Magdalene Asylums were institutions for so-called 'fallen women', most of them operated by different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. In most asylums, the inmates were required to undertake hard physical labour such as laundry work. In Ireland, such asylums were known as Magdalene Laundries. It has been estimated that 30,000 women were admitted during the 150-year history of these institutions, often against their will. The last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed on September 25, 1996.
These "fallen women," were often girls who had gotten pregnant before marriage, including victims of rape or incest. Or they were girls accused of being sexually active. Or they were developmentally or mentally disabled, or mentally ill. Or they were outspoken, or strong-willed, or otherwise non-conforming.
It goes without saying that if the girls were punished for being sexually active, no corresponding punishment was meted out to their male partners.
The inmates of the Magdalene Laundries were slaves. I can think of no more accurate way to describe their condition. They were held against their will, and forced to work without compensation. They were brutally mistreated throughout their incarceration.
I first heard of the Magdalene Laundries from a Joni Mitchell song on her album "Turbulent Indigo", which she also performs with The Chieftains on their "Tears of Stone".
The haunting song was on my mind when I heard of a movie called "The Magdalene Sisters", written and directed by Peter Mullans. It's very good, and of course, extremely disturbing.
That movie was inspired by a documentary about the Laundries called "Sex in a Cold Climate," directed by Steve Humphries, which I haven't seen yet.
The movement to remember the women whose lives were stolen from them by the Magdalene Laundries is powered, in large part, by adopted people searching for their biological roots. Many Irish and English adopted people have learned that their mothers were sentenced to these asylums for the crime of being pregnant with them.
Justice for Magdalenes and The Magdalene Story are run by survivors and searchers. Well worth a visit.