Magdalene laundry

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A Magdalene laundry, also known as a Magdalene asylum, was a house for women who had "fallen" from "moral correctness".

The asylums were named for Mary Magdalene, the supposed prostitute who apparently repented her sins and became one of Jesus Christ's closest followers. They were started in the middle of the 19th century as rehabilitation centers for prostitutes. However, the victims of the Magdalene asylums could not expect to be forgiven as Mary Magdalene was.

These asylums were a network of laundries operated by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere, and run by the Sisters of a range of orders. Many women lived and died in these institutions with little hope of escape. The only way they could be freed was by being claimed by a relative. Often, family members were told that the women had moved away, and would be impossible to find because they had assumed new identities.


[edit] World presence

In many countries, supposedly fallen women were abused in Magdalene institutions. The worst-known cases were run by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, where conditions amounted to slavery. Magdalene institutions also existed in England, Scotland, North America and Australia. The Magdalene laundries in Ireland created a purgatory for the women and girls trapped in them (see below).

[edit] Victims

Irish women "guilty" of having illegitimate children were sometimes forced to live as virtual slaves in the Magdalene asylums. Some ended up there simply because they were considered in moral danger. By the 20th century, unwed mothers, rape victims and generally "wayward" women were considered eligible inmates.

According to Roman Catholic teaching, virginity is a matter of the mind and the will. Those who are forced to have sex unwillingly remain virgins. The Church ignored its own teachings, in putting rape victims in these asylums. Because they ignored it, they could benefit from the unpaid forced labour of the unfortunate women throughout their lives.

Women were also sent to them because they were considered too pretty, too ugly, too clever or too silly. Again, according to Roman Catholic teaching, this was the way God made them. It does not seem reasonable to punish women for being the way God made them. Again, the Church profited from ignoring its teachings.

A wide range of innocent women and girls were sent to Magdalene asylums because someone in authority felt they were sexually active or might become sexually active. A wide range of women and girls who were strong enough to wash clothes were sent to a life of grinding misery in Magdalene laundries, while the Roman Catholic Church profited from their unpaid labour.

One reason women and girls who were considered ugly or silly were sent to the asylums was because, supposedly, they were vulnerable to seduction, and men were vulnerable to temptation by them. Physically or mentally handicapped women and girls were not sent to Magdalene laundries. These women would certainly seem to be as vulnerable to seduction as the unattractive or silly. However, these disabled women would not be capable of washing clothes. Since the Church could not profit from their unpaid labour, and would have had to pay to provide for them, they were not institutionalized.

[edit] Exploitation of workers

The working day would start at 5 o'clock in the morning and consisted of hand-washing, drying, and ironing clothes from orphanages, churches, and prisons. Bedtime was at 7 o'clock in the evening. This continued six days a week. They were given food and accommodation but received no remuneration for their work. The scrubbing was intended to wash away the women's sins. However, no matter how much the women washed, they were considered dirty and sinful throughout their lives.

[edit] Failure of Irish democracy

Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, and should have abided by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Irish government was democratic, but even democracies can sometimes oppress minorities. In the case of Ireland, up to the 1960s and even beyond, it can be argued that the majority were brainwashed by the Roman Catholic Church. They were afraid to oppose or criticize Catholic priests. They believed they depended on them for sacraments which they were taught were necessary for salvation. As a result, in some ways the Church was more powerful than the State in Ireland.

[edit] Sexism

Feminists frequently complain that sexual misconduct by women (or even suspected sexual misconduct by women) receives harsher punishment than sexual misconduct by men. The women in these asylums became slaves for life, sometimes because of a single "immoral" act (or suspected act). By contrast, male priests guilty of sexually abusing children were often routinely moved to other parishes, where they reoffended, without the new parishioners knowing of the men's history. Nobody forced abusive priests to enter monasteries and spend the rest of their lives working for no wages.

Bishop Brendan Comiskey in Ireland resigned over this.

[edit] Abuse of victims

The Magdalene victims suffered oppressive work conditions; they sometimes had their heads shaved or were made to fast. Once a week there were "mortifications" when women were stripped, and their supposed vanity was ridiculed. It is easy to see how this could be truly mortifying. This might have had some perverse appeal to sexually frustrated nuns trying to be celibate. Nuns may have got sexual pleasure (with or without knowing it) from forcing these humiliations onto helpless women. If that happened, clearly they were not truly celibate.

In other contexts, the Roman Catholic Church would probably call similar actions mortal sins.

[edit] Denial, publicity, and closure

It is thought the existence of the laundries was largely unknown before the 1990s. Large sections of Irish society were probably in denial about the problem before that time, although families who wanted to get a young woman locked up "knew" what to do. Children were sometimes threatened, "If you aren't good we'll give you to the sisters."

In 1998, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their convent to a real estate developer. The remains of 133 women were discovered, buried in unmarked graves on the property, and the scandal became local and national news in 1999.

The nature of these institutions was exposed in an RTE (state run Irish television) series by reporter Mary Raftery in 1999. Despite convening a government inquiry commission, attempts to obtain compensation for the victims of the system have proved frustrating.[1]

The last Magdalene laundry was officially closed in 1996.[2] The Church has made no reparations to the women who were incarcerated, most of whom, rendered incapable of fending for themselves in society, now live in government and private institutions.

In November 2002, the movie The Magdalene Sisters was released to critical acclaim and even the Vatican was concerned enough to call down damnation on the film. Earlier that year there was also a British mini-series, Sinners.

[edit] Magdalene asylums in Australia

The system in Australia was less severe in some ways. Girls there could be as young as 14, but they were released when they reached the age of 18 at the latest. In Australia the nuns did not use violence themselves. Rewards like the chance to play games or to watch films were sometimes given, and sometimes withheld as a means of control. The girls were less closely supervised than those in Ireland and sometimes did violence and other bad things to each other.

[edit] Other variations on the principle

[edit] French version

While not directly connected to religion, Frenchmen have an history of labeling too independent women "insane" and putting them away in asylums.[3] At least they were not slaves?

[edit] Hephzibah House (US protestant version)

Not wanting to be overdone by the European wingnuts, Ron and Patti Williams have set-up the "Hephzibah House" in 1971, initially for homeless or addicted women.[4] But soon, young women seen as not "godly" enough by their patriarchal families were sent to be educated.[5] Note that not being godly enough, for the Independent Baptists, might include the horrendous crime of complaining for sexual molestation. After all, it is well known that it is always the fault of the woman, for her alluring ways and lack of modesty.

In addition to the 'usual' physical and spiritual abuse, from the survivor testimonies, it appears that the place took a strange interest in the girl's bodies intake and output.[6] Drinks and food were strictly monitored, as were urine and excrement, which led to very strict toilet timetable, and no girl had a period while in the house. The most common hypothesis for this last oddity being drugs added in the drinks, as just being malnourished doesn't jive with the brutal onset of the symptoms. Everybody knows a woman having her period is even more impure, right?

[edit] Aftermath

In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture called on the Irish government to instigate an official inquiry into the Magdalene laundries. The resulting report showed that around 10,000 women had passed through the laundries in the Irish Republic between 1922 and 1996. In February 2013, Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologised for the suffering of women in the laundries, although this was not a formal apology on behalf of the government.[7]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links and sources

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Washington Post: Ireland Still Coming to Terms With Legacy of Schools' Abuse
  2. Sources differ over the date. All but one source says 1996, however.
  3. Where the treatment for insanity of those times was quite apt at rendering them really insane
  4. Former Hephzibah Girls: History of Hephzibah House
  5. No information shows they were enslaved for money, but that seems to be the only positive difference.
  6. Former Hephzibah Girls: Survivor Statements
  7. "Irish PM: Magdalene laundries product of harsh Ireland", BBC News, 5 February 2013.
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