When Social Conservatism Meets State Power

The Magdalene Laundries are a telling salutory lesson in what can happen when social conservatism is handed the levers of State power

The Irish Prime Minister apologised for the ‘stigma and conditions’ of the women for spent time in the notorious Magdalene Laundries. However this was short of the formal apology that campaigners had been hoping for. The announcement followed the publication of an inquiry chaired by Senator Martin McAleese.

The Laundries were workhouses run by the Irish Catholic Church. Between 1922 and 1996, approximately ten thousand women passedlaundries_momentum_2471854b through them. The average stay was 7 seven months, though some women were there for over 5 years. Women sent to the Laundries were not allowed to leave, and were forced to work within the grounds without pay.

The figures in the 1,000 page document are telling.

Approximately ten percent of women were sent by their families, with approximately nineteen percent entering voluntarily. The rest were sent there by the Irish authorities. And the criteria for being sent to a Magdalene Laundry was terrifyingly broad; petty theft, vagrancy, even not paying a train ticket were sufficient.

But the PR machine was slick. The Laundries were marketed as a refuge for fallen women. Single mothers and prostitutes were presented as the laundries mainstay. In fact, the Laundries’ reputation for taking in prostitutes became so well established, that the term ‘Maggie’ was coined to as a reference to a sex worker. Yet the reality was that women could be sent to the Magdalene Laundries simply on the suspicion that they may become promiscuous.

It’s important here to re-emphasis that this was not some remote corner of Mali, with radical Islamists imposing 13th century morality at gunpoint. This was a Western European Democracy in the middle of the 20th century.

The laundries serve as a chilling reminder of what can happen when social conservatism meets State power.

The Irish state had a very comfortable relationship with the Laundries. The army, as well as several other state institutions, utilised the free labour that was on offer. In fact the Irish state had an extremely close relationship with the Irish Catholic Church, period. The Church held an incredible sway over Irish  education, law, and policy making: all the traditional spheres of the State. Church and state wen’re quite one and the same, but they were symbiotic; each validating and legitimising  the other. Unlike other Catholic nations, such as Italy or Poland, Ireland had no formal agreement of how to regulate the relationship between Church and state. It was simply taken as a given.

angelusOne could argue that this doesn’t matter, that it’s a harmless relic, almost quaint. Yet it has profound and far reaching effects in everyday life. Condoms were officially banned until the 1970s, and only became freely available in vending machines in 1993. Divorce was not legalised until 1995. Abortion remains illegal. A blasphemy law – the sort of which died out in the rest of the Western world long ago – lives on. Even RTE, the state funded broadcaster, rings the ‘Angelus’ bell at noon and six pm, showing images of families and workers pausing for a moment of quiet contemplation.

And when socially conservative institutions enjoy an uncomfortably close relationship with the State, abuse is the natural consequence. The Magdalene Laundries aside, the most recent examples of exploitation are those members of the clergy who spent decades abusing those in their care. The details of the abuses need not be explored here, but it is important to note that the senior figures in the Church knew what was going on, and either did nothing, or worse, went to great lengths to conceal the truth. They did this in the knowledge that the institution of the Church itself was protected, being as it was the sole arbiter of all things moral and right.

This happens outside Ireland too, of course; In Britain, the Church of England, although not as powerful as the Catholic Church in Ireland, holds sufficient sway to allow it to retain bishops in the House of Lords. Bishops voted against divorce law reforms, as well as legalising homosexuality. In the US, social conservatives (primarily in the Democratic Party) use the power of state legislatures to slam the breaks on civil rights reform, even going as far as to defend the ban on inter-racial marriages. At the extreme end of the scale, Apartheid South Africa saw social conservatism on speed.

And it’s not just the big laws that have the taint of conservative social engineering on them. Censorship rules have consistently been behind the rest of society. Up until the 1960’s the word toilet was inadmissible on American television. If a man an woman were shown on a bed together, the man had to have one leg on the outside of the covers, preferably on the ground, lest it be inferred that a man and woman were in bed together on screen. In Britain, today, it is forbidden to show an erect penis, except on subscription channels. When Lily Allen performed her song ‘It’s not fair’, the line “I spent ages giving head” had to be replaced with “I spend ages kneading bread” to allow it to be performed on The Graham Norton Show in 2009.

Social Conservatism in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is after all, like liberalism, simply a world view to which everybody is entitled their own. The danger comes when the power of state institutions are harnessed to satisfy a particular view of how society should function. As I argued here the Progressive Left have plenty of form in trying to mould the masses into the ‘correct’ shape. But Social Conservatives do it too, often more bluntly. The Magdalene Laundries were an extreme example of the way Social Conservative values can be implemented with raw state power, but they are far from the only example.


  1. Just a few points:
    -Condoms were found to be legal to be used by married couples during in 1973 (it took a Supreme Court decision, which employed “marital privacy” for its reasoning). It was in 1978 they were legalised to sale for genuine family planning purposes. It was only 1985 before they were legalised for use by the public at large.
    -Abortion is legal here when the life of the mother is at risk – it’s just unconstitutional beyond this.
    -Knowledge of the asylums only truly became public during the early 90s – and it created uproar.
    -The Blasphemy Law was passed as a “constitutional requirement”. The Catholic Church had nothing to do with it. It effectively remains unenforced. Not a single prosecution. It’s also incredibly unpopular in almost all sectors of society.

    • “Abortion is legal here when the life of the mother is at risk”

      Not yet, though the legislation to make it legal for a doctor to perform an abortion to save a woman’s life is progressing. After Savita Halappanavar’s death it came out that other women had been advised to get on a plane and have their miscarriage in an English hospital – because there, if necessary, the doctor could perform an abortion.

  2. Great post – but ‘primarily in the Democratic party’? Perhaps 50 years ago, but the main proponent of the kinds of social conservatism you’re talking about here are the Republicans.

    • Yes, that’s a valid point Adam. The point I was trying to get at is that social conservatism can be found in all parties.

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