One-Two Punch: Magdalene Sisters and North Country

The Magdalene Sisters:


"The Magdalene Asylums in Ireland were run by the Sisters of Mercy on behalf of the Catholic Church. Young girls were sent there by families or orphanages and once there, were imprisoned and sent to work in the laundries where they could atone for their sins. Their sins varied from being unmarried mothers to being too pretty, too ugly, simple minded, too clever or being a victim of rape and talking about it. And for their sins they worked 364 days a year unpaid, they were half starved, beaten, humiliated, raped, their children forcibly removed from them. Their sentence was indefinite. Thousands of women lived and died there. The last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed in 1996, five years ago."

From (note: I don't agree with all of this review, but the beginning is apt)

"The first question that arises in response to The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan's controversial, critically acclaimed film about Irish penitential asylums for wayward girls and women, is: Did these horrors really happen?

Did the Magdalene asylums, originally established in the nineteenth century by the Sisters of Mercy as spiritual refuges for prostitutes and other women penitents, go on to hold girls and even grown women against their will, for disgraces ranging from extramarital pregnancy to mere flirting or even having been raped?

Did some women grow old and die working in the infamous Magdalene laundries, not necessarily out of personal conviction or desire for a vocation to lifelong penance, but more or less because the doors were locked?

Were girls brutally beaten for inadvertent or minor offenses, stripped naked and mocked by sadistic nuns over the sizes of their various body parts, abused in other ways?

Tragically, it seems that there may indeed be truth to these charges. While The Magdalene Sisters is a work of fiction, the abuses it depicts are allegedly based on credible survivor accounts of life in the Magdalene institutions, which are said to have taken in as many as 30,000 women between their inception in the 1880s and their final closing in 1996. In fact, there are reports that, according to some survivors, the abuses depicted in The Magdalene Sisters actually fall short of the worst that really happened, and the director himself has commented that he refrained from recreating the most terrible reported incidents for fear of overwhelming and alienating the audience."

North Country


After Josey Aimes takes her kids and walks out on the boyfriend who beats her, she doesn't find a lot of sympathy back at home. "He caught you with another man? That's why he laid hands on you?" asks her father. "You can actually ask me that question?" she says. He can. In that place, at that time, whatever happened was the woman's fault. Josey has returned to her home town outside Minnesota, where her father works in the strip mines of the Mesabi Iron Range.

She gets a job as a hairdresser. It doesn't pay much. She can make six times more as a miner. She applies for a job and gets one, even though her new boss is not happy: "It involves lifting, driving, and all sorts of other things a woman shouldn't be doing, if you ask me. But the Supreme Court doesn't agree." Out of every 30 miners, 29 are men. Josie, who is good-looking and has an attitude, becomes a target for lust and hate, which here amount to the same thing.

"North Country," which tells her story, is inspired by the life of a real person, Lois Jenson, who filed the first class action lawsuit for sexual harassment in American history. That the suit was settled as recently as 1991 came as a surprise to me; I would have guessed the 1970s, but no, that's when the original court decision came down. Like the court's decisions on civil rights, it didn't change everything overnight.
In the male world, picking on women is all in a day's work. It's what a man does. A woman operates a piece of heavy machinery unaware that a sign painted on the cab advertises sex for sale. The women find obscenities written in excrement on the walls of their locker room. When McDormand persuades the union to ask for Porta-Potties for the women, "who can't hold it as long as you fellas," one of the first women to use one has it toppled over while she's inside.

There is also all sorts of touching and fondling, but if a woman is going to insist on having breasts, how can a guy be blamed for copping a feel? After Bobby Sharp assaults Josey, his wife screams at her in public: "Stay away from Bobby Sharp!" It is assumed and widely reported that Josey is a tramp, and she is advised to "spend less time stirring up your female co-workers and less time in the beds of your male coworkers."

During my teen years, one of the most commonly heard phrases was, "it's the 90's!" At the time, I considered myself a conservative person (having no idea what that actually meant) and I found the phrase fairly annoying. Today, in what I consider to be my more enlightened state, I think this phrase was actually pretty helpful at shaming people out of being judgemental and cruel. But, I think one side effect was to lead me to believe I was growing up in a more enlightened time. Sure, I knew that women had been discriminated in history - and even recently. I'd heard my mother's stories from the 1970's, about applying for jobs in chemistry and being told, "sweetheart - you're just going to have babies and quit! Why don't you just go home to your husband?" (seriously - that happened to her). But, I thought, that was the 1970s! Things like that happened then, but they didn't any more.

As I progressed in life, and more importantly - as I became interested in physics - my surrounding life became more and more male dominated, and I began to see differences in how men and women were treated - especially those women working in what's "supposed" to be a man's field. Probably even through college though, I continued to believe that discrimination against women was still a fortunately rare occurrance (although I'm sure I would have acknowledged it still happens). During my grad school years, I began to get an even closer view of things, and I began to be more aware of the impact of discrimination. I could tell stories, but this probably isn't the place, and for better or for worse, most of the worst ones aren't mine to disclose.

Still, what shocked me most about these two movies, which I saw in succession - a sequence I strongly recommend - was the timeline! Did you know that official legislation against systematic discrimination against women only came into place during the 1990s? I looked this up, it's not just made up for the movie. And that in other (Western) countries, women were held in slavery until the mid 1990s? I'm not sure when I thought these things had ended, but I certainly wouldn't have guessed that during the "it's the 90s, man!" phase, these things were still going on. I now thank god for that phrase, and I only wish we had a similarly good one for shaming people into tolerance in the new millenium, because I'm sure there are places this stuff is still going on.

Permalink • Posted in: Movies, Women's RightsComments (2)


-3r!ca- May 3, 2007

hey, was just stopping by, doing a research project on North Country,.. you're blogs is good, you have a very good opinion of things. Thanks for the good read,.. (not much useful info) ttyl -3r!ca-

Patricia Crowe Apr 28, 2009

I am looking for help in researching whether my mother was imprisoned in a magdalene asylum in the early 1950's. She always spoke of the horrible "convent school" that she was forced to go to when she was 16 years old located at Spanish Point near the Cliffs of Moher. She developed alzheimers at a very young age and I took her back to Ireland to see her family for one last time. The only lucid moment she had in years was when we passed the convent and she said "thats where I went to school." The place looked like a prison, completeley isolated in the middle of the Burren with no towns or houses anywhere near it. Any information that I could gather about this place would be appreciated.