One of the many things that have happened since I moved back into my childhood home is that I’ve been watching TV programmes I had never really engaged with before. Some of it is great (Great British Bake Off! Where had you been my whole life?); some of it less so (why does Nicholas Lyndhurst talk posh in New Tricks?) and some of it is Downton Abbey.
Now, I did watch the first series of Downton Abbey on Netflix, mainly because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. And because of Lady Sybil. I got bored halfway through the second series, however, and increasingly frustrated at the total lack of engagement with class politics by the writers. Downton, I decided, was not for me.
However, I ended up half-watching an episode the other night which featured Lady Edith losing her child at the country fair and then finding her again.
What is this? I asked my mum. Where did this kid come from?
It turns out that Lady Edith had an illegitimate child and then the family gave the baby girl to a local family to look after. However, Lady Edith missed her daughter so much that the family agreed to give her back and now the Downton Abbey family are raising it.
I sat in silence for a moment. I looked at Lady Edith’s frantic expression; the paternalistic glow in Hugh Bonneville’s face as he reunites daughter and granddaughter.
‘They would have put her in an asylum,’ I responded.
I have a talent for ruining people’s favourite TV shows (and films, and plays, and albums).
It made me really angry, however. Because the truth of it is, she probably would have been put in an asylum. That’s what our society did to women who had children out of wedlock, as recently as the 1920s and for quite a while afterwards too.
I first became aware of this issue as a teenager, reading Michelle Magorian’s excellent A Little Love Song (the title does not do justice to the book). Then, as an adult, I read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell. Both of these books tell the story of upper or upper-middle class women who have children out of wedlock and are then locked up by their families in asylums where they are abandoned and forgotten about.
The reason why these books could be written is because that is what we did to women, and we did it to women for decades. We told unmarried women who had babies that they were mad and bad, and that they needed to be locked up. We allowed men to confine women in asylums where they were treated with disdain and violence, and their children were taken away and never told where they had come from.
It didn’t matter what had happened to these women before their incarceration. It didn’t matter if the child was the result of a loving but unmarried relationship, or the result of rape. The women were sent away just the same. The babies were taken away just the same.
Even as recently as the 1960s, unmarried mothers were treated in appalling conditions. Although the practise of locking women up in asylums was pretty much over (although many women were still in the asylums where they had been for decades), women were instead sent to ‘mother and baby homes’, often run by religious communities. Once in the homes, the women were treated like scum. In her book, The Baby Laundry for Unmarried Mothers, Angela Patrick describes her own experiences – the disdain and cruelty of the staff, the chores she had to do daily, the rules that left the women feeling like wayward children who needed to be punished. And then, of course, the babies were taken away.
It hurts my heart when I think of what we did to unmarried women who had babies in the last century. It hurts my heart to think of the women locked up in asylums, treated as criminals, denied their very basic right to freedom and bodily autonomy. It hurts my heart to know that hundreds, even thousands, of women were punished and degraded and harmed by a patriarchal system that saw women as men’s property to do with as they liked.
And when that heart-hurt is over, I feel furious. Because when are we, as a society, going to acknowledge the crime that we committed against women? When are we going to own up to the women locked up in asylums, to the women punished and treated poorly in the baby laundries? When are we going to admit what we did to women, and did to women on a frighteningly huge scale?
Not today, clearly. Not whilst Downton Abbey is selling a lie about society’s treatment of women.
The situation for women in Ireland was far worse, and the imprisonment and punishment of women was happening on a much larger scale, than in the UK. The infamous Magdalene Laundries locked up women for their whole lives – women who had been raped, who had gotten pregnant, or who were just considered ‘wayward’. These laundries basically profited from women’s unpaid labour, treating the women as a subclass who deserved to be punished and hidden away. The horror of this system is frighteningly portrayed in the film The Magdalene Sisters which I urge you to watch.
In 2013, the Irish government apologised for the Magdalene Laundries and to the survivors (the laundries only closing in 1996), which is some progress. However, the Catholic Church still refuses to apologise. Meanwhile, as the terrible moral crimes committed by this system continue to come to light, a culture of denial and diminishment – a blaming on ‘old time thinking’ – persists.
However, I think we have a tendency in the UK to look at what happened in Ireland and think it has nothing to do with us. I think we are all too willing to pretend that it was a problem happening ‘over there’ and ignore how our system perpetuated its own crimes against women. It’s not good enough. Just because our system wasn’t as bad as the Magdalene laundries does not mean we can continue to ignore it. We can’t keep sweeping it under the carpet. We can’t keep making TV shows that sell the lie that unmarried mothers were protected by their families, rather than abandoned by them.
We need to acknowledge what our society routinely did to women. We need to recognise that this cruelty existed, and that the state system colluded to lock up women who had committed no crime, who had suffered no mental illness, who had simply had a baby without being married. We need to recognise we locked up rape victims. We need to acknowledge what society did to women.
I feel the same way about witch burnings, but that’s a subject for another day.
When Downton Abbey tells a lie about how women like Lady Edith were treated, our culture continues to hide away the truth about what we did to women. We have to stop this lie. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen. After all, for decades we pretended it didn’t happen. We just locked women up and pretended they no longer existed.