In case you’re unfamiliar with these crazy horrible places (as I was until just recently), here’s a quick run-through:
Protestants and Catholics set up Magdalene laundries in Ireland – and elsewhere on a smaller scale – as a way to reform “fallen” women. (“Fallen,” by the way, means promiscuous, seductive, or just pretty. Oh and poor, obviously.)
The Catholic Church took complete control of the asylums in the early 18oo’s. Over time, the institutions developed a pattern of physical and sexual abuse, along with grueling slave labor. The state and numerous businesses contracted with these laundries’ services (yes, even my beloved Guinness was a part of this).
An estimated 30,000 Irish women were incarcerated in these institutions, although more women continue to come forward after the media publicized the scandal in the 1990s. In fact, the issue didn’t receive much attention at all until a real estate deal uncovered a mass grave of women and girls thought to have been worked to death, tortured and abused. The last of these laundries closed in – wait for it – 1996.
This past June, the UN called on Ireland to investigate these alleged hellholes and to compensate survivors – most of whom are now elderly and impoverished. Irish authorities don’t think fondly of that idea. They claim no responsibility because they didn’t run the facilities. Survivors and advocates argue that the state not only contracted with the laundries on a mass scale, but provided prisoners by turning in women and girls accused of petty crimes.
Ireland, I know you’re struggling right now, but please pay these poor, abused, orphaned old women. Good lord. I thought guilt and shame was, like, your thing.
In the meantime, let’s all keep our eyes open for groups claiming to reform people’s sexual choices by placing them in a facility run by religious zealots who are accountable only to the church that founded them. Gee, good thing we don’t do things like that this side of the pond, right?
Oh, and you can learn more about this issue from the incriminating Ryan Commission report on child abuse in Ireland.