When Columbia University dismissed her sexual assault complaint, Emma Sulkowicz came back to campus carrying a mattress like the one on which she said she was raped by a fellow student — and never left it behind. The image of a young woman carrying her mattress quickly became the new symbol of the national movement to end campus rape.
The mattress “represents a private place where a lot of your intimate life happens,” said Sulkowicz in an interview with New York magazine. “I have brought my life out in front for the public to see.”
Sulkowicz’s protest was finely tuned performance art. Conceived as her senior thesis, the “Carry That Weight” project was conducted according to several “rules of engagement.” Sulkowicz had to carry the mattress with her at all times while on campus and she could not ask for help, though she could accept it from others. If Columbia expelled her alleged rapist, she would end the project immediately. Sulkowicz carried the mattress to her graduation in May.
Her project was heralded with awards from advocacy organizations like the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation. She was also invited to the State of the Union address by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Though Sulkowicz, 23, has not found legal recourse — even as two other women’s complaints about the same person were found “not responsible” by Columbia — she did succeed in one sense. By shouldering that mattress, she showed that her burden is society’s burden to share.