Washing away sin in the Magdalene Laundries

The Magdalene Laundries case presents an instance where the specificity of gen- dered power relations is only too apparent. The gaze that some young women of Eire were subjected to was not one that touched their boyfriends, their brothers, their priests and those others who may have contributed to their ‘fallen’ state. The Magdalene system was named for Mary Magdalene, Christ’s follower in the New Testament who, for many years, was considered by the Church to have been a reformed prostitute. The Church subverted Mary Magdalene’s treatment by Christ in its regard for girls who conceived out of wedlock, or committed other sins of the flesh. Christ’s explicit code on the woman taken in adultery was to let he who is without sin throw the first stone, the exact opposite of the code that came to be adopted in his and her name.

The   organization   of   the   Magdalene   Laundries   inverted   the   Christian code. While one could argue that Christ displayed a feminist sensibility in his treatment of Mary Magdalene, those intuitions enacted in her and his name were resolutely anti-feminine. Magdalene institutions began in the late 1700s but became most prevalent in the mid nineteenth century, when secular asylums designed to reform prostitutes and return them to society with usable skills were taken over by the Catholic Church across Ireland. They slowly changed into homes for unwed mothers and then prisons for any girl or young woman deemed by society to be acting sexually promiscuously.

The Magdalene Laundries received young girls sent there by families or orphanages. Their stay was not voluntary, nor was it normal paid labor. They were there because they were ‘sinful’. The sins varied from being unmarried mothers to being too ugly, too simple minded, too clever, or a victim of rape who talked about it; or, if an orphaned teenage girl, they could be incarcerated as a precautionary move if they were thought to be too attractive. And for their sins they worked 364 days a year unpaid, some were half-starved, beaten, humiliated, and raped, and their children were forcibly removed from them. Their sentence was indefinite and their confinement palpable. At the Magdalene institution in Cork, there were 20-foot-high brick walls, topped with shards of broken glass mortared into the concrete (CBS 1999).

Over the course of the existence of the laundries it is documented that over 30,000 women worked in them (Humphries 1998). The work was hard, relentless, raw and physical, involving washing, scrubbing, and ironing. It started at five in the morning with mass, followed by breakfast; then the women worked, with institu- tional breaks for meals, until they went to bed at about seven o’clock at night. The choice of work – washing and laundering – was deliberate. By scrubbing, they were supposed to wash away their sins along with the stains on the laundry that they dealt with, as it came in from the nunneries, monasteries, schools, orphanages and local businesses.

The way out of the laundries was to be claimed by a relative who was willing to take responsibility. The chances of being claimed were slim, because of the stigma attached to being in the laundries. If they were released they usually could not locate their families or their illegitimate children. Thousands of women lived and died there, as virtual slaves, in an environment controlled and dominated by celibate women, servants of God and Brides of Christ who acted as remorseless reminders of the wages of sin and the consequences of a fall from grace.

The laundries were extremely profitable and required a larger and larger number of workers. These workers were supplied by Catholic priests in ever increasing numbers. Thus, the system developed in a society and a time when authority was not questioned, women were second-class citizens and women’s sexuality was a perceived threat to social stability. It was an era ruled by double standards and the importance of keeping up appearances. As Kay Lorraine (2003) writes, there were also laundries elsewhere, in Britain, mostly Protestant, the last of which closed in the 1970s, and in virtually every Catholic city across Europe and North America, especially Quebec, as well as in Australia.24 The last Magdalene asylum in Ireland closed in 1996 (see Mullan 2004). New Magdalene asylums are opening in Asia and Africa, where oppression and double standards for women are still the norm, run by some of the same orders that previously operated the Magdalene asylums elsewhere.

The system came into question as a result of the sale of Church property in Ireland:

In the 1970s, a former convent laundry property held by the Sisters of Charity in Dublin was sold to the Republic government for public use. 133 unmarked graves were discovered on the property, containing the bodies of abandoned Magdalene girls. Family members who had never been notified of the deaths claimed some of the bodies. Many others remained unidentified. Finally, in 1991, the remaining bodies were buried in historic Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, marked with a single memorial. (Lorraine, 2003; also see www.netreach.net/~steed/magdalen.html)

The asylums were total institutions in every sense (Lorraine 2003). Many of the girls were very young when they were admitted and were often given a different name, as part of the process of breaking them down psychologically and stripping them of their individual identity, making them easier to control. After 10, 15, 20 years in the laundries under constant psychological abuse, many women could no longer remember their original names or the names of their family members. What makes it more terrible is that some of the young women who were commit- ted there were themselves victims of sexual abuse in total institutions, such as Catholic orphanages, or in the Church, such as rape at the hands of a priest. Still, in the view of many of the Sisters of Mercy, through suffering and hard work in the laundries, for the greater glory of God, fallen women might find salvation. Be con- vinced that the regime of the total institution is the best for all concerned, both those in and those outwith, such that its purpose is wrapped in the rhetoric of being in the ‘real’ interests of both the other and the society at large.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.


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