Take Back the Night and the Clothesline Project: The Anniversaries of Two Anti-Violence Movements

Take Back the Night rally in the 1980s. Photo: University of Wisconsin

Take Back the Night rally in the 1980s. Photo: University of Wisconsin

The statistics on violence against women can be jarring. One out of every four women in the United States reports being assaulted by a current or former partner. And every day, three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. At 2 million injuries per year, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury among women. It means that a woman is assaulted every nine seconds in the United States.

As shocking as these statistics are, evidence from crime reports and community surveys indicates that women are safer today than they were 30 to 40 years ago. Domestic violence and violent crime in general have fallen significantly since the 1970s and 1980s. It was that past era that set the stage for an anti-violence movement that turns 40 this month.


The silence of their victims and the indifference of their communities give amnesty to the perpetrators of gender-based violence.


In October of 1975, the fatal stabbing of a Philadelphia woman shook the community and brought people into the streets to take a stand against relationship and gender-based violence. A young microbiologist named Susan Alexander Speeth was walking home at night when she was attacked and killed only a block from her home.

Following the killing, campus area residents organized a candlelit march through the neighborhood. It was a response not only to the tragedy but also to warnings that women should stay inside to keep similar tragedies from happening again. The people who marched that night wanted to send a clear message: They refused to let the solution to violence fall on its victims, or to let safety mean that their work, family, and community commitments would be secondary. Their protest spawned a movement.

Within just a few years, similar marches were taking place elsewhere — not just in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, West Germany, Canada, and India. Often taking the name Reclaim the Night overseas, the name Take Back the Night was favored in the United States.

In many communities, Take Back the Night is still closely associated with campus life. In Tucson and Flagstaff, annual events take place every April and are sponsored by Campus Health at the University of Arizona and Health Promotion at Northern Arizona University. In Phoenix, La Frontera Arizona spearheads the event.

In recent years the event has grown more inclusive, broadening its messaging to address relationship and sexual violence against all, no matter their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. “It’s really important that we acknowledge that all genders are survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault,” Tucson organizer Erin Badger told the Arizona Daily Wildcat.

Clothesline Project in North Carolina, 2008. Photo: Everett Amburn

Clothesline Project in North Carolina, 2008. Photo: Everett Amburn

Fifteen years after that first march, a Take Back the Night rally in Hyannis, Massachusetts, featured the launch of another movement that was similar in spirit. Named the Clothesline Project, it was a response to a single statistic its organizers knew spoke countless stories: In the Vietnam War, 58,000 U.S. soldiers died, and during that same period, almost as many women — 51,000 — were killed by their partners. Created by a coalition of women’s organizations in Cape Cod, the Clothesline Project used shirts as the medium women could use to share their experiences of surviving abuse. Bearing the words and images that told their stories, the shirts would be displayed on a clothesline — a visual statement artist and organizer Rachel Carey-Harper developed after drawing inspiration from the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Like the Memorial Quilt, the idea took on a life of its own. There are now about 500 Clothesline Projects around the world, giving voice to survivors through an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 shirts.

Debuting in October of 1990, the Clothesline Project turns 25 this month. The anniversaries of both of these movements, Take Back the Night and the Clothesline Project, are reminders of a form of violence that is ubiquitous but too seldom discussed. Sharing the experiences they once kept private has helped many survivors feel empowered, and it has inspired communities to assist others through counseling, support groups, and shelters.

The silence of their victims and the indifference of their communities give amnesty to the perpetrators of gender-based violence. They are the reasons that calls to action and calls to speak, like these two movements, remain necessary.

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