Break the Silence

  The following editorial was written by Donald J. Hunt in May 1996.

If you take a couple of minutes to read this Commentary, maybe while you enjoy a Sunday morning cup of coffee, you should know that while you're reading and sipping, thirteen women will be physically abused in America. Two of those women will be raped, one or both of them by a man she knows. Eight or more of those women will resist the attacks, verbally and/or physically.

Half the women in America will be in abusive relationships during their lives. Women are nine times more likely to be attacked at home than on the street, and they're more likely to be raped by someone they know than by a stranger. When they know their attackers they're more than twice as likely to suffer injuries as they are when they don't know them. Many of those injuries will be so severe the victims won't be able to drink coffee for a long time, if ever again. Put your cup aside and I'll tell you how I know these statistics: I have had the pain and the awakening of seeing the Clothesline Project on display.

The National Clothesline Project was started in 1990. It consists of T-shirts created by women who have been the victims of violence, or by their surviving family or friends. There's a color scheme to the shirts, though it's not rigidly followed:

  • yellow or beige is for women who have been battered or assaulted;
  • red, pink or orange is for women who have been raped or sexually assaulted;
  • blue or green is for women survivors of incest or child sexual abuse;
  • purple or lavender is for women attacked because of their perceived sexual orientation;
  • black is for women who have been gang-raped;
  • white is for women who have died as a result of violence.

The Ventura County Clothesline Project currently has fifth-five shirts, all made by local victims, or by their families. I assure you that every color and category listed above is included in the display. I have never in my life experienced a more moving, more haunting, more shaming feeling than what I felt while I stood before the silent cloth witnesses to what is happening to women and girls in this nation. In fact the point, the purpose of the Clothesline Project, nationally and locally, is to "Break the Silence" and put an end to this cycle of cruelty.

More than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. During that war 51,000 American women were killed in the U.S., by men who supposedly loved them. We built a wall to honor those who died in Vietnam, a long, black slash across the national conscience, so that we would not forget those who gave their all. But we have built no such wall, no monument, to the women who died and continue to die in such awful numbers, or to so many more women who suffer emotional and physical injuries yet somehow survive. We hope that as a nation we learned something from Vietnam, but there is no indication that we have learned what a price we all pay when we continue to allow this epidemic of violence.

Stand before the clothesline, read the stories the T-shirts tell. They're all graphic and compelling, regardless of the words used to describe what their creators went through. Those women, and all the women who have created shirts, all the women who have been victims of violence, are as courageous as any decorated combat veteran, any soldier who stood before an enemy, any Medal of Honor winner - they were all those things and more, because they too often had to stand alone.

One definition of society is "The institutions and culture of a distinct self-perpetuating group." We are certainly a society, markedly so when we realize that the institutions and culture with which we surround ourselves seem so intent on perpetuating violence against women. But no society can rightfully call itself a civilization, civil being the operative part of the equation, so long as it allows such violence to continue, or depends on the victims of that violence to stop it.

It's time to "Break the Silence" and become a civilization. You can help by seeing the Clothesline Project, or by supporting it. For information on how you can do both, contact your local NOW chapter (National Organization for Women) or Victims of Abuse Hotline. Make a difference, and your coffee won't taste as bitter as it does right now.


This editorial is presented here with the author's permission and with the hopes that those who read it will take a minute or two to remember that abuse of any human is abuse of ALL humans. Abuse doesn't just hurt those who have endured it, it effects us all and it is up to ALL of us to put an end to it!

Please send Donald J. Hunt a short email message at and let him know that his message is being heard and taken to heart.

This editorial may be freely distributed if and only if it remains unchanged in any way and the author's name remains attached.

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