Magdalene Laundries – Part 1/2: An Erotophobic Society

Magdalene Asylums or Magdalene Laundries were religious organisations set up ostensibly for the reformation and shelter of “fallen” women. The idea was to model the asylums in the name of Mary Magdalene, who, according to the Catholic Church, was a prostitute and a sinner. Her penitence and repentance earned her a place among the saints of the Catholic Church, in the process leading to the degradation, imprisonment and forced penance of innocent women several hundred years later.

Originally, in the immediate years after its founding, the Magdalene Asylums did not function as laundries. They served a different purpose; the purpose being the withdrawal of “loose” women from society. They lived in total seclusion, and were permitted no visitors. Even the windows were covered with shutters so that the women cannot even glimpse anything happening in the outside world. However, they were expected every Sunday to confess their sins to a large gathering of people. They would sing, weep and harangue themselves like performing monkeys. However, after a certain period, these women were allowed to leave. Gradually, this changed in the 1900s to a life-term imprisonment except under certain circumstances.

The first Magdalene Hospital was founded in 1758 in England by a group of men including Robert Dingley, Jonas Hanway, John Fielding, Joshua Reynolds and William Dodd for the treatment of “fallen” women. Hanway was a much travelled man who was considered a philanthropist and a social reformer. Robert Dingley was a Puritan who acted as the first treasurer to the Magdalene Hospital. William Dodd was a priest who abhorred sex in any form not sanctioned by the Catholic Church and used these penitentiaries to bring himself fame and fortune.

The aim of these men was to help reform prostitutes and help them find other professions. But it did not always work that way. Some of the women committed suicide, and others escaped from the place. The intense religious atmosphere and the forcible indoctrination in these homes may have had something to do with the failure of these women to assimilate into such an atmosphere.

A Harlot’s Progress is a series of paintings depicting the story of a fictional Moll Hackabout that showcases the attitude towards single women in the 1700s. The image below is when finally the woman who ends up prostituting herself is sent to prison.

These asylums originally were a mere fashion rage for the founders. It was an age where philanthropy was a fad, and social reform a stepping stone for fame and success. Even the infamous Duchess of Devonshire was involved in setting up one of these homes. The first house was also commended for its interior decoration and its links with the high and mighty. According to The Origins of Sex by Faramerz Dabhoiwala, William Dodd made used the Magdalen for fame and progress.

… he shamelessly exploited its sexual potential in a stream of publications, even inserting anonymous letters in the papers that purported to come from grateful penitents.

An excerpt from his sermon makes it clear how he exploited the sexual mores of the day to warn his listeners of the dangers of sex.

Oh look upon me, and see what cause thou hast to exult!
Behold these wretched tatters, which scarcely cover my diseased limbs
See, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth with hunger and with anguish.
Oh, see me hopeless and abandoned.
Mercy, mercy, sweet father!”

So that is how a prostitute or sexually active woman must feel – like a wretched creature who cannot afford proper clothes and is diseased, poor and hungry, hopeless and abandoned. The actual situation of a woman turning to prostitution due to the poverty and hopelessness of her situation is cleverly manipulated to show them as becoming hopeless and in tatters due to prostitution.

An Historical Guide to the City of Dublin written by a G.N. Wright in 1825 describes it:

The Magdalen Asylum – is a brick building in Leeson-street, near Stephen’s street: this institution, the first of the kind in Dublin, was founded by Lady Arabella Denny, and was opened June 11, 1766. Its objects are the protection and subsequent reformation of deserted females, who having at first departed from the paths of virtue, have become disgusted with vice, and seek the means of qualifying themselves once more to associate with moral society.

Ireland in the 1960s and 70s was not prone to give many rights to its women. It was a culture of shame and this shame emanated from the actions of women. A woman was duty bound to maintain her honour and that of her family. In such cultures, honour of women is inextricably linked with her sexuality, and male control of the same.

A simple example of this control is that it was illegal for a woman or a single mother to rent a house by herself, without the protection of a father, brother or husband. Combined with this was the marriage ban law which prescribed the firing of female government employees and school teachers once they got married; a law which was lifted only in 1974! Add to this a Church, traditionally espousing women as the bearer of the burden of sin, and the Government’s collusion with the said Church, and we have a classic recipe for the wholesale abuse of women under the circumstances.

The definition of “fallen” could mean anything from looking beautiful to your mother being in a live-in relationship. All kinds of women were sent to these homes. The stories of these women were varied in so many ways, but they all ended up in the same result. Young unmarried girls getting pregnant, teenagers talking to too many guys, raped women, young beautiful orphans, parents with too many girls, “rebellious” girls, single women, daughters of single women, women in live-in relationships, were all liable to be sent to one of these homes, which had mushroomed up in UK, Australia, Canada, USA, in addition to Ireland.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Indian Homemaker
    Apr 07, 2012 @ 09:15:40

    What organised brainwashing. To have many women believing and accepting this along with many men!! I did not know about this. And married women being banned from working right till 1974, is unbelievable!!

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