A few weeks ago, I volunteered at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Annual Global Women’s Rights Awards in Los Angeles. This inspiring event celebrated individuals who have contributed to the advancement of women’s rights across the globe and who demonstrate strength and activism in the face of injustice, and this year’s honorees included Philomena Lee and Jane Liberton of the Philomena Project.
Does the name Philomena sound familiar? That’s probably because of the award-winning movie that came out in the winter of 2013 that tells Philomena’s (true) story.
As a teenager growing up in Ireland, Philomena knew nothing about the birds and the bees, and when she got pregnant, she was sent to a Magdelene Laundry. At these Catholic institutions, which existed across Ireland, countless young women pregnant out of wedlock were taught to be deeply ashamed in themselves, were held captive for four years during which they did hard labor (for which they were never paid), and their children were stolen from them, sold to American adoptive parents for a profit.
Not only were these women’s liberty, dignity, and family taken from them, but even after release they were never given information about the whereabouts of their children, making reunification next to impossible.
The Philomena Project is an organization that seeks to raise awareness about the Catholic Church’s inhumane treatment of women in Ireland, and to create a support network to help reunite women and children. Philomena is a courageous woman to come forward and share this painful story with the world, and is an example of the great power of transforming silence into language and action (as theorized by the amazing Audre Lorde).
At the Awards event when it was stated that the last of these workhouses remained open until 1997, the crowd gasped. We were all appalled that such a blatant violation of human rights could have continued until so recently. How could the imprisonment of women for the “crime” of having immoral sex, the forced slave labor, and the ripping apart of families possibly have continued for so long unquestioned and unchallenged?
As much as we should celebrate the accomplishments of The Philomena Project, we must also realize that those same human rights violation are all happening in the United States today within our prison system. Continue reading