Love Her Choice

Dublin, 2018: a month after the referendum legalizing a woman’s right to choose. I was two years deep in research for/working on my novel. It’s about the Magdalene laundries of Ireland (more broadly, the systematic abuse of women in the 20th century.) These institutions operated by the Catholic Church imprisoned unwed mothers, society’s “fallen” women, and young girls who were deemed too pretty, therefore “a threat” to communities. They were all over Ireland, England & North America in the 19th & 20th centuries. Most (if not all) were places of slavery and torture, of physical, sexual, emotional abuse. In Ireland, penitents were stripped of their clothes, voices & identities. If they were called by a name, they were given a strange, archaic Latin name, but many laundries simply called the penitents by a number. They were forced to do unsafe, unpaid labor which was convenient for the state. The government and police worked in tandem with the church to put women away at an exponential rate. For those imprisoned, scrubbing blood stains off of strangers’ clothing and toxic hospital bedding was meant to cleanse their souls of their “sins”. But there was no clear date when such absolution would be achieved. Many women were in these places for life, locked in from the outside until they died of a curable disease and were buried, nameless, in a mass grave.

If a girl was raped and impregnated, she would be shamed by her community and put in one of these places forever while her rapist walked free. If an unmarried woman conceived a child out of love or accidentally, she would be brutally separated from the baby, each locked away separately while the father walked free. Orphanages, industrial schools, and Mother and Baby Homes were overwhelmed with children. Tens of thousands died from neglect or were wrongfully institutionalized. This went on in full operation for all of the 20th century. The last laundry to close (pictured) shut its doors in 1996, the year after I was born. 

For Ireland to be more progressive than America with *that* recent history is truly astonishing to me. We were two years into the Trump presidency when I took these photos of the mural in the shadow of the laundry. Every day there was an alarming new headline, new threats to women’s rights, new setbacks, a sexual assaulter appointed to the supreme court (and, well, the presidency), the internment and separation of mothers and children at the border. We humans are capable of so much evil. The great Irish playwright Sean O’Casey said, “Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.”

It begins with the opinions of individuals becoming legislation for all. It begins with the judgment/shaming of others whose lives you know nothing about. I respect religion, but religion in law has dangerous consequences. History repeats itself. We still live in a time where rapists walk free & victims are punished. We live in a time where rapists make laws.

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