Institutionalized Exploitation: Magdalene Laundries and Gendered Abuse

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“Magdalene Asylums” or Magdalene Laundries, as they were more commonly called, were conceived originally by Christian churches and philanthropic groups in western countries, including Britain, Ireland, The United States, and Australia. Named after the biblical Mary Magdalen, they were started as charitable institutes, set up in response to the seeming escalation of visible prostitution on the streets of Dublin, and designed to provide relief to women who worked in the sex industry, and to teach them essential skills for a useful trade, for example, in laundry work, lace making, or needlework.

Initially admittance into the laundries was voluntary, but as time went on a shift in legislation and public opinion, as well as the increasing control of the church turned voluntary into compulsory and admittance into incarceration. While an inmate of these church-run facilities, women were frequently confined without being given any indication as to the length of their sentence, some of them being confined for life. They were forced to work long hours in poor and dangerous conditions without any type of pay or compensation for their labors. Further, the laundries offered nothing in the cases of educational or medical support. The women and girls – some of whom were young victims of sexual abuse, or who had been transferred in from orphanages or “industrial schools” (frequently the children of the unwed mothers already working within the institution) – were told they had to toil as penance for their “sins” (O’Loughlin, 2018)

In Ireland, these Magdalene institutions were initially started by well-meaning non-profit and charitable groups, however, as time passed, and the cultural climate changed, control of these facilities was conferred to the Catholic Church. By the middle of the twentieth century there were at least a dozen of these industrial laundries in use in the country.

This paper will discuss the political situation in a post-independence Ireland that allowed for the formation of such institutions, the intended use of the laundries and subsequent devolution into factories of exploitation and gendered abuse, and the way that the influence of the Christian religion shaped the Irish culture and national identity, allowed these abuses to be perpetuated upon thousands of women that passed through the laundries through the years of their operation.

To understand the establishment of these institutions and the subsequent incarceration and exploitation of the women who passed through their halls, one must first understand the political situation in Ireland at the time. The period in question was one of intense political and social upheaval. Between the years of 1916 and 1923, Ireland saw an insurgent uprising, the war of independence, and a civil war. Predominant among these political shifts was the withdrawing of the British occupation and the emergence of a new Irish free state.  From the 1920s, “the Irish State conceived its national identity in terms of a primarily Gaelic and Catholic cultural ethos.” (Marsden, 2005) Foundational to the construction of this newly emergent nation-state was a collective Irish need to clearly differentiate their own national identity from that of their former occupiers. This was undertaken through certain premises, namely purity, chastity, and virtue. The obverse of those themes, impurity, licentiousness, and vice, were each attributed to their “morally corrupt” former colonizer. The distinctness and superiority of Irish identity, then, would be secured with particular reference to moral purity. This would be bolstered by catholic social teachings. It was during this period of the conception of a new Irish national identity in the face of their new freedom, that the Catholic church sought control of social processes by “establishing a firm grip on education as well as by the doctrine of familism.” (O’Mahony and Delanty, 2001).

This control took the form of a strict enforcement of moral control over every aspect of the life of Irish women, from domestic life, to education, to what welfare they might be entitled to, all the way to their religious participation. (Valiulis, 1995b) Those women unlucky enough to be guilty of such crimes as “extramarital sex” were a stark contradiction to the prescribed national narrative that put the emphasis on conformity, placed a higher value on the community than the individual, and esteemed conservative Catholic moral values. (Smith, 2007) The control of female sexuality, as both a discourse and as a practice, became one of the primary strategies by which the Catholic Church gained and maintained power. It’s been argued that in the Irish desperation to produce and enforce a new national identity that was so heavily premised on the concept of moral purity, both church and state colluded to impose strict Catholic social mores and values, effectively instituting a regime of inward-looking repressiveness (Smith, 2004)

The moral purity that was at stake in the construction of the Irish identity was essentially equated with sexual purity, which was visualized through women’s bodies, and enacted by strict control over female sexuality. As Claudia Lenz notes, women are constructed as biological and moral bearers of the nation, responsible for its future existence, yet regarded as neither capable of coping with the challenges of public affairs, nor reliable in political matters.

Maryann Valiulis (1995b) argued that the emphasis on women’s sexual purity as a means of forging a new national identity, itself understood as a recapturing of “traditional Gaelic nationhood”, went hand in hand with calls for women to return to the home. During the fight for Irish liberation many women had been active in nationalist and feminist movements. These women had been promised equal citizenship in an independent Ireland as a reward for their services in the struggle for Irish liberation. However, in the 1916 proclamation, the rhetoric of church and state began to shift in ways that increasingly labelled the home as the only position befitting of a proper Irish woman. Being a wife and mother was paramount, often thought of as the sole achievement of Irish womanhood. As a result of these changing ideals, women who had risked their lives along side the men fighting for a free Ireland were increasingly recast as treacherous betrayers of their “virtuous tradition.”, in 1924 The Irish Independent berated women who did not ascribe to these ideals, stating that these were women who “shirked or neglected their duty to their children” that they “preferred the fashionable and crowded thoroughfare to their own quiet homes” and that they “preferred talking on a platform or in a council chamber to chatting with their children in the nursery.” (in Valiulis 1995a, 173)

While female occupation of public spaces was coming to be seen as a dereliction of “domestic duties” and potentially subversive of their state-chosen label of “virtuous and pure bearers of the nation”, women’s bodies were deemed problematic more in a more general sense. Since the consequences of sexual “transgressions” are almost exclusively visible on the female body, women alone had the capacity to be a visual indicator of any failure to live up to this new, purity based, national identity.

The immediate impact of this could be clearly seen in the increasingly enacted measures which were ostensibly aimed at promoting Irish women’s virtue and purity. Vices were presented as English in origin and countered through increasingly punitive means. The threat posed by women to the nation imagery was ubiquitous. Any nonadherence to national, and further Catholic, moral and social norms would create cracks in the façade that the nation was trying to establish for itself. As a result, female sexuality and social behaviors were the subject of intense scrutiny and any visible transgressions of purity were met with punishment and opprobrium.

Not only was the newly emerging Ireland increasingly engaged in the production and policing of sexual mores, but also in enacting legislations, which were successively regressive, that restricted women’s public roles. What had started as a commonly held public opinion that the only place befitting a woman was in her home, and the highest role she could attain was that of a wife and mother, now became law. Censorship of “foreign” corrupting influences became rampant, and transgressors were viewed as threats to the moral sexual purity that was seen as the foundation of the new nation, and either punished or hidden. (Crowley and Kitchin 2008, 356)

Ireland’s national identity was so deeply based on this premise of moral purity and virtue that women and girls who were deemed threats to this identity were presented as bringing shame onto themselves, their families, and their nation and therefore were considered to be deserving of punishment and confinement, even by the girls themselves.

This was hardly an idea unique to Ireland, but it was there that the confluence of postcolonial nation building, the absence of any type of secular political left, (Ferriter 2012, 107), and the ecclesiastical control of a large part of the countries infrastructure, particularly over social services, ushered in a new system of institutionalization that was especially punitive, pervasive and persistent.

Even as institutionalization was experiencing a reformation or even being abandoned in other places in the world, Irish institutions boasted growing numbers of inmates and social contracts, all of which reached its peak in the 1950’s with 1 in 100 per capita being confined in one of the laundries or asylums across the country. (O’Sullivan and O’Donnell 2012)

Initially the Magdalene laundries formed part of a more general “rescue movement” that was prevalent throughout the 19th century and, according to Luddy, were relatively flexible at their inception. “Women entered and left them on a regular basis and the institutions offered respite when few other welfare organizations would care for prostitutes” (2007a, 13)

As management of these institutions became more demanding and difficult for the average lay person to handle, the local churches and religious orders increasingly took over leadership roles and acted as overseers of the facilities. The implication that the context of the national discourse of moral purity espoused by the selfsame church which, in general, deemed women’s sexuality as suspicious, was the catalyst that caused the increasingly church-run asylums and laundries became more rigid and punitive cannot be ignored.

The political climate of the early twentieth century Ireland was one heavily steeped in shame, and this shame allowed the construction of the “Deviant Other” who were portrayed as threats to the national identity. The potential sullying of this identity through their sexual impurity was dealt with by taking control of the bodies – the most immediate visible markers of moral transgressions – and confining them to institutions in accordance with an established hierarchy of sinfulness and impurity. These “Deviant Others” were presented as intrinsically flawed, blemished and stained beyond repair. Therefore, the only viable resolution was concealment behind the walls of an institution.

In the Magdalene laundries, there was some emphasis placed on reform, particularly on the salvation of the fallen soul through prayer, toil and sincere repentance. However, evidence increasingly surfaces which indicate that several the institutions being used to conceal these shamed “Others” became increasingly punishing in the early decades of the new Irish State.

The shift from a place of reprieve for prostitutes and “fallen women” to an industrialized system of oppression and exploitation was gradual, but that did not mean it wasn’t refracted through other areas of the Irish society. The classification and gradation of sinners meant that those who were seen as particularly threatening or transgressive were also deemed the most deserving of punishment. The change that the Magdalene asylums underwent during this time illustrates that increasingly held social standpoint.

The Laundries had initially been constructed to house and support prostitutes, providing them with training for a trade, and offering a reprieve from a harsh and unforgiving life of sexual assault. With the emergence of this new national identity, public prostitution began to decline. The laundries by this point, were too profitable, and carrying too many large, high ranking contracts from places like the army, and nearby hospitals or infectious disease clinics, even some of the larger hotels, to be content with the declining population and voluntary admittances. As such, Magdalene laundries began to alter their orientation, and the inmates became increasingly diverse.

The assumption that all women were potential sexual transgressors shifted the burden of proof of these “female wrongdoings” away from members of the clergy. Instead, social workers, police and even family members were able, and enthusiastically began, to facilitate the incarceration (and sometimes reincarceration) of unwanted women and girls. These inmates were referred to as “penitents” within the asylum and could be confined via several routes, for various reasons. Some of these confinements are officially on record, but, especially of the cases of familial placements, some of the grounds for confinement will never be known.

Records exist showing some of the women in the facilities being homeless before their entry into the laundry. Some were suffering from mental or physical disabilities, some were orphans, some victims of abuse. “Hopeless cases,” “mental defectives,” infanticide cases, those on remand from courts, transfers from industrial and reformatory schools, and some “voluntary” committals increasingly formed cohorts of inmates. (McAleese 2013, ii–iii)

While, initially entrance into the asylums had been entirely voluntary, as time went on, fewer and fewer voluntary entrants were noted. Further, increasing numbers of “penitents” were detained for longer and longer periods, many for life. Increasingly, the institutions served as a form and function of punishment, containing unwed mothers, sexual assault victims, and girls who were “sexually aware” or “demonstrating tendencies toward sexual immorality”.

The laundries became places where women who did not fit or conform to the narrative of Irish purity were effectively excluded, silenced or punished. Women were frequently disposed of in these laundries, an action which ensured their personal silence, while creating a larger silence that would safeguard Ireland’s identity as a society of superior moral purity.

Within the asylums work was mandated with a symbolic significance. The religious orders running the laundries paid special regard to the supposedly blemished, shame-filled “penitents” in their charge. Their alleged sins, committed before their entry, were read as stains upon their character and souls. The stains could be removed, though never completely, exclusively through the constant application of repentance and back breaking work. Life in the laundries was characterized by silence, prayer and hard labor. The work was hard, dangerous even, but required little training and even less cost to maintain. The women worked with boiling water and irons and bleach, scrubbing the soiled stains from hospitals, hotels and other businesses. Hidden away behind the walls of these institutions, Ireland’s shamed tried to redeem their souls by purifying not just laundry, but themselves.

Ireland’s politics of shame operated not only by disciplining the bodies with confinement and enforced, exhausting and dangerous work, but also through psychosocial punishment. Inmates of the laundries were under constant surveillance, deprived or privacy, education, leisure and rest. Upon entrance they were deprived of their identity, assigned new names, had their hair cut, and provided with uniforms. Luddy points out that the “Good Shepherd nuns who worked directly with the women were called ‘surveillants’” (2007a, 99) and were instructed never to leave penitents out of their sight. The women and girls were watched constantly, for if the nuns were to “leave them to themselves,” they might be “the cause of the loss of their souls” (98) As a result of these practices, the women were kept in a constant state of emotional and psychological turmoil, frequently left unaware of why they had been incarcerated, how long they would remain, or even if they would be transferred to some other facility.

During the decades of their prevalence at least ten Magdalene laundries were in operation in Ireland. Each of them carried the mission statement to “Protect, reform, and rehabilitate”. According to James Smith, many of these institutions shared underlying characteristics, including “regimes of prayer, silence, work in a laundry and a preference for permanent inmates.” The longevity of these asylums and laundries is noteworthy. Women were still entering these laundries in the 1980s. The last laundry to close, the Sean McDermott Street laundry, did not shut its doors until 1996.

The laundries provided a powerful mechanism for patriarchal control by both the church and state, which had collectively termed sexuality as the principle lynchpin that would cause morality’s downfall. These institutionalizations formed part of a system bent on moral regulation and social control. Moral reformation could only take place through industrial discipline. The fact that this industrialization was profitable through the means of low-cost maintenance, unpaid labor and the acquisition of clients with large contracts from the surrounding community was just a benefit.

The Irish society sought to minimize, and where they could, completely obscure the challenges that these women embodied. The contrast between their characters and the Irish ideal were stark indeed, when viewed unobstructed. They were aware of and comfortable with their sexuality when the Irish ideal demanded women to be morally “pure”, They had children outside of wedlock when the Irish ideal declared marriage and motherhood inseparable, and ultimately, they were victims of abuse under a societal double standard that expunged and circumvented any male culpability.

A commission was set up to investigate allegations of abuses at institutions and reformatory schools, the Magdalene laundries among them. The investigation looked into these facilities and requested information from 1936 onward. A report of the findings, commonly known as the Ryan Report, showed definitively that the state was well aware of the situation within these institutions and did nothing to stop it. The report comments that the department knew that “violence and beatings were endemic within the system itself”; that it “dealt inadequately with complaints about sexual abuse,” which “were generally dismissed or ignored”; and that “officials were aware that abuse occurred in the Schools and they knew the education was inadequate and the industrial training was outdated” (Ryan 2009).

Similarly, a report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to Establish the Facts of State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, more commonly referred to as the McAleese Report, found that the laundries weren’t private institutions as the officials had hitherto maintained. Since the institutions were public, and not private, the report stated that the state had a responsibility toward the people maintained and incarcerated within their walls. (McAleese, 2013) Both of these reports, along with a handful of others, highlight the state’s seeming willingness to wash its hands of the thousands of women and children who were victims of abuse and exploitation in these facilities throughout the twentieth century.

Further evidence of the states culpability in these human rights violations can be seen in the early years of the Irish free state when the Carrigan report (1931) was given to the governmental leaders with some damning data regarding Irish sexual purity. The testimony of Irish women’s organizations at the time of the Carrigan report tended to emphasize prevention over punishment as a way of addressing the seeming crisis in sexual mores. To that end, the Carrigan Report made several recommendations for prevention, including raising the age of sexual consent to 18, making the advertisement and sale of contraceptives a forbidden practice, and, in a controversial move, the report even suggested some crimes be punished with public flogging and blacklisting. (Smith 2004, 214)

Since the record was particularly damning, the state, with direct agreement from the Catholic church, chose not to publish the seemingly grave moral, national failings. As a result, the report, the findings, and the subsequent handling of these facts are indicative of the sheer amount of secrecy required, and imposed, by both church and state to maintain a veneer of Irish moral purity in an attempt to protect their national identity.

James Smith states that the Carrigan Report was particularly important in the inauguration of a state’s attitudes toward sexual immorality through its hegemonic discourse, which encouraged public consent. The report established a state sanctioned precedent for a church-state advocacy of moral purity by criminalizing sex outside of marriage. The report further ensured Irish women’s ignorance about the rudimentary facts of human reproduction, and their own rights, while simultaneously stigmatizing young women, and by proxy exculpating young men, for any hint of sexual immorality.

Smith elaborates, “the political reception of the Carrigan Report—first the suppression of the report, then a legislative response [consisting of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1935) and the Dance Hall Act (1935)]—established a precedent for church-state management of sociosexual controversies, proscribing visible manifestations of ‘sexual immorality’ while failing to address—or choosing to ignore—the social realities attending them” (2004, 211)

Supposedly celibate clerics saw no irony in passing judgement on family life and reproductive processes, nor in casually debating where to draw the line between a girl who “fell through folly” versus one who was an “irredeemable sinner”. Arguments and counterarguments put forth in publications such as the Irish Ecclesiastical record illustrate the political temperature of the time. “The ‘unmarried mother’ problem,” as it was termed, came to be framed by the notion of a hierarchy of sinners, where “girls who ‘get into trouble’ . . . through weakness, credulity, or folly” are contrasted with those who do so “habitually or by way of livelihood” (Sagart [1922] 2012, 45).

Penalization for extra-marital sex was exorbitant. If a working-class woman became pregnant outside of marriage, the standard practice would have been for her to leave her home in disgrace and to go to a Magdalene Laundry. It was simply understood that that was the punishment for her impurity. Further, parents who attempted to stand by their daughters frequently found the priest hammering at their door telling them it was their Christian duty to turn their backs on their child. (Finnegan, 2004)

In practice, the result of this repressive legislation and the curtailment of so-called vices was the required the concealment and containment of the “Deviant Others” in a system of mass institutionalization. Institutionalization, therefore, became the means of maintaining “the belief that there were no [moral] lapses . . . in Ireland,” as the “Irish solution” to the problem posed by such lapses was, in the words of historian Diarmaid Ferriter, “to hide and deny those who had ‘lapsed’” (2012, 6). The Irish solution to the Irish problem of sexual immorality, and its attendant risk of exposing a national Irish identity spuriously premised on purity, was thus to be found in an increasingly powerful network of institutions.

First time “offenders” were placed in places termed “Mother and baby homes” while women and girls who had experienced more than one pregnancy were generally consigned to the laundries. These “illegitimate” children were committed to orphanages, placed in foster homes, sent to industrial schools where later, if they were female, they might find themselves transferred into a laundry themselves. Sometimes these children adopted out by Catholic families, usually in the United States, and possibly with further financial gain for the religious orders.

According to Crowley and Kitchin, The control of the female body that was so prevalent in the early decades of the new Irish state involved a “disciplinary regime that . . . was highly gendered, focusing almost exclusively on the regulation and self-regulation of women,” which formed “a dense specialized grid . . . seeking to produce ‘decent’ women inhabiting virtuous spaces by limiting access to work and public spaces, confining women to an unsullied (marital) home, with the ever-present threat of new sites of reformation” (2008, 367). These regulations of women’s physical presence in the spheres of home, work, politics, and increasingly, institutions, ensured that women would be confined to their appropriate place both metaphorically and physically. The politics of shame, which required mass institutionalization as a means of preserving that sought-after national identity, should be looked at in terms of the women’s physical occupation of space. Increasingly you see this topic – how to restrict women’s presence in the public sphere, where to place unmarried mothers, how to confine repeat offenders away from salvageable young souls – treated as seemingly vital questions of national interest.

Survivors of these laundries and institutions, giving their testimonies, revealing their experiences before the media and the internet, even coming together to advocate for other survivors, exhibit a defiance of the systemic church and state sponsored shaming that was accepted, even endorsed, by Irish society.

In the 1990s, these testimonies, and other shocking revelations began to crack the conspiracy of silence about the Magdalene laundries. The discovery of 133 unmarked graves in High Park in 1993 after the sale of one of these facilities shined a stark and unfavorable light on the actual events occurring behind the walls. Instead of opening an investigation, however, the bodies of the women were exhumed, cremated and interred in a nearby cemetery before any attempt could be made to determine their identities. The public outrage one might expect from the discovery of 133 unmarked graves at a church run institution, much less the subsequent exhumation and cremation of the bodies with no investigation, simply never came. (Urban, 2012)

In further evidence of the complicity between church and state, in 2002, the Irish government signed an indemnity agreement with the religious congregations. Indemnity was offered in exchange for the congregations contributing a sum of €128 million to the redress scheme that was aimed at compensating those abused in the institutions. (Ryan, 2009) In a damning response to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy, and Cloyne Reports, Amnesty International Ireland found “the Catholic Church was the dominant service provider for most people in the State, further it continues to be a significant service provider. . .The State failed to ensure . . . proper systems of regulation and accountability. . . In the absence of such systems, abuse was endemic.” (Holohan, 2011)

Activism in Ireland on behalf of the survivors ultimately led to the McAleese inquiry, a reparation program, and even a state issued apology. The church itself, and more specifically the Good Shephard nuns who mostly oversaw the facilities have thus far refused to contribute to the reparations, stating that they had been providing a service to the community and fallen women that no one else would help, and that no apology was necessary. Ultimately, these laundries and institutionalized labor factories show the darker side of what can happen when church and state are not clearly delineated. Religious permeation into the Irish culture led to a mentality that let an entire society label its women as a potential and ubiquitous threat to everything it wanted to represent. An entire generation of people turned their backs on their wives and daughters and sisters, pretending they didn’t know about their suffering behind those institution walls. This gendered abuse, prevalent throughout the entirety of the twentieth century, was perpetuated by the collusion of the church and state for ultimate control under a strict moral code. The system of endemic maltreatment would have never been able to thrive without the complicity of both sides of the coin.

Organized religion frequently saturates into its surrounding culture, often in ways that are subtle, and which enrich the lives of the people in their immediate societies. Social programs, community features, and emotional support provided by the church generally uplift their contiguous communities. When the church steps from the enrichment and betterment of their adjoining populations and seeks to instill control based on a rigid moral code from the most extreme places in the religion, people suffer. Generally, in contrast to the teachings of the Christian church, the people who suffer the most are the poor, the forgotten, the downtrodden. When the rich and powerful make a bid to gain more money and power, its always the little people who are tormented. When something as powerful as the church sponsors these actions, societies are swayed to disregard and ignore the agony of their fellow man, even to the point of being convinced that the suffering is in the best interest of the victims.

The idea of airing one’s dirty laundry in public is a social taboo, enforced by codes of silence and the mentality that shame should be hidden. As a concept this is a perfect metaphor for Magdalene history. Survivors of these institutions literally scrubbed the stains from the community’s laundry while physically representing a metaphoric representation of the shameful imperfections that Irish society wanted hidden. This presents a “conspiracy of silence” which can frequently be seen in the actions of survivors which follow any type of traumatic experience. Clear pathways can be drawn from individual decisions to maintain their silence, a silence that has been socially and morally imposed upon them, and a collusion of silence between the survivors and the society they come from, to a culture of victim blaming, self-shaming and at its worst, a physical incarceration of the things that shame us. We can never be silent again.

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