Humanity is the washerwoman of society that wrings out its dirty laundry in tears. - Karl Kraus
Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were the culmination of a centuries-long trend which started in the 13th century. Though the Church had always held prostitution to be a “necessary evil”, the crusading fervor of the mid-1200s turned “the Church (and most governments) [toward] tolerating the profession but attempting to redeem as many whores as possible by teaching them the ‘error of their ways’, sometimes…by confining them to…‘Magdalene homes’”:
Conditions in these homes ranged from the tolerable to the terrible depending on their endowment and management; a few cared for ex-whores indefinitely while attempting to find them husbands, but the majority were semi-prisons in which the women were “cleansed” by teaching them the “value of honest work” (i.e. unpaid drudgery) with a harsh regimen of long hours, short rations and strict rules while supervisors read from the Bible or various didactic tracts. Most of the Magdalene homes died out after the Black Death decimated 14th century Europe, but a few survived the centuries and the movement actually experienced a revival throughout the English-speaking world in the mid-18th century. Their numbers dramatically increased with the rise of the “purity movement” in the late 19th century, but by the early 20th their treatment of ex-whores had become so harsh that only the truly desperate were willing to go there and they largely vanished in all countries but Ireland, where they were called “Magdalene laundries” because the inmates were used as washerwomen.
This is by no means ancient history; the last of these laundries was closed only 16 years ago today (September 25th, 1996) after the public was made aware of the horrific abuse which was rampant in such facilities, and the Irish government’s investigation of the scandal has only just been closed (its report is due by the end of this year). This recent article from the Irish Examiner will give you some idea of what these early incarnations of “rehabilitation centers for prostituted women” were like; note that though (as their name clearly indicates) they were established solely for “repentant” prostitutes, incarceration in them first became mandatory and then (as always happens in such systems) was extended to other “bad” girls such as unwed mothers and teen runaways:
The 145 pages of Justice for Magdalene’s…[report] describes from testimony how the women suffered abuse of various kinds…and once the door to the outside world was shut on them, they were referred to by number not by name…JFM hold[s] religious orders and the State directly and indirectly responsible for systematically humiliating, imprisoning and enslaving thousands of young Irish girls…the State sent women and girls to the laundries and ensured “they remained there — in most cases, without any statutory basis for doing so”…the State used the laundries as a way of dealing with births outside marriage, poverty, homelessness, promiscuity, domestic and sexual abuse as well as youth crime and infanticide… “It repeatedly sought to funnel diverse populations of women and girls to the Magdalene Laundries and in return, the religious orders obtained an entirely unpaid and literally captive workforce for their commercial laundry enterprises”…the women washed, ironed and sewed from dawn to dusk, were regularly beaten, not allowed to talk to one another and punished if they laughed. There was no regard whatsoever for their health or medical needs. If they stepped out of line, they were “put down the hole”.
“This was a four by four room… There was nothing in it, only a bench — no windows. You were put in there; your hair was cut, more or less off completely….and you were there all day without anything to eat,” one woman recalled. Even for the “good” girls and women upstairs, food was scarce…[those] in the laundries were also denied contact with girls in other convent complexes…[and] the laundry was designed so the women could not see out or be seen inside…
The nuns would also routinely split up sisters or mothers and daughters, denying them contact even to the point of not telling one when the other had died. I’m sure you can guess who the laundries’ biggest customers were:
…the nuns got direct capitation grants from the State and also valuable state contracts for cleaning laundry and commercial laundry work from various Government departments and agencies…the State chose not to supervise the religious orders’ operation of the Magdalene Laundries…[it] failed to enforce its own health and safety legislation…[and] turned a blind eye to the fact these school-age girls weren’t receiving an education, weren’t being paid for working 12-hour days and had been cut off from family, friends and the outside world…
The two orders involved in this monstrous enterprise were the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity; one would think that given the public relations nightmare which has resulted from the Irish government’s involvement with these organizations, it would want nothing more to do with them, and would be especially hostile toward allowing them any input whatsoever on any public policy even remotely connected to whores.
One would be wrong. The “prostitution and trafficking” NGO named Ruhama, the largest and most vociferous anti-sex work organization in Ireland and the most aggressive proponent of imposing the Swedish model on the country, “was founded as a joint initiative of the Good Shepherd Sisters and Our Lady of Charity Sisters, both of which had a long history of involvement with marginalised women, including those involved in prostitution.” Nor is it relying on Church funds or public contributions to accomplish its goals; according to the Irish Times it “receives funding from the Department of Health and the Department of Justice.” In other words, the Irish government continues to fund two societies of sex-hating sadists, with a long history of vile and inhuman treatment of women, in their campaign to extend their anti-whore policies into the streets and to impose them on men as well.
And people wonder why I distrust governments.