Magdalene Laundries and Women's Carceral Institutions

AHA Session 113
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago, Second Floor)
Elizabeth A. Nelson, Indiana University

Session Abstract

Historians of prisons have long maintained that the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP) was the first separate prison for women in the United States. However, student-scholars incarcerated at that very prison dispute that claim. Beginning with a 2014 article, “Magdalene Laundries: the First Prisons for Women in the United States,” and continuing with subsequent papers and articles, they assert that private Catholic institutions known as Magdalene Laundries were founded in the US before the first state prisons; that Magdalene Laundries (or Houses of the Good Shepherd) were, in fact, prisons; that they were ubiquitous in 19th and early 20th century America; and that they played a more important role in the early development of women’s prisons than state prisons did.

In Ireland, meanwhile, the bitter legacy of Magdalene Laundries and related institutions that imprisoned and often enslaved “fallen women” and their off-spring have roiled that nation. The most sensational revelations occurred in 2017 when bulldozers uncovered what a “local historian” had long claimed was a mass grave that held the remains of hundreds of “illegitimate” babies who had died while in a Catholic Mother-Baby Home.

In October 2017, the New York Times published a remarkable account of the “local historian" whose dogged research led to the uncovering of the mass grave in Ireland. Yet the Times failed to mention that Magdalene Laundries were founded in the U.S. before Ireland, that they were far more numerous here, and that they were arguably just as brutal and important in the US as they were overseas.

This panel will seek to end our collective amnesia about Magdalene Laundries in the US and in the process consider why it has taken non-traditional historians in both Ireland and the US to recover memories of these repressive and brutal institutions that did so much to enforce sexual and gendered norms in both nations.

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