Sorry seems to be the hardest word

A still from the 2002 film 'The Magdalene Sisters' depicting life in the laundries.
A still from the 2002 film 'The Magdalene Sisters' depicting life in the laundries.

I read two articles on Tuesday afternoon - the first was a fairly vapid piece about whether or not feminism is a bad word for modern young pop stars. And the second was a harrowing article about life in the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland.

In the first article, 17 year old Ella Henderson (she with the big mouth who almost won the X Factor last year) was, allegedly, not allowed to answer a question on whether or not she was a feminist.

The reporter who asked the question said a gruff sounding man, claiming to be her PR representative, stopped the call saying, briefly, that she would not answer such questions - the reason, the reporter felt, was that it was too much of a political issue for young women nowadays. And politics doesn’t sell records.

And, the reporter believes that for many feminism is still a bad word - with connotations of bra burning, men hating, dungaree wearing, hairy legged haridans shouting the odds

I am trying to give Ella Henderson the benefit of the doubt. She is only 16 and while she has been thrust onto a world stage that does not necessarily make her worldly wise. Perhaps her PR was aware of this and just trying to make sure she didn’t stumble over her words or saying something which could be misconstrued in an article. (That tactic may have backfired on the PR however...) But then again, young women should know about feminism. They should know where they stand politically - in terms of wanting parity of esteem for their gender.

However I’m willing to accept that Ella, along with lots of other young women, have grown up in an era of ‘Girl Power’ slogans. They have also grown up in an era of a more pampered generation of young women (and as a mammy I know I’m guilty of this, trying to protect my children a little too much) who have no idea about the realities of inequality or that men, still, to this day get a better deal.

Perhaps we have protected our young women too much? Perhaps it is time that they all had a history lesson.

1996 was not that long ago. It was 17 years ago in fact. To put it in a context I understand, I was in my second year at university. I was going out a couple of times a week, drinking enough to have me singing merrily on the way home, studying hard, playing harder. I was living out my single life in a haze of early morning lectures, afternoons in the cafeteria and library and walks home to share dinner with my housemates before a night on the town.

1996 was also the year the last Magdalene Laundry closed in Ireland - with 40 women (or inmates if we are being emotive) still living there. Some of these women were in their 40s. Contemporaneous reports say that as late as 1995, a woman in her early 20s was admitted to the laundry due to her mental health issues.

Of course by that stage the laundries, it was reported, had changed. Women were no longer forced into long, thankless hours of unpaid work, abused and brutalised - stripped of their dignity and their identity. Their children were no longer forcibly ripped from their arms.

Once I started reading about the Magdalene Laundries on Tuesday I could not stop. I’ve heard of them before - seen the films, read articles, watched documentaries. But no matter how much I hear of them and their brutal history I always find myself reading more - trying I suppose to find someway to believe that this actually happened.

On Tuesday the Irish state acknowledged the hurt caused to the approximate 11,000 women and children who were incarcerated in the laundries. An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, acknowledging that 25% of woman in the laundries were sent there by the state,

described the laundries and the reality of life there as “horrifying” and “shameful”.

He stopped short, however, of apologising to those women who were incarcerated. He was sorry, he said that women had to live in such conditions. He did not say he was sorry that it was the State who put them there and allowed such institutions to flourish.

As one campaigner said: “To get up in the Dáil and refuse to apologise to a group of ageing, vulnerable group of women…is frankly cynical.This could have been good day…this could have been a good news story. But it is continuing and prolonging the torture.” And dragging out this process is proof positive that there is still a need for women to stand together and shout that we deserve better. The horrors - and indeed they were horrors - inflicted on women in our modern society. and the refusal of a state body to fully acknowledge the same and say sorry is proof that feminism, and respect for women, should be on all our minds.

At times feminism is about better pay for woman, better rights in the workplace, the right to make choices over our own bodies and what we do with them. At other times it is about working together to get someone - in this case an entire country - to acknowledge their wrongdoing. But sorry, it seems, is still the hardest word.