Gender, Nation, and the Politics of Shame: Magdalen Laundries and the Institutionalization of Feminine Transgression in Modern Ireland

Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41 (4):821-843 (2016)
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In this article, I trace the politics of shame in the context of the problematization of women’s bodies as markers of sexual immorality in modern Ireland. I argue that the post-Independence project of national identity formation established women as bearers of virtue and purity and that sexual transgression threatening this new identity came to be severely punished. By hiding women, children, and all those deemed to be dangerous to national self-representations of purity, the Irish state, supported by Catholic moral values and teaching, physically removed its embodied instances of national shame through a system of mass institutionalization. Just as shame entails the covering of one’s blemishes, so the shaming of women deemed to be deviant by church and state involved their covering via incarceration in Magdalen laundries, among other institutions. By assessing recent events highlighted by inquiries into Irish institutions—Magdalen laundries, reformatory and industrial schools, and soon mother and baby homes—in terms of the politics of shame, this article aims to shed light on the pervasiveness of institutionalization in Ireland and the complex relationship between said institutions, gender, sexuality, and nation building in the early decades of the Irish state.



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Clara Fischer
Queen's University, Belfast

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