Depressing but not surprising: how the Magdalene Laundries got away with it

As a child, Anna Carey saw the dead-eyed women who had been forced to work for free in the laundries sit among the congregation at Mass, seen and yet ignored. Now, as the religious orders responsible refuse to contribute towards financial compensation, it

I loved High Park when I was a kid. The rambling grounds of the convent were just across the road from the quiet Dublin housing estate where I grew up in the 1980s, and every Sunday my family went to Mass in the convent chapel. The chapel was a pretty little Victorian building; when I was very small, I used to jump slowly down the wooden steps of the choir stalls and pretend to be Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss.

Away from the cluster of convent buildings, the grounds were beautiful, with meadows full of wild flowers and a small herd of cows. We would go on nature walks, looking out for squirrels and gathering leaves and flowers. It was all rather idyllic, apart from the fact that we were playing in what had, for decades, essentially been a forced labour camp.

Run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, High Park Convent was the site of Ireland’s largest Magdalene Laundry. Until well into the twentieth century, girls deemed to be “difficult”  – because they were sexually active, or sexually abused, or simply poor – were sent to laundries by their families or the state. Despite having committed no crime, they were not allowed to leave the institutions and were forced to work for no pay, making them literally slaves. Many women spent their entire lives there, remaining long after the actual laundries closed down. They had nowhere else to go. 

I used to see some of those women at Mass, the ones left behind, although I was almost grown up before I realised who they were. They’d shuffle in behind the nuns and sit quietly at the back. Their eyes were vacant, and they seemed completely institutionalised.  I’m sure they weren’t as old as they looked. There was a large, empty building near the chapel which was still referred to as “the laundry”; it wasn’t until my late teens that I realised it was where those dead-eyed women had been forced to slave. The adults around me must have known, but nobody ever talked about it.

Then, in 1993, High Park hit the news. The nuns sold some of the grounds to a property developer for IR£1.5m, but the sold land included a mass grave containing the remains of 155 women, many of whom were unnamed. The scandal forced Ireland to confront just what had happened in those laundries, and ask why we’d tolerated them for so long. It didn’t stop shameless religious orders continuing to sell land for vast amounts of money – thanks to further land sales, High Park made €61.7m between 1999 and 2009, and today the former grounds are covered in houses and apartments. But while nuns made millions, former Magdalenes began a long campaign for justice.

This year, they finally got results. Following a demand from the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) in 2011, a government enquiry into the laundries was established. Released in February this year, the enquiry’s report has been widely criticised by UNCAT among others for being neither independent nor thorough enough. It did, however, officially confirm that not only did the state commit at least 2500 young women to the convents’ “care”, it took advantage of the slave labour, giving the laundries government contracts despite being aware that the institutions were breaking the state’s own labour laws. Taoiseach Enda Kenny offered Magdalene survivors an official state apology, and last month details were announced of a financial compensation scheme.

The scheme, which has also been criticised, will cost the state about €58m. You might think, what with the millions they earned from selling land, that the various religious orders would be paying for some of this. But yesterday it was announced that they are refusing to contribute. This is depressing but not surprising, as they’ve repeatedly failed to apologise for running their lucrative labour camps.

But that’s the thing about the Irish Catholic church – it never thinks it’s done anything wrong. Its officials always claim mitigating circumstances – things were different in the twentieth century! Nobody thought there was anything wrong with slavery, or raping children! This is nonsense, of course. But when I think of those old women at the back of the church, carefully ignored by the nice middle class families around them, I can see how Irish society allowed the Church to pretend it was true. 

Inside a Magdalene Laundry. Photograph: Wikimedia/Magnus Manske
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA