Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Magdalene Laundries: Forced Labor by the Irish Catholic Church (or was it Slavery?)

The Magdalene Laundries: Forced Labor by the Irish Catholic Church (or was it Slavery?)
This post is about what used to happen to young women who were thought to be, or in danger of becoming, promiscious. In Ireland, such young women were called "Magdalenes" and were locked up in Roman Catholic institutions.

When I was a teenager, there were “good” girls and “bad” girls. Bad girls had sex before marriage, and if they became pregnant they were often sent away in shame to have their babies in secret (this happened to a couple of women I know, now both professors). Or, the girl and the father were coerced into marriage. There was no welfare available then for unmarried mothers, so pregnant girls who didn’t marry normally had to give up their babies for adoption (abortion was illegal as well in those days, as was birth control for unmarried women). Really “bad” girls, if I remember correctly, were considered promiscuous and incorrigible, and some were institutionalized to keep them out of harm’s way. That was right here in southern Ontario, Canada, where I still live.

Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, Wikimedia Commons
 Three months ago in Ireland, on February 19, 2013, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) apologized to women who suffered a far worse fate than the “bad” girls who were around when I grew up in Canada. You can find his apology at the political apologies website that my research assistants and I maintain, at
http://political-apologies.wlu.ca/details.php?table=doc_press&id=835 .

The Catholic Church of Ireland maintained institutions known as the Magdalene Laundries (Mary Magdalene was an important follower of Jesus Christ, but for centuries she was thought to have been a “fallen woman,” a repentant prostitute, and was pictured as such in much Western art: the fact that Jesus respected her was ignored by the same misogynistic Western culture). Girls and women were sent to live and work at the Magdalene Laundries if the authorities, either secular or Church, thought they had been, or were in danger of becoming, sexual deviants: that is, women who had sexual relations outside of marriage. Others were referred to the laundries because they had played truant from school or came from dysfunctional families. In general, the Laundries were a safe place to store women who didn’t conform to the restrictive social norms of Catholic Ireland.
I heard one survivor of incarceration in these laundries interviewed on As It Happens, a radio program of the Canadian Broadcasting Company. She was incarcerated in the laundries merely because she had a boyfriend and the Church thought she might have sexual relations with him outside of marriage. Apparently it didn’t occur to the Church that she and the boy were in love and might get married. She used to see her boyfriend out the window of the laundry but she couldn’t speak to him. She is one of about 800-1,000 women still in Ireland who are survivors of the Laundries.
The girls and women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries were forced to work all day long doing laundry for hotels, restaurants, and prisons. They weren’t paid; the money they made went to the Church. If they escaped, they were easily recognizable in their uniforms and would be returned to the Laundries, which were overseen by nuns. Not that the nuns would have benefitted much from this system either, since they had to turn the money over to the Church.
So this was undoubtedly forced labor. These girls and women were incarcerated against their will, they couldn’t escape, they had to work whether they wanted to or not, and they were not paid. The Irish government has recognized this and intends to pay them compensation, as well as erecting some sort of memorial to them. This is the right thing to do.
But I wonder if rather than referring to the inmates of the Magdalene Laundries as forced laborers, we shouldn’t call them slaves? The Forced Labor Convention of 1930 defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” This seems to describe the Magdalenes, who did not offer themselves voluntarily for unpaid work in the laundries.
The 1926 Slavery Convention, still the most relevant legal document, defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” The Catholic Church didn’t claim to own the Magdalene woman, but it did exercise de facto ownership. Not only were they forced to work without pay, some of the women spent their entire lives in the laundries, never released. The government, moreover, was complicit in their incarceration, handing them over to the authority of the Catholic Church. You might object that they weren’t sold, but being available for sale isn’t a necessary aspect of slavery; you can be enslaved without being part of the slave trade.
Nowadays, we know a lot about sex slavery and human trafficking, a huge problem in the globalized world and one of the worst consequences of poverty. The Magdalenes were enslaved to keep them away from sex, not to force them into it (though since everywhere else that people were institutionalized by the Church, in every country of the world,  a lot of sexual abuse went on, it probably did in the Laundries too). It’s not clear when forced labor morphs into slavery, but the treatment of the Magdalenes certainly raises the question.
There’s a great 2002 movie, the Magdalene Sisters, about the laundries. It’s fiction, but the DVD I saw it on included a documentary featuring some of the real Magdalene survivors. It’s useful to keep this shameful episode in Ireland in mind when we read about the treatment of “fallen” women in other parts of the world today.  

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