The Magdalene Sisters: Women’s Oppression and the Irish Clericalist State
For the Separation of Church and State!

Reprinted from Women and Revolution pages of Workers Vanguard No. 804, 23 May 2003; originally published in Spartacist Ireland No. 3 (Spring/Summer 2003), newspaper of the Spartacist Group Ireland, section of the International Communist League.

One of the most powerful and popular films screened recently in Ireland was The Magdalene Sisters, which portrays the inhuman brutality and degradation women suffered as prisoners in one of the many Magdalene “laundries” run by the Catholic church from the early 19th century until 1996. Director Peter Mullan was inspired to make the film after seeing the powerful Channel 4 documentary on the laundries, Sex in a Cold Climate. The Vatican, which admits no wrongdoing, condemned the film as slanderous and tried to suppress it. Despite this, the film won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

Approximately 30,000 mostly young and poor women were forcibly sent to these church prisons because they were considered “fallen women.” The four protagonists of the film depict reasons women were incarcerated in the laundries: Margaret is raped by a cousin, Bernadette (an orphan) is considered too flirtatious, Rose and Crispina each has a child outside wedlock. Rose has her baby ripped from her arms only hours after giving birth and Crispina is later driven insane by her brutal treatment in the laundry and her separation from her son. There are also many older women who had spent most of their lives there. Women are forced to slave from early morning to evening in the profit-making laundries. Sister Bridget is repeatedly shown greedily counting the money. The women are beaten, degraded and suffer sexual abuse. All this that they might do penance for their “sins”!

The women were imprisoned not only by the walls of the laundries, but also through rejection by their families and society. In one scene in the film, Margaret has an opportunity to escape, but doesn’t because she knows she has nowhere to go. When one of the other women does manage to escape, her father brings her back to the laundry and beats her. After Bernadette eventually escapes, she is terrified of being reimprisoned when she sees cops and nuns on the street.

Mary Norris recently described her experience in a Magdalene laundry in Cork:

“Plenty of people will think the events in the film have been exaggerated to make it more dramatic. But I tell you, the reality of those places was a thousand times worse. There’s a scene in which a girl is crying in the dormitory and another goes over to her bed to comfort her. That could never have happened. You weren’t allowed any private conversation.

“Again, in the film the girls get glimpses of the outside world and even ordinary people who don’t live in the laundries. In reality, we were totally incarcerated. You could see nothing except sky.”
Irish Independent, 8 March

It was not the Catholic church alone that was responsible for these institutions but the state as well. In The Politics of Irish Social Policy 1600-1990, Frederick W. Powell talks about state involvement with the Magdalene laundries:

“The incarceration of these women, especially of women who had more than one child outside marriage (some of them women who had been deserted and could not legally remarry), was proposed by the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor in 1927 and, writes Powell ‘by 1932 an arrangement had been established between the local authorities and the sisters-in-charge of Magdalen asylums in Dublin and elsewhere for the containment of “this more intractable problem”’.”
The Irish Times, 1 May 1999

Mary Norris was taken away from her unmarried mother by the Irish state: “A car drew up and a police officer and a child protection officer got out and told my mother they’d come to take us away as she was a bad example” (Irish Independent, 8 March). The role of the state in helping maintain these prisons is also shown in a scene in The Magdalene Sisters where the cops escort the young women through the local town in a “Corpus Christi” procession.

Clericalist Capitalist State: Enemy of Women

The Magdalene laundries were merely the tip of the iceberg of the crimes perpetrated against women and children by the Catholic church and the Irish clericalist state. As many as 300,000 children were locked in “industrial schools” where they were denied an education and forced to do manual work for no pay—slave labour —with the profits of their labour going to the church. From the 1940s to 1970s, a horrific medical procedure was carried out on pregnant women who would otherwise have had a caesarean birth. They were forcibly, and often without their knowledge or consent, subjected to an operation known as symphysiotomy, where the cartilage junction of the pubic bone was sawed through in order that the pelvis would “open like a hinge” during childbirth. As a consequence many women were crippled and condemned to a life of incredible pain and suffering. Expressing the Catholic-dominated medical profession’s rationale for this inhuman butchery, Dr. Alex Spain argued that if caesarean births were carried out, “The results will be contraception, the mutilating operation of sterilisation, and marital difficulty” (Irish Examiner, 17 April 2001). Women were simply seen as vessels for making babies.

In addition to all this, there were the horrendous consequences of the church’s “normal” ideological brainwashing. As prominent biologist and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins aptly noted in an interview with The Dubliner magazine (September 2002):

“Regarding the accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, deplorable and disgusting as those abuses are, they are not so harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place. I had a letter from a woman in America in her forties, who said that when she was a child of about seven, brought up a Catholic, two things happened to her: one was that she was sexually abused by her parish priest. The second thing was that a great friend of hers at school died, and she had nightmares because she thought her friend was going to hell because she wasn’t Catholic. For her there was no question that the greatest child abuse of those two was the abuse of being taught about hell. Being fondled by the priest was negligible in comparison.”

The popularity of The Magdalene Sisters is an indication that many people have family members or know someone who was incarcerated in one of these prisons. The timing of the film also intersected outrage over a series of other scandals in the Catholic church, from the brutality dished out to children in “industrial schools” to the scores of cases of sexual abuse inflicted by priests, which sparked protests outside churches last year. Because of these protests and widespread outrage against the church hierarchy as well as some reforms in recent years, many people think that the role of the Catholic church in Ireland has fundamentally changed, that things like the Magdelene laundries are merely historical excesses. Indeed, the Irish bourgeoisie has for a number of years attempted to cultivate the image of Ireland as a modern, secular state. Despite some important but limited and reversible reforms—and the fact that many people no longer listen to church rules, especially regarding sexuality—Ireland remains a vicious clericalist state where there are strong ties between the state and the church.

Condoms were only legalised in 1985. Divorce (only legalised in 1997) is difficult to obtain. While homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence in 1993, gays are beset by anti-gay bigotry on a daily basis. Meanwhile, abortion is still banned.

The Catholic church controls 93 percent of the schools (another 6 percent are run by the Church of Ireland) as well as most of the hospitals. In the budget for 2000, the government proposed to “individualise” the tax bands in order to encourage married women to enter the labour force but was met with howls of indignation by the bishops and backed down. The government has made sure that the church’s massive wealth will be barely dented by compensation claims by people who suffered in the “industrial schools”: a “secret” deal was arranged so that the religious orders will have to pay no more than E128 million (and much of that in the form of property already transferred to church-controlled charities!), while the total bill is likely to be between E500 million and E1 billion. Thus, through our taxes the working class will end up paying for the church’s crimes! A particularly surreal example of the clericalist nature of the state was the mobilisation of the Irish Army in Spring 2001 to escort the alleged “sacred relics” of St. Therese of Lisieux around the country in a primitive ritual at the behest of the church. For the separation of church and state!

Catholicism has been one of the main defining aspects of Irish nationalism: historically, it was religion, more so than language or racial differences, which distinguished the Irish from their British colonial overlords. Religious reaction and sectarian division are key to the maintenance of capitalist exploitation and oppression throughout Ireland. The identification of religion with national identity was deliberately encouraged by the Irish bourgeoisie after independence in order to tie the working class to their exploiters and to regiment the population with reactionary ideology, of which anti-communism was no small part. Thus, DeValera’s 1937 constitution enshrined the church’s “special position” in Article 44 (repealed only in 1972). The government considers itself entitled to deport the immigrant parents of children who are Irish citizens, thus tearing families apart when it suits the state, and this position was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. We demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants! No deportations!

Catholic Nationalism and Labourite Reformism

The Catholic nationalism of the Irish bourgeoisie is brought into the working class by the pro-capitalist Labour Party and trade-union bureaucracy. For decades Labour leaders were members of the sinister Knights of Columbanus. In the early 1950s, Minister for Health Noël Browne attempted to introduce a limited free health programme for children and pregnant women, the Mother and Child Scheme. This provoked outrage from the bishops and the church-run medical establishment. As Browne describes in his autobiography Against the Tide, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid “considered the health scheme an encroachment by the state on the church’s role, which he considered to be, among much else, ‘to determine and to control the social attitudes of the family in the Republic, especially in the delicate matters of maternity and sexuality’.” Within months the church crushed the scheme and Browne was hounded out of the government. Labour Party leader William Norton scandalously sided with the church against Noël Browne and the Mother and Child Scheme. The Irish Trades Union Congress initially supported the Scheme but retreated once the bishops denounced it. Think Labour has changed? On the question of abortion, Labour’s delegate conference in 2001 passed a motion for the “right to choose,” but this position was overturned by the Labour leadership. In the leadership election last year, Eamon Gilmore (who lost) was the only one of the four candidates who claimed to have a “pro-choice” position.

Last year the government carried out a reactionary referendum on abortion, attempting to overturn the X Case. We called for a no vote because if the referendum passed it would have eliminated even the possibility of pregnant women who were suicidal obtaining abortions and it would have emboldened the reactionaries, making the fight for women’s rights of any sort more difficult. Even though the referendum was defeated, abortion is still banned. At the same time, thousands of Irish women continue to travel to Britain at significant expense every year for abortions. And the health of many of these women is endangered by the abortions being carried out at a later stage of pregnancy.

The main leftist opposition to the referendum was the Alliance for a No Vote (ANV), led by Labour activists like Ivana Bacik and made up of reformists like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Socialist Party and Workers Solidarity Movement. The ANV, taking their cue from Labour, consciously limited their demands to maintenance of the miserable status quo (a woman can theoretically get an abortion if her life is in danger...but good luck finding a hospital or clinic to perform one) and obscenely presented this as defending “abortion rights” in Ireland! After the defeat of the referendum, the SWP wrote:

“We need to keep the pressure on parties such as Labour and Fine Gael to make sure that they make good on their commitment to bring in legislation—legislation that gives a liberal interpretation of the X case judgement and introduces real access to abortion rights for the women who need it.”
Socialist Worker, 15-28 March 2002

While the SWP want to pressure the Labour Party (and the bourgeois Fine Gael no less!) to more “liberally” interpret the restrictive anti-abortion laws (as though this is the way to provide “real access to abortion rights”), it is necessary to break workers from Labourism and clerical nationalism. Our aim is to bring revolutionary consciousness to the working class, including making workers conscious of the importance of fighting for free abortion on demand!

Last year the SWP crawled at the feet of the Labour Party in the ANV and today they crawl to both Labour and the Catholic bishops as part of the class-collaborationist Irish Anti-War Movement. Just when the prestige of the Catholic hierarchy has hit a low ebb after the recent scandals, the SWP embrace the bishops as supposed opponents of imperialist war and thereby serve to reinforce the ideological chains binding Irish workers and oppressed to the church. In order not to offend the “antiwar” bishops, the SWP recently revised their “Where We Stand” column, removing the section which called for “free contraception and free, legalised abortion and the right to divorce; the complete separation of church and state, an end to church control over schools and hospitals; an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians.” For the SWP, building an alliance with the Catholic bishops, Labour and the Greens is more important than the fight for abortion rights and against women’s oppression.

As we exposed in Spartacist Ireland No. 2 (Autumn/Winter 2002), “Socialist Party spits on abortion rights.” Socialist Party leader Peter Hadden defended the Socialist Party’s councillor in Omagh, Johnny McLaughlin, who voted for an anti-abortion motion in the council: “We have never insisted on support for a pro-choice position as a condition of membership of our party.” Fighting against women’s oppression, a strategic question for revolutionaries in Ireland, is of no importance for the Socialist Party.

The Socialist Worker review of The Magdalene Sisters (7-20 November 2002) further exposes their reformism. While referring to the relationship between women’s oppression and private property and recognising the continued influence of the church in society, the SWP push the fantasy that the clericalist state can be purged of its cruel elements short of a socialist revolution and put forward the example of Portugal. “When the Catholic dictatorship fell in Portugal in 1974, there was a process of sanieamento to clear out all those who were implicated in the cruelty of the regime. We are still in great need of a sanieamento in Ireland.”

In fact there was a revolutionary situation in Portugal in 1974, where the working class could have taken power. A revolutionary party was necessary to organise the working class independently of the bourgeoisie and to fight to take power in its own name, for socialist revolution. However, the workers were tied by their social-democratic and Stalinist misleaders to an alliance (popular front) with the “progressive” bourgeoisie and generals. One result of the blocking of the possibilities for proletarian revolution is that abortion is still banned in Portugal today. In January 2002 there was a mass trial in Portugal of women accused of being involved with a clandestine abortion clinic. The nurse who ran the clinic was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. What is needed, in Ireland as in Portugal and elsewhere, is not merely reforming the worst excesses of the Catholic church and the state, but a socialist revolution which sweeps away the whole system of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

The Magdalene laundries were a cruel aberration, but they played a real role in society to reinforce and police the “rules and morals” of the Catholic church and bourgeoisie: that a woman’s place is in the family as wife, child bearer and rearer; and that sex, forbidden for the unmarried, is solely for procreation. They provided an example that all those who went against the “morals” of the church would be punished. This is an example of how the church and the capitalist state work hand in hand to keep the working class and oppressed in line.

Organised religion is one of the props of decaying capitalism, diverting discontent away from the real cause of oppression and poverty—the capitalist system of private property—with the promise of a better life after death. Hand in hand with the capitalists and landlords, the churches of many persuasions serve to enforce bourgeois morality, to maintain the subjugation of women in the family, to relegate them to the home and exclude them from participation in political and social life. It also serves to regiment the population as a whole behind capitalism.

Karl Marx clearly described the role of religion among the oppressed:

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and also the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
— “Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1844)

The hold of religion on the Irish working class is so pervasive that while some people who suffered in the Magdalene laundries and “industrial schools” rejected religion, many continued to cling to their faith.

Women’s oppression is rooted in the institution of the family and is a feature of all class societies. Friedrich Engels explained in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) that the development of patriarchy “was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and became a mere instrument for the production of children.” The family is a key social unit for the maintenance of capitalism. For the capitalists the family provides the basis for passing on accumulated wealth, to raise the next generation of workers and to instil conservative social values and obedience to authority. It is the family—and the necessity to enforce monogamy on women to ensure that the man knows who his real heir is—which generates the “morality” codified in and reinforced by religion. As Peter Mullan noted to the Italian leftist newspaper Il Manifesto (8 August 2002), “The Catholic Church is not that different from the Taliban. It seems that every religion considers their enemy the young women, their sexuality, their vitality, maybe because they break the rules of patriarchal society.” The Protestant fundamentalists in Northern Ireland vie with the Catholic church in reaction: the British 1967 act decriminalising abortion does not apply in Northern Ireland.

We fight to raise the consciousness of the working class to see the need to fight against all oppression—to build a Leninist party, a tribune of the people. Decisions about whether to marry or not, to have children or not or who one sleeps with are individual matters and none of the government’s business. State out of the bedroom! Full democratic rights for homosexuals! For a free secular health service and free abortion on demand, so that working-class and poor women who don’t have the money can have abortions.

For women to be liberated it is necessary to overthrow the capitalist system of private property and establish a socialist, planned economy. We look to the example of the Russian Revolution of 1917 led by the Bolsheviks. The very first pieces of legislation enacted by the new Soviet government were directed at the emancipation of women: women were given the right to vote; abortion and divorce were legalised and the power of the church to control marriages, legitimise births, etc. was abolished. Insofar as they were able under the conditions of poverty, inherited social backwardness and civil war, the Bolsheviks strove towards the replacement of the nuclear family as a social/ economic unit by the socialisation of household labour. They established communal dining rooms, laundries and childcare facilities and promoted the equalisation of educational and vocational opportunities.

Many of the gains were reversed following the Stalinist political counterrevolution in 1924, but the gains provided by the existence of the collectivised economy could be seen in the vital statistics in the Soviet republics in the 1970s compared to Afghanistan on the other side of the border. On the Soviet side, women were no longer imprisoned in the veil, they were literate; on the Afghan side of the border they were largely illiterate and the statistics for infant mortality and life expectancy were dramatically different on the two sides of the frontier. With capitalist counterrevolution all the old crap has returned to the former Soviet republics, where women are the first and foremost victims of the economic devastation and political reaction which accompany capitalist restoration. Only the proletariat organised as the ruling class will begin to avenge the many victims of the Magdalene laundries, as well as the untold numbers of victims of the various churches and the capitalist system of exploitation, and provide a material basis for the full liberation of women.

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