It’s often gut-wrenching, but Dr. Rie Croll says there’s a sense of urgency in her research aimed at collecting stories of women forcibly confined in female-only laundries and reformatories before they are forever lost to history.
Her current research brings together stories of women from Ireland, Canada and Australia who spent time in institutions known as Magdalene laundries. Many of these facilities were run by various orders of Roman Catholic nuns. The laundries operated from as early as the 18th century before the last one closed in Dublin, Ireland, 20 years ago.
“While the stated purpose of these institutions was the reform of prostitutes, unwed mothers, and ‘incorrigible’ girls, the stories I’ve gathered tell us that the inmate population contained countless unwanted, stolen, socially inconvenient, disregarded and/or neglected girls and women,” explained Dr. Croll, an associate professor and Chair of Teaching and Learning at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook.
“The hope I have with this research is that we see a societal response.”
“Confinement in the laundries, and related reformatories, essentially served to regulate and curtail the sexuality of generations of girls and women while the church exploited all of them as unpaid laundry labourers.”
Dr. Croll says many of the former inmates are still haunted by their experiences. She says silence was strictly enforced within the institutions and the women were forbidden to speak with one another or write to family members about their situations.
“Even upon their release they were warned not to speak of their incarceration,” noted Dr. Croll. “Decades after their incarceration, some of the women had not even told those closest to them about this part of their lives. So for many of them, these sufferings were, and still are, born alone and in silence.
“This makes their stories pioneering efforts as well as acts of resistance.”
“Those who told me their stories, however, found that breaking the loneliness of their silence became part of a restorative renegotiation of their identity,” Dr. Croll continued. “This small group who have collaborated with me refused to continue denying their experiences and are willing to make them public, despite the great personal risk of doing so. This makes their stories pioneering efforts as well as acts of resistance.”
Tell while they can
While she has spoken with several former inmates, Dr. Croll says time is not on her side. She says a small remaining last generation of Good Shepherd Magdalene and reformatory survivors is aging, and so there is an urgency for their stories to be told while they still can be.
“I have come to understand that try as they might they are unable to fully express the extent of the hurt and social dispossession that their incarceration caused them,” said Dr. Croll, who is the chair of the AIDS Committee of Western Newfoundland and serves on the advisory board of the Corner Brook Status of Women council. She also gives invited talks at community mental health and LGBTQI2 events.
“The hope I have with this research is that we see a societal response,” she said. “What happened is horrific. The remaining survivors want—and deserve—to know that this won’t happen again. That would bring them some sort of peace.”
This story was also published in the July 4 edition of The Telegram as part of a regular summer series on research at Memorial University.