Magdalene Laundries: Normality and Abnormality

The history of the Magdalene Laundries is unthinkable without the history of oppression of women in Ireland, and how that oppression was -and is- codified in law, and organised in the sphere of production. Furthermore, the specific form of labour carried out by the women in the ‘abnormal’ institutional setting of Laundries has to be thought about in relation to the forms of labour carried out by women in a ‘normal’ setting, that is, in the family home, within the institution of the family and the institution of marriage. ‘Normal’ women were expected -in their ‘duties’ referred to in the constitution, to bear children, raise them, cook, shop, tend to the farm if there was one, and -among other things- clean.

It’s important to note that none of these tasks performed in the home is considered as proper work by the State. Not while the Laundries were operating, and not now. It still goes unpaid.

Housework, mostly carried out by women, is not included in GDP statistics. The absence of such work from GDP was noted by economist Arthur Cecil Pigou, who named it as the ‘unmarried maid’ paradox. The work of a woman who worked as a maid in a man’s house and got paid for it would be included in GDP. However, if she married the man and did the work unpaid, it would not be included. So whenever a state commits to reduce its budget deficit, by cutting public expenditure, it does so without having to worry about the effect of its policies on unpaid labourers in the home -mostly women- because those people’s work, from the official point of view, does not exist.

In a recent book on economics and capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang claimed that the washing machine had been a far more transformative force for change in society than the Internet. This, he reasoned, was because it freed women from the monumental amount of hours of work they had to dedicate to washing clothes.

So it was seen as natural, in a patriarchal society organised around the institutions of marriage and family, that women should have to spend long hours washing clothes, and that they should do so unpaid. That -along with childbearing, child rearing, cooking, shopping, as well as the emotional and sexual services they were expected to provide their husbands, was part of their ‘duties’, as recognised by the constitution.

What, then, happened whenever society encountered women who would not fit into these roles because, on account of some thing they were perceived to be, or of some thing they were perceived to have done, their presence clashed with the normal functioning of society’s production? Such ‘abnormal’ women would have to be disciplined, to be sure, but their labour power would have to be salvaged, and harnessed. And since they could not be allowed conduct the rest of their ‘duties’ within the family environment, they would continue with the one ‘duty’ they could still perform: cleaning. Forced, unpaid, and with industrial scale efficiency.

So the Magdalene institution is unthinkable without the institution of marriage, without the role accorded to the family in the Constitution, and without the claim of ownership over women’s bodies laid by the State, which is still in force, as is evident from Ireland’s draconian laws prohibiting abortion.

That should put into some sort of perspective the decision to appoint Martin McAleese to put together the report into the Magdalene Laundries. The chosen appointee to the Seanad of Enda Kenny, one of the most dedicated anti-abortion TDs in the Dáil, there was nothing to distinguish him in terms of skills or expertise or experience. The decisive but banal factor in his elevation to the Seanad, and the decisive factor in ensuring his central role in the production of report into the Laundries – a factor which has not been subject to any meaningful questioning – was his marriage.


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2 responses to “Magdalene Laundries: Normality and Abnormality

  1. Fascinating set of ideas. Was McAleese not selected because of some strong familiarity and experience with the various ways the arms of the Catholic church extend themselves in Ireland?

  2. Richard

    Hi Kevin, no doubt there was that too. But there are plenty of other people with such familiarity and experience, and most of them would have aroused a great deal more public questioning of the appointment, on account of not being married to the head of state.

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