Commentary: Speaking up, one note card at a time

By Mary Beth Schneider
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS—There are already dozens of them, little pink or yellow note cards — each one a handwritten tale of pain, survival, anger or love. Sometimes, all four in a single sentence.

“I was sexually assaulted and molested by my cousin for years,” one reads. “I was blamed. He was protected.”

“I am 27 years old and I have experienced sexual violence and sexual harassment the majority of my life, from being molested at 5 years old to being assaulted/raped by a past boyfriend,” reads another. “I am a survivor.”

Mary Beth Schneider

“He felt that I had asked for it because I always said hi to him,” one woman wrote.

“Being resilient does not mean I’m immune to the pain,” wrote another.

The unsigned cards, being collected from women of all ages and all corners of Indiana, are the key component of The Clothesline, a year-long project by Women4Change and the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault — with the participation of at least 30 other organizations — aimed at building support for stronger sexual assault laws in this state.

In March 2020, as the legislature nears the end of its session, lawmakers will be greeted in the Statehouse atrium by “clotheslines” with the cards attached, each silent but powerful testimony.

The idea originated with Mexican artist Monica Mayer who had her first “El Tendedero/The Clothesline” installation in Mexico City in 1978. Then — and in subsequent events held in cities around the globe with Mayer’s leadership — people are asked to fill out postcards, answering a question such as “Have you ever experienced sexual violence or harassment? What happened?” or “Where do you feel safe?”

“I feel safe at home and at church,” one person wrote.

Yet another woman described the sexual assaults she suffered as a teen at her small rural church from more than one church leader.

Almost every woman I know could fill out these post cards with their own stories. I could write my first newspaper job, when getting to my desk meant walking through a print shop of leering, hooting men. I could write of the frustration I felt when the publisher I complained to mocked me. Or I could write of the anger I felt when a city editor lunged at me when I gave him a ride.

That all happened decades ago. So maybe I could write of the unease I felt only a couple weeks ago on a trail at Eagle Creek Park, when a man ahead of me veered off on another trail — and then suddenly appeared behind me.

Where do you feel safe? “Nowhere,” one woman answered.

Thursday, the day before her Friday talk at Newfields art museum in Indianapolis about the project, Mayer met with representatives of many of the groups leading The Clothesline in Indiana, telling them of her experiences and the global reaction.

“You might be accused of causing a bad atmosphere in the state,” Mayer told the group.

That, though, is part of the point: To bring into the sunlight the issue of sexual harassment and violence. Women have remained silent about so much of what they experience out of fear.

The question on one card asked: Have you or would you denounce violence against you?

“No,” one woman responded. “I wish I could say yes, but I was afraid of what he’d say about me.”

One note card I read described the inappropriate sexual conversation the woman faced from a presidential appointee. “I couldn’t leave the room,” she said. “I would have been fired.”

Another described being raped at knifepoint — but there was no prosecution because she was wearing the jumpsuit from her restaurant job that was construed as “sexy and … considered a tease.”

We had ample evidence of the aspersions cast on women last week in the Statehouse during the disciplinary commission hearing on whether Attorney General Curtis Hill groped a state representative and three legislative staffers at a party. The black backless dress worn by the state lawmaker was as much on trial as Hill.

Mayer asked the group about how sexual assaults can be reported and investigated in Indiana. “You trust your system?” she asked. “Your system works?”

The sad laughs and rueful head shakes were her answer. They told her of Hill, who they fear will face no repercussions or at most a slap on the wrist for what the disciplinary staff attorneys saw as felony battery and misdemeanor battery.

This is more than #MeToo. This is confronting the lawmakers with too many stories to ignore.

Mary Beth Schneider is an editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news site powered by Franklin College journalists.

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