Hanging out the ‘dirty laundry’ of gender violence

BY SUE M. MORGAN Staff Writer

Staff Writer

WEST LONG BRANCH — When Monmouth University Professor Johanna Foster decided to hang decorated T-shirts bearing messages about gender violence on a clothesline strung outside the Rebecca Stafford Student Center, she thought the display would easily fit into a small, circular band shell in the building’s courtyard.

By the time Foster and some of her students were actually assembling the “Clothesline Project,” a display of garments hung on a clothesline to represent the personal stories of survivors of gender violence, the exhibit had grown large enough to extend around the outside of the student center itself.

CHRIS KELLY staff  Nearly 90 T-shirts, tank tops and other garments strung along the “Clothesline Project” at the Monmouth University campus on Monday tell the stories of men, women and children affected by gender violence.CHRIS KELLY staff Nearly 90 T-shirts, tank tops and other garments strung along the “Clothesline Project” at the Monmouth University campus on Monday tell the stories of men, women and children affected by gender violence. With more than 80 tops and a few pairs of shorts submitted by students and other participants in the project, Foster and her assistants resorted to stringing the clothesline from one metal pole near the student center’s outside steps and around the building’s southeast corner early Monday morning.

The messages written on cotton and polyester surfaces in crayon, watercolor paint, magic marker and other media, spoke not just of domestic violence, but of abuse toward other human beings in general.

“Daddy, why do you hit mommy?” one inquired.

“I must be worthless if my family said it,” read another, sporting a drawing of a young female.

“I’m not a piñata. Stop hitting me,” begged another shirt.

“Just normal guys … you’re more likely to be raped by a friend than by a stranger in the bushes,” warned yet another top.

Positive handwritten messages balanced out the display.

“Don’t hurt. Get help,” one shirt advised.

Foster, who teaches gender studies as part of the university’s sociology curriculum, was still awestruck several hours after she, some of her students and other volunteers had hung the clothesline and garments at 7:30 a.m. on the chilly Monday after a four-day weekend.

The second-year professor at Monmouth knew her own students were eager to participate in the project. Yet, she was impressed with how they apparently talked it up with their campus peers, families and others.

“The very fact that we have 80 to 90 T-shirts says that we hit a nerve in the larger campus community,” said Foster, who began promoting the project in her classes this fall.

To teach students the harsh realities of gender violence and in recognition of 16 Days of Activism, an international campaign intended to motivate nations to help prevent physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse, Foster organized “The Clothesline Project” for the first time at Monmouth.

Over 100 countries and more than 1,000 organizations worldwide participate in the campaign that runs internationally from Nov. 25 through Dec. 10, Foster explained.

“We’re really happy to be a part of this,” Foster said.

Patterned in concept after the AIDS quilt, the Clothesline Project instead uses T-shirts and other garments as a vehicle to let victims of gender violence tell their stories in a personal way, using artwork and writing, according to a Web site detailing the project.

The first clothesline with 31 shirts was displayed in October 1991 in Hyannis, Mass., as part of an annual “Take Back the Night” march and rally. Throughout that one day, female survivors of rape, battering, incest or child sexual abuse came forward to design shirts, express their feelings, and hang them on the clothesline for everyone to see, the Web site states.

Control over another person, not sexual satisfaction, is what an assailant performing an act of intimate violence seeks, Foster explained.

“Intimate violence can be defined as the use of any kind of violence — emotional, physical, or sexual — in a personal relationship to maintain power,” she said.

The term intimate violence is more all-encompassing to include incidents between unmarried partners, friends, and those involved in same-sex homosexual relationships, Foster explained.

“Domestic violence assumes marriage, heterosexuality. It privatizes it,” she said.

At Monmouth, the clothesline hung alongside a heavily traveled asphalt walkway for six hours between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

“Given its visual powerfulness, [the clothesline] is a way to connect students to the issues,” Foster explained. “They don’t have to do much more than walk by.”

Members of the college’s recently formed Gender Studies Club were on hand to tell their peers more about the clothesline and if possible sign them up for their fledging extracurricular organization.

“Quite a few men came up [to the table],” said Christine Rockwell, a junior secondary education major and a club co-founder. “It’s been about 50/50.”

“Gender studies,” the new title of the program formerly known as women’s studies is offered as a minor at Monmouth, Foster explained. The course tries to impress upon students that sexism in society affects not only women, but men as well, Foster explained.

In fact, the club also works to promote equality between races, religions and sexual orientations, its informational brochure states.

“The misconception is that sexism impacts only women,” Foster said. “But men too use sexism against other men.”

Unlike the AIDS quilt, there is no traveling Clothesline Project, Foster pointed out.

When members of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) operated by Hazlet-based 180 Turning Lives Around heard about the Clothesline Project, they came out in support and to help staff the information table, said Tammy Waitt, program assistant.

Through word-of-mouth, e-mail and newspaper advertising, on-campus organizations, such as sororities, sports teams, and the African-American Union, came on board to decorate T-shirts, tank tops and shorts to be hung on the clothesline, Foster noted.

The word was spread through dormitories to roommates and to students’ families and co-workers, she added.

The university donated T-shirts and provided space for participants to sit down and draw and paint their designs, she continued. The art supplies were provided by the gender studies program.

Overall, response on campus from faculty, administration and student body has been very positive.

“I received so many e-mails from faculty, staff and students thanking me for doing it,” Foster said. “A lot of people do understand these issues.”

Even after the clothesline comes down, the Gender Studies Club will continue spreading its message. A cell phone donation is planned for February and a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” is slated in March, Foster said. Future events also include lectures, featuring speakers from the national Men Can Stop Rape Program and a program on domestic violence in immigrant communities.