Politics of Shame in Ireland Leaves Lasting Legacy on Lone Parents
Trinity Long Room Hub Visiting Research Fellow Dr Clara Fischer looks at the ongoing impact of the ‘politics of shame’ on women in Ireland.
‘We still see a gendered shaming of women in relation to reproduction, particularly in Ireland.’ Dr Fischer’s current research project includes a case study of the Magdalen laundries and looks at how the politics of shame has had a lasting impact on our society’s approach to reproduction and lone parenting.
A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and currently a UCD Philosophy Teaching and Research Fellow, Dr Fischer spent her two week fellowship in May 2016 completing her research project ‘Re-visioning Affective Politics and Democracy: Beyond a Politics of Shame’.
The project is part of a larger book project tentatively titled The Politics of Emotion: Gender, Shame, and Containment in 20th Century Ireland, which will add significantly to current debates in feminist theory, political philosophy, ethics, and moral psychology. Moreover, the monograph constitutes the first philosophical treatment of women’s experiences in Magdalen asylums, and uniquely positions these experiences relative to wider concerns regarding democratic representation and embodiment.
During her recent Fellow in Focus session at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Dr Fischer conversed with her former PhD supervisor Dr. Iain Atack, Head of the Confederal School of Religions, Peace Studies and Theology, about her research.
Historic Origins of Shame
Dr Fischer explained how both State and Church had a role in the systematic shaming of women in Ireland. Most recently, the ‘collusion’ between State and Church in the mass-institutionalisation of women was revealed by findings of the McAleese Report on the Magdalen laundries in 2013 (Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries). However, Dr. Fischer argues that institutionalisation was justified and maintained via the mobilisation of shame in post-colonial Ireland.
‘What we see post-independence is the project of nation building where we needed to develop a distinct national identity from the former colonial power. This new national identity came to be premised around moral purity – essentially the sexual moral purity of women.’ Women are often not in control of shaming narratives in patriarchal societies and in Ireland we saw a public sense of control around women’s reproduction.
Dr Fischer also highlighted a similar construction of women by nationalisms in other jurisdictions. ‘We see this in a lot of nationalisms and not just in Ireland. For example in Afrikaner nationalism and in other colonised nations we see women constructed as the bearers of the nation’s virtue’.
Unique to Ireland, however, as Dr Fischer explained, was the strong emphasis on Catholic social policy and control of social services by the Church, matched with the absence of a significant, secular left. The ‘general conservatism’ which can be observed in other EU countries, was thus exceeded in the Irish post-colonial context, as a ‘confluence of factors’ contributed to ‘the mobilisation of shame that underpinned a pervasive and intense system of institutionalisation in modern Ireland’.
Institutionalisation and Shame
Fast-forward to contemporary Ireland and, according to Dr Fischer, this shaming is still taking place: ‘the discourse around the institutionalisation of women had to do with becoming pregnant ‘out of wedlock’, but it’s the same constituency of people who are still being shamed today.’
Looking comparatively to our European neighbours, Dr Fischer argued that our reproductive rights in Ireland are extremely restricted and understanding our history is key to discovering why we find ourselves in this situation. Abortion in Ireland is currently illegal unless the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman.
‘It’s not a coincidence that we’ve had this historical shaming of women in terms of reproduction and the fact that we don’t have certain rights that our European counterparts do. Looking at the historical context can shed light on today’s context and provide a lens through which to change the way we think about the topic and do something about it.’
Her research project uses the case study of the Magdalen laundries, institutions run by the Catholic Church for women who became pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ and which operated in Ireland throughout the 20th century. Perhaps less well known are the origins of the Magdalen laundries from the 18th century under colonial rule, when they were then run by lay people. ‘By the time Ireland became independent, the religious orders had taken over the running of those institutions. Increasingly, we then saw those institutions becoming punitive in nature’. The Magdalen laundries were originally set up in response to visible prostitution on the streets of Dublin and they were supposed to be support services for women. ‘There is some evidence to suggest that women could come to and leave these institutions more freely before the 20th century, and could also develop some skills while they were there’.
Through the example of the Magdalen laundries, Dr Fischer explored how containment and institutionalisation depended on the shaming narratives around reproduction and lone parenting that are also evident today.
‘What’s clear from the historical research is that shaming narratives were pervasive in Irish society. If you look at court proceedings, for example, it was naturally assumed that women should be ashamed for becoming pregnant ‘out of wedlock’’.
Dr Fischer asserted that even today it is often (at least implicltly) accepted that there is something inherently shameful about being a lone parent, as evinced by the disproportionately high levels of lone parents living in deprivation and poverty.
Dr Fischer originally undertook a B.A. in Philosophy and Music and an M.A. in Music Technology before having what she described as a ‘feminist enlightenment’ while completing an MPhil in Peace Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin. ‘I’m still a musician but I went back and did another masters in Peace Studies because of my interest in politics. While studying Peace Studies I took one gender module and that has been it ever since! Then I completed a PhD in feminist philosophy at the Irish School of Ecumenics and subsequently a PostDoc in London’.
She is also the author of another book which draws on research from her PhD called Gendered Readings of Change: A Feminist-Pragmatist Approach where she develops a feminist pragmatist framework with which to approach philosophies of change and transformation.
Feminist pragmatism was born out the American philosophical tradition as part of the Progressive Era. According to Dr Fischer, this philosophical tradition is currently undergoing a revival. She also speaks of her ongoing critical dialogue with contemporary ‘affect theory’ in feminism. ‘In the 1990s various critical theorists pronounced the ‘turn to affect’ – by that is meant a new political and metaphysical framework with which to do feminist theory. I established a dialogue with that way of doing feminist theory because the focus of the book is on emotion – emotion and affect are very closely related to each other, and because affect theory forms one of the most recent trajectories in feminist thought.’
While using primary research previously carried out with survivors of the Magdalen asylums, her research for this project draws on feminist theory, historical sources, and contemporary inquiry reports and similar documents. Dr. Fischer plans to publish her second monograph in the near future "to add to current debates in feminist theory, political philosophy, and the wider project of coming to terms with some of Ireland's more troubled past."
Dr Fischer has recently completed a British Academy Newton International Fellowship at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science, and is a UCD Philosophy Teaching and Research Fellow and a UCD Women's Studies Research Associate. She specializes in feminist theory and political philosophy, and is completing a monograph on the gendered politics of shame and containment in 20th century Ireland.
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