The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland and the homes for unwed mothers in the United States were once touted as charitable organizations for “fallen women” and pregnant teens, but in fact concealed a dark reality of exploitation and abuse. Both histories reveal shocking treatment of the people they housed, heart-wrenching stories of forced separations from children, and the whorephobic philosophy that justified horrific treatment of women.
Operating from the 18th to the late 20th centuries, the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland have long remained shrouded in secrecy. Originally conceived to house sex workers, over time the Magdalene Laundries expanded to include various other women, including those who had given birth out of wedlock and women who had been convicted of crimes. Run by the Catholic Church, these institutions treated inmates as sinful women in need of penance, subjecting them to compulsory prayer, silence, and forced work. Incarcerated women endured harsh labor, abuse, and isolation. The emotional and physical toll on these women was immeasurable.
On the other side of the world in the United States, homes for unwed mothers held similar and disturbing stories of their own. Initially founded to assist women in need, homes for unwed mothers transformed over time into predatory adoption agencies. These homes targeted young, mostly white, middle-class women who were pregnant out of wedlock. The social mores of the time, along with the growing competitive market for white babies, contributed to these homes coercing women into giving up their children for adoption. Women faced psychological and physical torment including abusive treatment during labor and childbirth. There are many documented, problematic outcomes from these adoption practices.
Both the Magdalene Laundries and homes for unwed mothers highlight a pattern of patriarchal protection, where institutions that claimed to help women were, in fact, exploiting and abusing them. These institutions often used religious justifications to maintain control and perpetuate abuse. In the decades since closing, there have been public scandals, governmental acknowledgments of abuse, and calls for compensation for survivors.
As we reflect on stories from the Magdalene Laundries and homes for unwed mothers, it’s crucial to acknowledge the pain these women endured. Through research, literature, and personal narratives, we honor their resilience and recognize the importance of understanding this disturbing part of our shared history.
The Oldest Profession Podcast reminds listeners that sex workers have always been part of the story. Each episode focuses on an “old pro” from history, contextualizing that figure in their own time and connecting their story to the ongoing struggle for sex worker rights. Kaytlin Bailey created The Oldest Profession Podcast to be an accessible and entertaining resource for anyone who wants to learn more about sex workers and our place in history.
Fessler, Ann. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade. Penguin Books, 2006.
Ann Fessler’s book offers a comprehensive examination of the experiences of women who surrendered their children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade. Through in-depth interviews and extensive research, Fessler uncovers the emotional toll, societal pressures, and lasting impact of the “surrendered” experience. The book provides a poignant look into the lives of these women, shedding light on the complex intersections of family, agency, and cultural expectations. Fessler’s work is a valuable resource for understanding the hidden histories of adoption and motherhood.
Smith, James M. Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. Manchester University Press, 2007.
This book provides an in-depth exploration of the Magdalen laundries in Ireland, analyzing their historical, social, and architectural aspects. Smith examines how these institutions operated within the broader context of Irish society, politics, and religion. The book offers a comprehensive understanding of the laundries’ impact on the lives of the women who were confined there and their enduring legacy in Ireland’s collective memory.
Luddy, Maria. Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1940. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
This book explores various aspects of prostitution in Ireland, which is relevant to understanding the societal context in which Magdalene laundries operated. While not solely focused on the laundries, it provides valuable insights into the broader issues related to women’s sexuality, gender norms, and social control.
Inside a Home for Unwed Mothers. (Website: JSTOR Daily)
This article provides a detailed exploration of the experiences and conditions within a home for unwed mothers. The author delves into the historical context and societal attitudes towards unwed mothers, shedding light on the often harsh and stigmatizing environments they faced. Through personal narratives and historical analysis, the article highlights the challenges, shame, and secrecy that surrounded these homes. This source is valuable for anyone seeking to understand the lived experiences of unwed mothers and the broader social implications of such institutions.
A Shame-Filled Prison: Inside the Maternity Homes that Forced Teen Moms to Give Away Their Babies. (Website: The Lily)
This investigative piece uncovers the distressing realities of maternity homes that coerced teenage mothers into giving up their infants for adoption. Drawing on personal accounts and historical records, the article exposes the emotional manipulation, societal pressures, and exploitative practices that characterized these institutions. By sharing the stories of the women who lived through this ordeal, the article contributes to a deeper understanding of the systemic forces that shaped their experiences and challenges prevailing narratives about motherhood.
The Magdalene Sisters. Directed by Peter Mullan, 2002.
This critically acclaimed film provides a fictionalized portrayal of life within a Magdalene laundry in Ireland. While not a scholarly resource, the movie offers a visual and emotional representation of the experiences of women in these institutions. It can serve as a powerful supplement to academic research, allowing viewers to engage with the subject on a more visceral level.
Blakemore, Erin. “How Ireland Turned ‘Fallen Women’ Into Slaves.” History, July 21, 2019. Accessed August 16, 2023. History.com access link.
Erin Blakemore’s article delves into the dark history of Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, shedding light on the systemic abuse and mistreatment of pregnant or promiscuous women in these institutions. The author highlights the practices that allowed for the incarceration of women, sometimes for their entire lives, and exposes the transformation of these laundries into sites of exploitation and cruelty. Blakemore provides a comprehensive account of how societal attitudes towards “fallen women” led to their marginalization and confinement. By examining the historical context and the traumatic experiences endured by these women, the article contributes to a deeper understanding of the Magdalene Laundries’ impact on Irish society. This resource is valuable for anyone seeking to grasp the complexities of this issue and its broader implications for women’s rights, gender dynamics, and societal norms.