International Women’s Day is a day to reflect, on the courage and sacrifices made by women of the past to insure the equal rights for half the world’s population. But it also serves as a reminder that the struggle for equality is not over. Mari Steed’s story is a now a depressingly familiar one, but her actions have made sure that the injustices and mistakes of the past are never repeated again.
Mari was sent to America as a small child. Her mother, Josephine Bassett, had given birth to her in the Cork Magdalene Laundry. Josephine had been born out of wedlock herself and was raised in an industrial school. She was able to leave in 1957, after finding work with the church in a Dublin hospital.
Having been raised completely by nuns, Josephine had little knowledge of the world outside the convent and had no sexual education. She fell pregnant two years after leaving the school and was sent back to a mother and baby home in Cork, where she gave birth to Mari.
Thousands of Irish girls were admitted to the Magdalene Laundries in the twentieth century. Most were unwed mothers, but many girls were placed there because they were either outspoken, considered potentially subversive because of their good looks, were mentally disabled or had fallen pregnant through rape.
These girls were forced to do heavy labour for no pay. They could only leave the laundries if a member of their family came to claim responsibility for them. Often, the perceived shame of having a relative who had been in the laundry deterred families from reclaiming these girls. The last laundry closed its doors 21 years ago in 1996.
Mari was adopted by an American couple in Philadelphia. During the first half of the twentieth century it was common practice amongst both Catholics and Protestants to send illegitimate children to foreign homes, regardless of the mother’s wishes.
Mari Steed in her Philadelphia home. Photo by Gene Smirnov
Mari Steed pictured with her Mother Josephine
This was justified on the grounds that Irish single mothers were incapable of caring for their children outside of an institutional context and because Irish families were in general reluctant to adopt illegitimate children.
Mari became pregnant herself when aged 16. Her adopted parents admitted her to a home for unwed mothers. Her child was given up for adoption. Mari searched for both her mother and daughter when she was older, eventually managing to reunite with them both.
Mari Steed told the Irish Voice in 2013 that her mother’s story is a ‘testament to the shadow side of Ireland and the deceitful tale it told itself of a kindly and compassionate social order.’
Mari is a high profile advocate of adoption activism, co-founding Justice for Magdalenes in 2003, providing testimony to the US ratification of the Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption and working with rights campaigners Adoption Rights Alliance, Bastard Nation and Adopted Citizens of Eire.
She campaigned for the Irish government to take responsibility for women forced to work in the laundries. Enda Kenny made an official apology on behalf of the Irish government in February 2013.