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Entries in History (12)


Women victimizing women

Recently, I watched a movie called The Magdalene Sisters. It was a compelling story. My curiosity piqued, after seeing the movie, I read a book called Ireland's Magdalen Laundries, which exposed how these laundries functioned as part of an attitude that wished to confine and contain elements of society deemed unfit, i.e., people on the margins of society.

The Magdalene Laundries

The Magdelene Laundries were run by four different female religious orders in Ireland. They were founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a refuge for prostitutes, but ultimately became a place where women from the fringes of society were placed. Some women had given birth to illegitimate children, were orphans, had been raped, or were viewed as "mentally defective." Some of them were put in those institutions by their own families, because they were viewed as being at risk for having sex outside of marriage. As one survivor said, other than having a baby outside of wedlock, the worst sin in Ireland was to have sex outside of marriage.

The Magdelene laundries were private institutions, which meant that officially there was no state intervention or accountability. The nuns in the laundries had free labour, but were really not responsible to any outside governing body. There was no recourse for the women in the laundires except the Catholic Church.

A Brutal Life

Life there was, in a word, brutal. These were not coin-operated, Maytag laudromats; these were industrial laundries, utilizing equipment that girls as young as 12 should not have had to use. The girls received no financial remuneration, nor were they given any education. Some girls were told they were being sent to the laundry to learn life skills, but the laundry prepared them for nothing but more of the same hard, demanding work. Having been in a Magdalen laundry was a mark of shame that no girl wanted to admit. Many never told others of where they had been. They were told they were not prisoners, yet they could not leave. And ultimately, with no education and no one to advocate for them, what was the benefit of leaving? They were not allowed to talk to each other while they worked or even in bed at night. There was physical abuse. Their names were changed. Their hair was cut off. They were told they were doing "penance" for sins they didn't understand. Some became so institutionalized that they found it difficult to function outside of the laundry once they did leave. 

While the book Ireland's Magdalen Laundries provided analysis of this situation, the book Whispering Hope shared personal accounts of five women who were in a Magdalen Laundry. I couldn't put it down. It was both riveting and disturbing. In one of the accounts, the survivor noted with bitter irony that the order she was placed with, The Sisters of the Mercy, had nothing merciful about it. One woman recounts how she watched one of the other girls, recently having been forced to give up her baby for adoption, try to escape one night by tying sheets together to climb out of a sixth story window. She ended up falling, breaking her neck, and dying. There was no mention of the girl again, and no funeral. 

The saddest story came from a woman named Nancy, who was an orphan. She tried to run away on a couple of occasions, but because she had nowhere to go, she ended up returning to the laundry, facing even harsher treatment. When she was about 16, the nuns sent her to work on a farm with a man who beat her brutally, and who at one point, hung her dog in the barn (where she slept) as a punishment. This woman eventually ran away, and was able to find work as a housekeeper and nanny. She remained with this family long after the children grew and moved away. She was never able to form any kind of relationship with a man, or most people, for that matter. 

Theology in Action

As I have read and thought about this matter, I am reminded that theology is evident in our conduct. The nuns had a particular view of God, sin, and humanity, and it is reflected in how they treated the girls. There was an overly punitive, harsh attitude toward them, despite the fact that not one of them had done anything to warrant being incarcerated. The nuns seemed to believe the premise that by making the girls suffer physical and emotional abuse, they were helping them do penance. The nuns clearly did not have a biblical understanding of sin or atonement or else they would not have presumed to dole out brutality in the name of penance. If a girl was born out of wedlock, it was cast upon her as her own sin and she was made to pay, and pay frequently. Anyone who has read the Bible recognizes that as an unbiblical attitude. The nuns were not kind. That says something about their belief regarding being made in God's image and loving others as we love ourselves. They reminded me of the Pharisees who were were preoccupied with washings and rituals, but were hard and unmerciful.

I don't know what kind of religious education nuns in Ireland were given, but from the way they treated the girls in the Magdalen laundries, it bares little resemblance to Jesus's attitude toward their namesake, Mary Magdalen, who was indeed shown mercy. I think it is an irony that the laundries bear her name despite clearly being such a harsh place. Part of me is a little shocked at women victimizing other women. It just goes to show that sin is in the heart of us all, and given the right circumstances, it can really run amok.


In 2013, Enda Kenny, the then Irish Taoiseach apologized to the victims of Magdalen laundries. There is a group for survivors, and as their stories are being told, more seem to come forward with their own stories. It is such a sad story, and yet some of the women are so admirable, pressing on and surviving in the midst of something I cannot fathom.


Before you indulge in shamrocks or green beer...

Ever since I took a few semesters of Irish history in university, the typical St. Patrick's Day fare has irritated me a little. I don't know what's worse: green beer, leprechauns, or Shamrock Shakes.

If you are at all interested in Ireland or St. Patrick's Day, before you go out and purchase those Kelly green napkins and buy Lucky Charms to feel like you're in the season, check out a few other resources.

Who Was St. Patrick? This book by E.A. Thompson is my favourite book about Patrick. It reveals the very human side of the man and it is honest about how difficult it is to piece together who he was simply because there isn't a lot of information about him. 

How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill. This talks not only about Patrick but how the monks in Ireland were instrumental in preserving texts after the fall of the Roman Empire. It's not written like a textbook, and is thoroughly enjoyable.

Rediscovering the Church Fathers, Michael Haykin. It's not a book just about Patrick, but other church fathers as well. Michael Haykin is worth reading no matter what the subject matter.

The Irish Experience. This is a general history of Ireland beginning at 200 B.C. to contemporary times. It was written in 1989, so it's before the Good Friday Agreement, but if you are interested in the politics of Ireland, this will give a little background. It's definitely got a textbook feel to it.

Angela's Ashes, Frant McCourt. In case you are tempted to romanticize life in Ireland, this will give you a real life picture into the very harsh poverty faced by McCourt in the 1940's. This is one of my favourite books ever. McCourt has the ability to make you see a lot of laughter in the midst of poverty that most of us are thankfully ignorant.

St. Patrick's Day has become more of a celebration of Ireland than Patrick himself. If you want to partake of Irish culture, look for something truly Irish. There's lots out there.


Moms, please don't stop using paper

I've been doing some reading about Nellie McClung. I've been doing it for a while. I just finished another biography. This, after having read her two volume autobiography and a collection of her essays regarding her thoughts on the role of women. 

One of the things I enjoyed very much about the most recent biography was that the authors had delved into the private papers of McClung and were able to quote things she had written down in sources that were not public. This gives insight into her that published works don't have. To find these snippets of her own words is a treasure.

Women of the past tended not to write things down. Those who did were in the minority. There was in most cases a time issue, and for some an ability issue, and for some a cost issue. There was no Office Depot back then. I'm thankful for the ones who did manage to keep a record.

I wish that my female ancestors had kept journals. I am interested particularly in my father's mother, who I think passed on to me my love of handiwork and baking. Last week, as I removed a beautifully formed loaf of honey wheat bread, I remembered how good her bread was. I was only 7 when she died, but I do remember watching her cut the unsliced bread perfectly. That's one thing I didn't get from her: my loaf always ends up with a big fat chunk at the end which is too thick to eat and too thin to slice. I wish she had kept journals. She was mothering back then even if she didn't keep a record.

Today, women can avail themselves of the internet to share their stories. There are so many places to find such reading material. I hope women still keep journals. There is something much more precious about a woman's stories, on smooth white paper, in her own handwriting. The finished product becomes a beautiful artifact. In the pages of a journal, we can be more honest, at least ideally that is how it works. Online, many people are discrete, but occasionaly not. I'm often a little taken aback and sometimes put off by too much honesty. The reason Nellie McClung had private papers in addition to hundreds of articles she had published was because she knew some things were better left private. Sometimes, I look back at what I have published on my blog and thought, "I should have waited until I was older to write that." 

Nellie McClung's oldest son went away to war in 1914. He was gone for four years. When he returned, he was changed. Nellie wrote very sensitively about this:

I knew there was a wound in his heart - a sore place. That hurt look in his clear blue eyes tore at my heart strings and I did not know what to do. When a boy who has never had a gun in his hands, never desired anything but the good of his fellow men, is sent out to kill other boys like himself, even at the call of his country, something snaps in him, something which may not mend.

A wound in a young heart is like the wound in a young tree. It does not grow out. It grows in.

If this was today, that beautiful piece of prose would have been well read online. As it is, it is tucked away in a battered volume I had to buy second hand because it's out of print. I am so glad Nellie chose to keep a journal so she could write this book. Moms have been doing the mom thing for hundreds of years, no matter how quietly they do it. When we get a glimpse into it, I think we are the ones who benefit.


Was Nellie a "Jesus Feminist?"

I finished The Stream Runs Fast, Nellie McClung's second volume of her two-volume autobiography. I enjoyed this second volume, but was disappointed by the fact that she wrote very little of her work in The Person's Case. I found it odd that she spent an entire (long) chapter describing how beautiful Nova Scotia was, yet she said very little about the fight to name women "persons" in the law.

As I read Nellie's books, I was looking for expressions of her Christianity. This is one of the things I like reading about women of the past, to see how Christ was reflected in their lives. While I came across a lot of comments which demonstrated her faith, there were things here and there which made me stop and scratch my head. There were times when I found myself thinking she could very easily fit into the Christian feminist circles of today, except for the fact that she was not one to disdain women staying at home, being "kitchen wives." She doesn't use the word "feminist" at all. This was in the days long before Simone deBeauvoir or Betty Friedan wrote.

Near the end of the book, she discusses a visit to the United States. In this chapter, she provides a glowing description of Aimee Semple McPherson. Nellie had first seen McPherson many years before, when McPherson was a younger woman. This description is following an occasion when McClung was in California:

I liked her the first time I saw her, and felt the impact of a great personality. Surely no woman ever received more admiration and loyalty on the one hand, derision and persectuion on the other. If Aimee had been a homely woman dressed in rusty black, with her hair pulled back unbecomingly, and carried on her missionary work in a back street in unattracive surroundings, she would have passed into history as a great saint. But Aimee was beautiful and knew how to dress and did not let the passing of the years destroy her beauty; she was also a great showman and a great financier and so the world in general found it hard to forgive her success.

I regret to have to record that she was bitterly criticized by many of the "good"people who failed to see that she used her talents and all her powers to spread the Gospel of the Lord.

Can you not hear echoes of Nelliie's words today in the objections of those who don't like to hear their favourite female teacher critiqued? I found Nellie's description of McPherson, "showman," interesting.

Not long ago, I read an article at First Things, discussing Sarah Bessy's book Jesus Feminist. In this article, the writer links Bessy and women who share similar convictions to the holiness-pentecostal movement. In the article, Dale Coulter names Aimee Semple McPherson as one of those who promoted this movement, which he sees as influening Sarah Bessey.

Of course I know who Aimee Semple McPherson is. Actually, I have driven often on the highway that passes by Salford, Ontario, where she was born. 

Was Nellie a Jesus Feminist? I don't know. I have not read enough of her material to draw conclusions. Her autobiography is peculiar, in that it doesn't follow a chronological path in this second volume, as much as a topical one, and she didn't discuss the things I was eager to learn about. Honestly, I felt like it could have used a good editor.

I do think she would have had a lot of common ground with Christian feminists today, although there are some differences. I found it refreshing that when she describes her reaction to losing an election after having sat in the Alberta legislature for five years, she turns to her kitchen for comfort:

No woman can be utterly cast down who has a nice bright kitchen facing west, with a good gas range and a blue and white checked linoleum on the floor, a cook book, oil cloth covered and dropsical with looseleaf editions... no woman can turn out an oven full of good flaky pies with well-cooked under crusts, and not find peace for her troubled soul.

I don't know as if some of the current Christian feminists would applaud Nellie or scoff at her.

While I don't know as if I agree entirely with some of her doctrinal positions, I think I liked Nellie. I admire her compassion, her energy, and her love of home and family. I am thankful she was instrumental in helping me become a "person" under the law. But I don't know as if I think she would have necessarily embraced the term "feminist" according to today's standards.


A boy who has never had a gun in his hands

In her autobiography, The Stream Runs Fast, Nellie McClung comments about her oldest son, who returned from World War I:

The other boys could tell us incidents of their experiences in the trenches and happenings on their brief leaves, but Jack, the best story-teller of them all, had nothing to say. He sat silent, with a strange tension on his young face.

I knew there was a wound in his heart - a sore place. That hurt look in his clear blue eyes tore at my heart strings and I did not know what to do. When a boy who has never had a gun in his hands, never desired anything but the good of his fellow men, is sent out to kill other boys like himself, even at the call of his country, something snaps in him, something which may not mend.

A wound in a young heart is like a wound in a young tree. It does not grow out. It grows in.

I cannot imagine how she felt. I have only the slightest of glimpses of that feeling of helplessness, watching a child struggle. Living through a horrible war is not among the burdens my children have had to bear.

There are things about Nellie that I'm not quite sure of; I think if I had known her, I might have disagreed with some of what she said. But she was an observant woman, and was so eloquent. It was apparent that she had a lot of compassion for others.

Some people may wonder what is the use of quoting a woman long dead, regarding her son, also long dead, regarding a war long ago. To find a woman writing in the early decades of the 20th century about her thoughts on such issues is not a common thing. There were not many mothers who had time and means to write about such things, let alone be given the voice that Nellie was given in Canada.

History is important. We didn't arrive where we are on our own efforts alone. To think what happened before us had no impact on where we are now is pride, indeed.