WaPo Advertises a “Maternity Ranch” (fka a Magdalene Laundry)

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In high school, my history teacher Mr. Pitt had a large quotation written on his wall: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” attributed to the philosopher George Santayana. I always assumed it was up there because Mr. Pitt got tired of answering students’ whines of “why do we have to learn this.” I didn’t really think much of it. I suppose in my teenage head I pictured it like this: bad things happened in the past, and if we forget what led up to those bad things happening, we are at risk of accidentally having those bad things happen to us again. Because no one wants to repeat history, right?

But that’s not quite right. I was missing out on agency: there ARE people who want to repeat history. Yes, even the parts that were bad for a lot of folks. And so you and I must understand how things happened before in order to stop those people who want to turn back the clock on our society. 

One of those people who we absolutely must stop from repeating history is Aubrey Schlackman, an evangelical woman in Texas who, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, is “mobilizing for a future without abortion.” When I say “article” what I actually mean is “advertisement,” because the way-too-long piece is essentially an ad for Schlackman’s business, which she calls “a maternity ranch.” That’s right, a ranch! Like the place where you breed animals against their will.

You may recall that a few months ago Texas effectively outlawed abortion. If you want to know more about that pseudoscientific misogynistic disaster you can see my video on it here. Activists are continuing to fight this blatantly unconstitutional BONKERS law but apparently our most prestigious journalistic outlets have given up and are moving on to advertising for future cults.

Schlackman tells the Post that she is starting a “ranch” for poor single pregnant women who lack the resources to bring a healthy baby to term and who may have preferred abortion but, well, that’s not really an option any more, is it? So she wants to give them a place to be supported by Christian women in good, stable marriages, where they can have their babies and live for the next year while attending church services and other God stuff. She even has an idea for sustaining the business: “She imagined that the women could plant a garden and learn how to grow their own food, and maybe even learn how to raise cows. She imagined selling produce and beef to subsidize costs.”

How interesting!

The piece opens with this: “??The vision had come as she was driving home from the Kroger, and it was so sudden and fully formed that Aubrey Schlackman began to tell people that “it was like God placed it in my head.””

Maybe…and I may be stretching here, maybe it’s just because I don’t think any gods exist, but maybe this idea was so sudden and fully formed because this exact thing already existed and it was a fucking disaster?

Allow me to introduce you to a concept known as the Magdalene Laundries. That’s right kids, it’s time to remember our history.

Back in the summer of 1767 another pious woman of God was equally concerned with the state of poor, pregnant women who desperately needed help. Lady Arabella Fitzmaurice Denny was a beloved philanthropist with only the noblest of intentions. She met some “fallen women,” mostly prostitutes who were pregnant outside of marriage and who had no families to support them. She wanted to give them a sanctuary where they could be delivered “[…] from Shame, from Reproach, from Disease, from Want, from the base Society that ha[d] either drawn [them] into vice, or prevailed upon [them] to continue in it, to the utmost hazard of [their] eternal  happiness.”

Like the “maternity ranch,” the refuge would provide for the women so that they could have their babies. They even taught them skills and the value of hard work — not through gardens and cows but by operating a laundry. The women could stay for up to 2 years.

This was considered such a fantastic idea that it spread, with hundreds of asylums appearing all over Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and eventually the United States, Canada, Sweden, and Australia, run by both Catholic and Protestant nuns. The concept was opened up to not just prostitutes but any woman or girl who was down on her luck and in need of help.

Eventually, the orders running these asylums noticed that they weren’t JUST helping poor young women in need — they were also turning quite the tidy profit! After all, when you don’t have to pay your workforce, it’s easy to make money. Just ask the American prison system!

So the hours the women had to work in the asylums got a little longer, and the ability for them to leave they asylums got a little harder, and any family member or authority figure could put a woman in the asylum for reasons like “stealing an apple” or “getting raped by a priest and having a baby out of wedlock.” And pregnant women can work the laundry but babies are pretty useless at turning a decent profit whether you pay them or not, so the babies were simply sent off for adoption. And everything got a bit secretive, because it’s better for the families and whatnot if they don’t know what the women are doing inside the asylum.

And the laundries thrived, securing contracts with the Irish army, hotel chains, banks, and golf clubs, putting laundries that paid their workers out of business.

And things went on like this for the next century or two, until 1993. One order, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, were not doing well. Not because their laundry wasn’t profitable — in fact, they ran many successful laundries in Ireland, the UK, the US, Australia, and the Netherlands — but because they had made some bad investments in the stock market. You know how it is! They just don’t teach smart investing strategy at the monastery, so it only takes one day trading nun to really fuck things up.

So the dear Sisters of Our Lady of Charity had to sell one of their properties in Ireland to a developer who wanted to turn it into a high end assisted living community. But when the developer started digging on the property, what did they find but a mass, unmarked grave full of 155 women’s corpses. Whoops!

This unleashed a furor in all of the places these institutions had set up shop, with investigations that are actually still ongoing today to figure out the total damage they did and the number of lives they destroyed. And by “today” I mean TODAY. Right after I read this Washington Post article about Aubrey Schlackman’s “maternity ranch,” I saw a Twitter hashtag for #RedressScheme and #MotherandBabyHome, because right now in November of 2021 the Irish government is debating how much money they should spend trying to make up for the physical and sexual abuse experienced by the women who were held against their will in these internment camps. And yeah, apparently the Minister for Children just said that survivors who were in the asylum when they were under 6 months of age should get less money because they wouldn’t remember the trauma of being in the home. You know, just the trauma of being stolen from their mothers and adopted out. So. That’s gross.

So now you know a little history that maybe you didn’t know before. I’m not sure if Aubrey Schlackman knew it — I do think Stephanie McCrummen, the Washington Post reporter, must know because she included one paragraph in a 5,000 word advertisement that sums up the story I just told you thusly:

“The moment was one preceded by a long and complicated history. The idea of providing a place for single, pregnant women harkened to a time before abortion became legal and so-called “homes for unwed mothers” were often the only option for women—mostly White women—to give birth in secrecy and avoid social scandal. The homes were often run by institutions such as The Salvation Army, orders of Catholic nuns, and evangelical churches. They were often bleak places where women were assumed to need reform and were sometimes abused and shamed, the kind of subjugation that advocates of legal abortion aimed to end.”

Yes. Bleak is certainly a word you could use. Open to “mostly white women!” As if the real tragedy of the Magdalene laundries was the lack of diversity.

This isn’t ancient history. There are living survivors of these work camps. And those camps existed because of people exactly like Aubrey Schlackman, who just wants to save babies and help poor, lost souls come to Jesus. This is why we must work hard every day to protect the rights of women to have abortions no matter where in the world they live; to give women safety nets like healthcare and food and a place to live where they can thrive even if they don’t believe in any specific religion. Because if we don’t, in another 300 years we’ll be watching the new owner of a former “maternity ranch” breaking ground on a new condo only to find 155 unnamed, forgotten corpses and wondering how any decent society could let that happen.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Actually it didn’t take until 1993 for questions to be asked. Even in the late 1800s the UK Parliament was asking questions though part of it might be that the laundries were competing with commercial laundries. In the UK all the charitable laundries were put under the factory act and were to be inspected by 1909 though in many cases employees could only be questioned by the inspector in the presence of a manager. Ireland ceased to be part of the UK in 1922 and the Catholic church gained full power to run the laundries as they wished. Northern Ireland which remained part of the UK also had laundries run by both Catholic and Protestant organizations, see a commissioned report on those The last there closed in 1984. I’m not sure when they ceased in England/Wales/Scotland except apparently before the ones in Ireland.

  2. Yup it was a dirty secret, widely known but not talked about. The discovery of those mass graves was one of many things that made it too big too ignore.

    Sinead O’Connor’s actions on SNL in ’92 was a result of her experiences in a mother & baby home and look how that destroyed her career.

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