I first learned of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland from the film The Magdalene Sisters, which follows three young women who are committed against their wills to an institution that forces them to labor doing laundry, which at the time was very hard work. One woman is raped by her cousin and blamed for it; another has a child out of wedlock that she is forced to give up for adoption; the third is a teenage girl who is simply deemed too flirty. While there, they befriend a developmentally delayed woman who is being sexually abused by a priest. You can watch the trailer below:
From the Washington Post:
For more than a decade, the Irish government has denied responsibility for the 10 Magdalene laundries across the country, which were operated by religious orders from the 19th century until the mid-1990s.
But Tuesday, a government report published evidence of “direct state involvement” in the committal of a quarter of the estimated 10,000 women sent to the workhouses between 1922 and 1996.
The state played a role in funding and regulating the laundries, which were commercial operations that never paid wages to inmates who often did not know why they had been committed or for how long. Police also returned women who escaped.
Girls and women were committed because of minor criminal convictions, transferred from state-run schools for neglected children, referred by priests, or committed by their own families. Despite the government report, the Irish state has not offered a full apology to women incarcerated in the laundries.
Contrary to testimony provided by some survivors — and the brutal regimen depicted in the 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters” — the government report found little evidence of physical or sexual abuse. Instead, the 118 survivors interviewed depicted “a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer.”
The report absolves the four religious institutions who ran the laundries of blame, saying they responded in practical ways as best they could by providing marginalized women with shelter, board and work.
Well, I don’t absolve them of blame. They exploited girls who had the misfortune to be orphaned or come from abusive families, and they punished women for falling outside society’s rigid expectations for sexual behavior. The abuse that some survivors speak of is truly horrific. For shame.
Another argument in favor of secularism, I think.
Update: commenter Lucreza Borgia pointed me toward a documentary on the Madgalene asylums. It’s only about an hour long, and it’s truly heart-wrenching and angering. The fictionalized characters in The Magdalene Sisters closely follow the stories of the women in the documentary. The abuse they suffered at the hands of priests and nuns, the institutions of the Church (with the complicity of the state), and their own families is appalling.
Women were definitely considered second-class citizens. Out of all women in society, it would seem that nuns had the most power, but they were still subordinate within the Church. I have to wonder how much of their cruelty to the women in the laundries stemmed from their own sense of frustrated powerlessness. They made the women strip down and then ridiculed their bodies, for example. And their views on sexuality…I mean, one of the women was committed to the asylum when she was a teenager because the nuns at her orphanage decided she was too pretty to be let loose in the world. I really recommend watching, and I really hope the Irish government–and the Church–offer full apologies to their victims, right now. I’m not holding my breath though, so I think the best thing we can do is share their stories.