s time now to acknowledge the past, make amends as possible, and after this, forgive ourselves and each other and acknowledge the positive contributions that people, and particularly women of color, have made to our society.  Otherwise we feed the forces of racism and internalized sexism that have kept women separate and divided since antebellum.

Reality is that Light in each of us that transcends all the various words we use to describe it, a different sort of energy. This is our true strength and power; our energy of hope and love. Although often beaten down and abused and sometimes felt as a set-up for further oppression or a luxury, this energy of hope and love is actually the force that we must draw on if our work is going to truly and positively impact the chaos that is all around us.

Cornel West says “Justice is what love looks like in public” so injustice could be described as what it looks like when love is banished, when there is a failure to recognize another person as an equal human being.  Behavior is a form of prayer. Negative behaviors have a negative impact, they hurt Spirit — for anytime we hurt each other we are hurting a child of God and in so doing, hurt ourselves and that Being of pure Love which is eternal. Imagine the depth and intensity of spiritual pain that was caused by slavery and the public execution of so many women, both of which were justified by the religious community. Imagine the hurt to this Source of All caused by the oppression that still exists here and now.  Imagine the pain that is produced by dismissing those voices that after a burning bush type interaction try to speak out of that wilderness experience only to be ignored or rejected and marginalized by tiny, seemingly insignificant interactions such as an off-handed comment “why don’t you (just) …”.

It doesn’t have to be this way!  We can do better!  We can dry each other’s tears and hold each other close.

“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  We can go beyond our words and intentions and with action and commitment, build a world of justice so that we can walk in love, peace and harmony with all creation. Let’s listen to God’s call to truly bring this future into being.     ~rch~

  1. The Burning Times
  2. Confessions of Witches Under Torture, 1617
  3. Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms

Excerpt from the article…

Thousands of people were convicted of practicing witchcraft in Scotland in a hunt that spanned nearly two centuries — and the majority of those sentenced to death and executed were women. Many were also tortured. …

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, issued a formal apology in March to those vilified under the Witchcraft Act. The act, which was in effect from 1563 to 1736, made practicing witchcraft punishable by death. …

In one incident in 1679, for example, six people labeled the Bo’ness Witches were accused of meeting with the devil. According to historians, they were strangled and burned at the stake.
Documents confirm about 12,000 witch executions, the bulk from 1580 to 1650, one historian found in a timeline on the witch hunts of Europe, where some countries have issued pardons. In more than three centuries since the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, many were officially cleared in the United States.
In Scotland, at least 2,500 people were convicted and executed on the charge of practicing witchcraft between 1563 and 1736, Don said.

Excerpt from the article…

In the American South before the Civil War, white women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t hold office. When they married, their property technically belonged to their husbands.

But, as historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers notes, there was one thing they could do, just as white men could: They could buy, sell, and own enslaved people.

Excerpt from the article…

In yet another episode of White Women Are Always Allowed To Be The Victim, I was scrolling on Twitter and discovered an incident between Abigail Elphick, a White woman that assaulted Ijeoma Ukenta, a Black woman, in a Victoria Secret at Short Hills Mall. Many online have dubbed Abigail “Victoria’s Secret Karen,” however, I won’t be referring to Abigail as Karen. While I have used the term in the past, I realize these women are becoming memes and the butt of jokes, and the harm they have caused historically and currently is secondary. However, women like Abigail are treacherous women. As stated in my blog, Karen Is You, “Just looking at Karen, she seems harmless. She is often very unassuming and is non-threatening in appearance. Still, women like Karen have not only supported racism but have instituted and upheld racism throughout history. While the Karen memes are sweeping across the internet and becoming a part of our lexicon, it is important to note women like Karen are dangerous women.” We have seen the impact on Black lives when a White woman cries wolf.


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