Historical Gendered Institutional Violence: A Research Agenda for Criminologists

AuthorLynsey Black,Sinéad Ring
Published date01 February 2023
Date01 February 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 39(1) 17 –37
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862221138669
Historical Gendered
Institutional Violence:
A Research Agenda for
Lynsey Black1 and Sinéad Ring1
This article considers the phenomenon of historical gendered institutional harm,
examining the widespread incarceration of women and girls in Ireland through the
decades following independence in 1922. In this period, thousands of women and
girls were confined in a network of sites including Magdalene Laundries and Mother
and Baby Homes. The article considers the responses to this history, focusing on
those fields which concern themselves with matters of “wrongdoing” and “harm,”
responses grounded in law and legalism. We explore both the utility and the limits of
these approaches before proposing a criminological research agenda which draws on
the centrality of the state in the perpetration of gendered violence. Although Ireland
has become a by-word as a case of historical institutional abuse internationally, it
remains remarkably understudied by criminologists. The article explores how the
Irish example can speak to the discipline of criminology by forcing us to reimagine
how we conceive of gendered harms and state-perpetrated harms.
gender, Ireland, transitional justice, state crime, Magdalene Laundry, Mother and Baby
Over the last two decades, past institutional abuses perpetrated against women and
children have regularly been in the spotlight in Irish political, civic, and cultural life.
1Maynooth University, Ireland
Corresponding Author:
Lynsey Black, School of Law and Criminology, Maynooth University, Maynooth, W23 F2K8, Ireland.
Email: Lynsey.black@mu.ie
1138669CCJXXX10.1177/10439862221138669Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeBlack and Ring
18 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 39(1)
On the international stage, Ireland has become infamous as a site of widespread insti-
tutional abuse perpetrated in the 20th century. Survivors and scholars tell of an archi-
tecture of containment for marginalized populations comprised of institutions such as
Industrial Schools, Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, and psychiatric
hospitals, most of which were operated collaboratively by the Catholic Church/state
establishment. These sites formed a sprawling network that grew in the decades post-
independence until in the 1950s, 1% of Ireland’s population was subject to some form
of containment (O’Sullivan & O’Donnell, 2007). A core function of this system was to
control female sexuality. This article considers the (still-emerging) body of academic
work which has been produced in response to this history and the state responses to
survivors’ claims for justice. Although scholars across the social sciences and humani-
ties have engaged productively with Ireland’s history of institutional abuse (see, e.g.,
Fischer, 2016; Garrett, 2000; Gleeson, 2017; Inglis, 1998; Lowry, 2022; O’Donnell
et al., 2022; Pine, 2011), traces of the Irish case are only lightly to be found in crimi-
nological inquiry. Perhaps this is no surprise given criminology’s history of ignoring
studies which have women as their focus (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988; Cook, 2016).
It also echoes the discipline’s tendency to see violence in the street, in the home, and
by the state as “separate and separable” (Walklate, 2018, p. 621). Criminology’s fail-
ure to engage with Ireland’s gendered mass confinement may also relate to the per-
ceived geographic irrelevance of Ireland and its deviation from the template of Britain
and the United States (Brangan, 2022). Further compounding the invisibility of the
case is its characterization as “historical” within a discipline that often narrows its
focus to the present (Lawrence, 2012).
Criminology’s relative silence on the mass institutionalization of women and girls
is particularly striking given the engagement of other disciplines which have, at their
core, questions of “harm” and “wrongdoing.” Discourses of human rights have under-
pinned much academic and activist work, as the harms inflicted have been framed as
violations of individual rights. Human rights discourse also provides a useful language
for articulating the ongoing harms suffered by survivors in the present (O’Rourke
et al., 2018). Some scholars have approached historical institutional abuse from a tran-
sitional justice perspective. Transitional justice has its normative and methodological
roots in law, specifically in the context of societies moving from a violent authoritarian
past to a more democratic and peaceful future. Scholars have argued that it is useful to
understand and evaluate states’ responses to historical institutional abuse through this
lens, even as governments often fail to fully commit to its tenets (Gleeson & Ring,
2020; McAlinden & Naylor, 2016). Commentators point to a coherent pattern of state
responses under this framework including: state apologies; the establishment of statu-
tory redress schemes; (limited) criminal prosecutions; and the creation of public inqui-
ries (Enright & Ring, 2020). To date, the criminal law has proved less than effective in
holding actors or states accountable for the harms suffered by incarcerated Magdalene
women and girls. This is not for want of efforts by survivors; appeals to criminal jus-
tice have been made by survivors for years. The criminal investigation into sexual and
physical abuse at St Joseph’s Industrial School was an important part of the back-
ground to the Irish government’s issuing of the world’s first apology for historical

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