A Brief History
On September 25, 1996, the last of the Magdalene asylums for prostitutes closed. Named after Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute who had repented her sins upon meeting Jesus, these asylums housed ” fallen” and wayward women.
After the first Magdalene asylum founded in Whitechapel, England in 1758, the concept quickly spread across Europe and to the United States, with the first American Magdalene asylum there being the Magdalen (sic.) Society of Philadelphia founded in 1800. For over for 200 years, these asylums, or laundries as they were also called because the women were often kept busy by doing laundry, gave refuge and protection to former prostitutes, unwed mothers and other sexually promiscuous women.
In the early years, many women came to the asylums by their own free will to escape life on the streets, abusive relationships or bad economic circumstances. Most of the prostitutes were not rehabilitated and left soon after they had been helped out a little. As time went on, the many asylums began to emphasize personal guilt and salvation and even prepared the women for a religious life. Other asylums then began treating the women like prison inmates in order to evoke personal lifestyle changes, which led to much abuse of power.
Some controversial moves of some of the asylums included: 1) kidnapping women from brothels; 2) treating new arrivals with mercury for venereal disease, which resulted in cases of mercury poisoning; 3) locking women up, which resulted in deaths and injuries as women tried to escape by climbing out of windows; 4) making the women work for no pay, resulting in slave labor; 5) and lastly even committing young girls who had no sexual transgressions to ensure a continuous supply of free labor.
On a sad note, many of these young girls had been brought to the asylums by their own families because their families did not wish to care for them anymore. For most of these girls, the only way out was if a family member came back and claimed them.
These abuses of power, however, only really came to light with the discovery of a mass grave of 155 bodies that was found on the grounds of a Catholic Church-run Magdalene asylum in Ireland in 1993. It created a scandal because the corpses could not be identified, which brought to light that upon admittance to Magdalene asylums, the women virtually disappeared and were left to suffer in silence, alone and forgotten by the outside world.
Following the scandal, the last Magdalene asylum, also located in Ireland, closed. The topic is still current, however. As recently as 2011, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (Uncat), criticized the Irish government for refusing to acknowledge the pain and abuse suffered by the women incarcerated in the laundries and called for a thorough investigation and compensation scheme for the surviving ex-Magdalene inmates. The government responded and in 2013 issued a formal state apology and set up a £50 million compensation scheme for survivors. To date, the Catholic Church has not yet contributed.
The autrocities committed by the laundries in Ireland are depicted in the 2002 movie The Magdalene Sisters. A similar situation is presented in the 2013 movie Philomena starring Judi Dench, in which a young teenage girl who becomes pregnant is sent to a convent where she gives birth to a son she is forced to give up for adoption while she must stay behind to work in the convent’s laundry. Both films are based on true stories.
Question for students (and subscribers): Are you horrified to learn that such repressive institutions existed in the Western World as recently as the 1990s? What do you think should be done to ensure that such abuse against helpless women does not happen again? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Smith, James M. Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
Finnegan, Frances. Do Penance or Perish : a Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. Piltown, Co. Kilkenny: Congrave Press, 2002.
Mullan, Peter. The Magdalene Sisters. Miramax Home Entertainment, 2004.