Magdalene laundries

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The Magdalene Laundries of Ireland and the role of Women

Ireland was known, until the late 90’s, as the European country which exerted the most sexual oppression on women. These suffered many injustices due to this so exaggerated oppression on them, and, many times, this repression was exerted by the Catholic Church until the 20th century. This had an important role in shaping Irish people’sminds from a certain time on.

Women have always had few rights due to the social differences inside the family.

Until the great famine of 1845 – 1851, it was normal among wealthy farmers to divide their lands among all their children without any distinction when they got married. This means that they could get married at any time and the sooner they married more children would be born. Theresult would be a population growth at the end of 17th century, from 1.5 million in 1673 to 3 million by the 1750s and 4 million by the 1780s. At the beginning of the 19th century, population had grown from 6,802,000 in 1821 to 7,767,000 in 1831 and 8,175,000 in 1841[1].

Up until then, the Church had a small influence on the families’ lives and sexual customs, and even the idea of womencontrolling their fertility was not a taboo subject as it turned to be.

Up until then, marriage was based on love and before famine were an essential contribution to the family’s economy. But famine put an end to all this. While many were obliged to emigrate, millions also died of hunger. With these economic changes, poor rural areas and Irish workers were obliged to adjust their families’ ways oflife.

Before the lands were divided among all the children, now only one child would get it and the number of children had to be reduced.

To achieve this aim, the Church’s role was crucial, since it was in charge with the education of farmer’s children who could pay for it. On being educated according to an ideology of sexual repression, marriages happened much later.

To console thosewho had survived famine and so that those could go on with their lives, the Church had an important role trying to explain why this had happened. With this, the Catholic Church became part of the families’ lives so many men decided to become priests, transmitting a message of centrality of marriage and family and “the evils of all sexual activity not aimed at procreation, and held up the VirginMary as the model for all women. It offered women a new role: that of transmitters of the Catholic teaching that all sexual activity outside marriage, or not aimed at conceiving children, is evil.”[2]

The Irish women, who had to behave as if they were saints, had only two options – either the convent or emigration.

With an increase in the number of nuns and thus an increase in the conventsexisting in Ireland during and after famine, Ireland had one of the biggest groups of working women. But not all women could go into a convent because these were expensive.

Due to the emigration, late marriages and permanent celibate, the Irish population kept on diminishing until middle 60’s. Later, the woman’s image was that her place was at home, without a social life, a life of isolationand the Church became the head of the Irish society.

With the sexual repression suffered by women in the 19th and 20th centuries, the traditional methods of birth control were abolished and sex was something both women and men were afraid of.

At this time, if a single woman had a child, she would have to leave her house; she was considered as unmoral by all the family and taken to one ofMagdalene Laundries.

As Magdalene Laundries was an institution controlled by the Catholic Church and run by nuns. These institutions were places for “fallen women”. At the very beginning these institutions got of streets and helped the prostitutes that were rejected by society[3].

But, already in the 20th century, when the number of prostitutes who needed help and of women who went into...
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