More Than a T-Shirt

Kate Brennan
5 min readJan 18, 2021

The Clothesline Project is not exclusive to Syracuse. It is an international movement that only made its way to Syracuse around 15 years ago. It originated in Hyannis, Massachusetts in 1990 by members of the Cape Cod Women’s Defense Agenda who learned that during the same time 58,000 soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War, 51,000 U.S. women were killed by men who claimed to love them.

Photo by Kate Brennan

“Purple used to be my favorite color. Not anymore.”

The words are drawn on the t-shirt in bubble letters, and accompanying them is a glued-on felt doll of a little girl and tiny felt cut-outs of a vibrant purple top and skirt — the outfit the t-shirt’s designer was wearing when she was sexually assaulted as a child.

The shirt hangs on a clothesline in the Loretto Health & Rehabilitation Center in Syracuse, next to many more shirts decorated by survivors of sexual assault. The Clothesline Project is a display put together every April by the domestic and sexual violence prevention agency Vera House in conjunction with National Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It is a chapter of an international movement whose purpose is to give survivors a medium to tell their story, send a message of hope and healing and extend the brigade of people who envision a world free of violence.

“It’s about seeing this need for survivors’ voices,” said Alexandra Dukat, the project’s coordinator. “It always felt that people were talking on behalf of us. This project is important, knowing we all have individual experiences and knowing how harmful it can be to categorize all survivors and victims under one umbrella.”

As a survivor of sexual assault, Dukat sees the project as a way of starting a conversation and setting up a safe environment where people can open up about their own stories and empathize with one another. Although the display is accessible to the public in various locations in Syracuse throughout the month of April, the t-shirts were largely decorated by members of a group called the Survivors’ Network. The group was formed in 2016 by community members who wanted to bring advocacy, education and support to the matter of sexual and domestic abuse.

“There are people who are in between not wanting to be public, but they’re in a healing spot where they just want to be around other survivors,” Dukat said.

The Survivors’ Network is an external group of Vera House, which is a central New York agency that prevents, responds to and partners to end domestic and sexual violence and other forms of abuse. Vera House representatives sit at a table next to the Clothesline Project displays so that they can answer questions and provide resources to anyone in need of support.

“Folks come up to the table and really dive into their own personal experiences, almost as a narrative,” Dukat said. The conversation topics are not only about sexual assault; they have ranged from trauma to access to healthcare to police violence.

“Some [visitors] have been really emotional, and some have been in a great place of healing,” Dukat said, “and while they’re thanking us for what we’re doing, I can tell that just being able to tell somebody else is very healing for them.”

The Clothesline Project is not exclusive to Syracuse. It is an international movement that only made its way to Syracuse around 15 years ago. It originated in Hyannis, Massachusetts in 1990 by members of the Cape Cod Women’s Defense Agenda who learned that during the same time 58,000 soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War, 51,000 U.S. women were killed by men who claimed to love them.

“That stayed in my heart, as I sort of held it in prayer, and held that statistic,” said Rachel Carey-Harper, the woman who founded the movement in Cape Cod in 1990. The idea of a clothesline came to her, and she brought the idea back to the Women’s Defense Agenda. “I am from a family of artists,” she said, “and having a background of theatre and sets, thinking large was part of my upbringing.”

According to Carey-Harper, the clothesline specifically was used because it “has connotations around women’s work and women’s lives.” It represents the safe space in small neighborhood backyards where women would exchange information over the fence while hanging laundry to dry. “I wanted to interrupt the idea that [domestic abuse] was an isolated instance, just one unfortunate woman,” Carey-Harper said. “I wanted to connect the stories.”

October of 1990 saw the original Clothesline Project with 31 shirts displayed on a village green in Hyannis as part of an annual “Take Back the Night” march and rally. Throughout the day, women came forward to create shirts until the line was bursting with color.

Eventually, the colors of the shirts would represent different stories. For example, white represents women who died because of violence, and black is for women attacked for political reasons. As clotheslines began mushrooming in public places April after April, it began to take on different meanings to different people. Today, decades later, creating the shirts is still an emotional experience for both men and women.

“For me, it was very healing,” said Dukat, “and I know it was for everyone else. We all sat there in silence for about 45 minutes. Some people were crying, and it was just a really great healing experience. The crying was cathartic because I think everyone was getting something off their chest.”

For many people, decorating the shirts has been a significant part of the healing process. Telling their stories in this way has proven a powerful step toward making things better not only in their own lives, but in the world. The Clothesline Project gives people hope that Vera House and all the other participating agencies can reach their goal of paving the way to a world free of violence.

“It is possible,” Carey-Harper said.

She referenced an old story in which a Cherokee grandfather tells his grandson about a fight between two wolves inside him. One wolf is evil — anger, hatred and supremacy. The other is good — he is peace, hope and truth.

“When the grandson asked which wolf will win, the grandfather replied, ‘The one you feed.’” She went on: “If we feed love, connection, empowering women, people of color, and the humanity in everyone, I think we can get there.”

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Kate Brennan
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Journalist, Newhouse grad, subpar snowboarder, rock climber, caffeine addict & 80s horror movie fanatic.