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Clothesline Project delivers intended message, gets folks talking at IU Northwest

Campus organizers of T-shirt exhibit observe trends, ponder future research on openness after victimization

Thursday Feb 06, 2014

The rows of colorful T-shirts that lined the Moraine Student Center windows at Indiana University Northwest last fall have been taken down, but they have made a lasting impression on students, faculty, staff, visitors and especially, the victims of abuse and their loved one who created the shirts.

The Clothesline Exhibit is part of a national project intended to educate, break the silence, and bear witness to violence against women. In October, Professor of Sociology Tanice Foltz, Ph.D., and her colleagues in Women’s and Gender Studies, Sociology, Anthropology and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs, invited individuals to create a T-shirt as a means of expressing personal stories or in honor of a survivor or victim.

The idea behind the Clothesline Project came from the old-fashioned mentality that doing laundry was considered “women’s work.” This meant that women hung their clothes to dry while conversing with neighbors. Although it was once considered shameful to “air one’s dirty laundry” about domestic issues, the Clothesline Project is intended to raise awareness about gender violence and give expression to silenced voices. 

Foltz had revived the exhibit at IU Northwest after a hiatus. She explained that a recent research conference, in which a large number of presentations focused on abuse, was particularly eye-opening, so she decided to bring the project back to IU Northwest.

Assistant Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs Monica Solinas-Saunders, Ph.D., helped to hang the T-shirts at the exhibit. In all, there were 83 of them in a variety of colors. A different color represented the type of abuse the creator or their loved one had experienced. The experiences included battery, rape, incest, abuse and those attacked for their political beliefs or sexual orientation.

Solinas-Saunders recalled the day the T-shirt artists came to make their shirts. She was struck by the openness with which those affected by abuse shared their stories with each other — strangers with whom they shared a common bond.

“It was powerful,” she said. “The more we are able to talk about it, the better off we are in reducing the stigma and thinking more thoroughly about our feelings.”

Amanda Board, a senior majoring in psychology and women’s and gender studies, agreed. As the receptionist for the Women’s Center, she helped to facilitate the Clothesline Project and the T-shirt making event.

“What I learned during those two weeks is that abuse, whether it is physical, mental or sexual, is a very sensitive topic,” Board said. “People don't like to talk about it with their best friends, let alone strangers. Yet, over 80 people, most of them strangers to one another, came into the Center to make their voices heard and share their stories. The display was very powerful. What a very fun, creative, and therapeutic way to break the silence about abuse.”

While observing the T-shirts on display and recalling the day they were created, Solinas-Saunders began thinking about how the artistic representation of violence before her could be used in academic research.

She theorized that awareness activities like the T-shirt project could serve to lessen the shame and stigma associated with domestic violence over time. By examining the way people express themselves about violence, Solinas-Saunders wonders if perhaps a shift in thought can be documented over time.

“My guess is that because we are more aware, there is no shame and the victims are not blamed and this will continue to change over time,” she said.

Solinas-Saunders envisions getting input from experts from the Fine Arts Department.

“I can study this from a sociological standpoint,” she said, “but I would like to work with the arts departments to develop and interpret these changes over time.”

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