Introduction to the Poland Site
of the Global Feminisms Project
Abigail J. Stewart
Slawka Walczewska, a professor of sociology and activist and founder of the Center for Women eFka in Cracow, was GFP’s partner in Poland. She introduces the archive by saying:
“The ten interviews gathered here feature diverse Polish feminists, who are neither the most famous nor the most recognized among Polish feminists; you will encounter a few well-known names, too. Our selection criteria was based on diversity, so that we have included activists and politicians, academics and students, women from smaller and larger feminist and academic centers. Interviewees are between twenty and sixty years of age, and all the recorded interviews are rather personal. Our process: Each interview was preceded by a lengthy private conversation and most of the questions asked were open-ended, which gave the interviewees an opportunity to talk about themselves.”
This timeline has been prepared by Annie Wang for the Global Feminisms Project at the University of Michigan during the 2019-2020 academic year.
Overview of The Poland Site
Political movements for women’s rights in Poland began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, while the country was partitioned and under occupation by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Unlike their western counterparts, who began articulating demands for equality and suffrage rights without the yoke of foreign regimes, Polish women focused on education and reservation of their language and culture, hoping to get their rights along with their country’s independence. It did not happen.
The earliest noted women’s organization was founded in 1830 (Towarzystwo Dobroczynnosci Patriotycznej Kobiet), and while it advocated for women’s education, it focused on charity and patriotic duties, thus affirming women’s “special roles” as wives and mothers and their dependence on men. The first widely known feminist who questioned patriarchal rule was Narcyza Zmichowska, known under her pen name Gabryella, who wrote fiction and poetry, and cultivated a group of supporters of women’s suffrage and national independence known as “Enthusiasts” (Entuzjastki). Well-known writers, Eliza Oreszkowa and Maria Konopnicka, voiced their support for women’s full emancipation and political agency in fiction and political pamphlets. Since 1884 Konopnicka edited the first journal devoted to women entitled Dawn (Swit) that was published in Cracow, while the journalist Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmidt founded another feminist organization, “Union” (Unia), and in 1895 began publishing a women’s magazine, Rudder (Ster) – in the city of Lwow. The movement spread all over the occupied country and included Kazimiera Bujwidowa, Maria Turzyma, Stanislawa Wechselerowa. An underground organization produced the first, joint Poland-Lithuania women’s congress in Warsaw in 1891, with about 200 delegates in attendance.Read More…
In the early 20th century, organizations such as Ligue for Women’s Equal Rights (founded in 1905) (Stowarzyszenie Rownouprawnienia Kobiet) and Association for Women’s Equal Rights (Zwiazek Rownouprawnienia Kobiet) helped organize a women’s congress in 1907, and carried educational activities for women inhabiting less advanced, rural regions. Among activists, Iza Moszczenska, and a young writer, Zofia Nalkowska, stood out. Nalkowska’s novels and journalism called for women to not only be educated and fully independent from men, but also to become fully engaged as political agents.
World War I brought renewed pleas for women’s participation in social life. Against the reservations of the newly independent nation’s “fathers.” Aided by Aleksandra Pilsudska, who was the wife of one of those fathers, Jozef Pilsudski, Polish women won the right to vote in 1918.
Women’s rights, not to mention equality as citizens, were not widely recognized during the two decades between the world wars, despite the fact that there were several dozen women’s organizations. The female populace suffered contradictory pressures from three major fronts: first, from the Catholic Church with its Virgin Mary-and-“natural virtues” heteropatriarchal campaigns; second, from anti-Semitic nationalists who embraced eugenics and racial segregation, and who often pitched women in similar economic circumstances against one another; third, rom socialist organizations and their radical ideas on gender and sexual roles, even their progressive demands that women remake themselves through proletarian class struggle. Still the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) organized a women’s congress in 1918, and in 1924 opened a separate “women’s section” within the organization that targeted female laborers’ “double oppression” in terms of class and gender, and that inaugurated the annual International Women’s Day in the same year. There was a boom in women’s publications, including writers and intellectuals like Maria Dabrowska and Maria Kuncewiczowa; Women’s Voice (Glos Kobiet) was the magazine issued by socialist organizations. Among feminist activists, Irena Krzywicka, who espoused open marriages and pragmatic approaches to procreation, contraception, and motherhood, and Kazimiera Bujwidowa, who fought for women’s access to higher education, joined the writer Zofia Nalkowska in demanding gender, class, and sexual equality, as well as participation in governance.
Following World War II and the Soviet takeover in the region – Poland became a part of the Soviet Bloc as decided at the Yalta Conference – women’s rights were guaranteed by the socialist state. In fact, Polish women gained access to wage labor, birth control, universal health care, and free access to abortion sooner than those residing in some western nations (e.g., France, USA). That historical period has often been seen as stagnant in terms of women’s activism, for public life was highly regulated by the omnipresent Polish United Workers’ Party and its undercover informants and enforcers. The party allowed a standard-bearer for “socialist feminism” through its Women’s League organization, but maintained strict quotas for women’s party membership, and made a travesty of the annual celebrations of International Women’s Day. The governing party controlled all facets of social life and pushed the top-down, Soviet-style iconography and mythos of socialist workers’ proletarian gender equality and their peasant-and-laborer roots. In private, women, whose vast majority worked outside of the home, had to shoulder the “double burden” of full-time employment, child rearing, and housekeeping, as the traditional gendered division of labor persisted in most families. Many had to resort to abortion as the only widely accessible and free means of birth control, given scarcity of reliable, though legal, contraception, and weak sex education in schools, especially in smaller towns and villages. With the Party and its secularism in public life on the one hand, and the Catholic church and its pressures in domestic life on the other, women also faced rampant alcoholism and family violence regardless of class. Still, many took advantage of the free higher education and sought diverse jobs, including those that the West saw as dominated by men – in medicine, engineering, and natural and social sciences. Though harsh and turbulent, the period of socialism contributed to the development of a uniquely qualified and highly educated female population in the heart of Europe.
Women played an often-overlooked role in the formation of the labor union Solidarity in the 1980s; the firing of Anna Walentynovicz catalyzed the extended strike at the Gdansk shipyard, and nearly a decade of agitation by workers and repression by the government. During this period, many activists operated underground, including most women. As a result, it has taken many years for their contributions to be understood. Following the fall of communism in June 1989, women were nearly entirely excluded from the government, but many women-centered NGOs came to prominence, including those protecting sexual minorities like Campaign Against Homophobia (Kampania preciw homofobii). The early 2000s saw women’s movements and political organizations growing, especially after Poland’s accession into the European Union in 2004, and the creation of the Women’s Party in 2007 under the leadership of Manuela Gretkowska. Some of the NGOs became professionalized, some were funded by the European Union (Poland joined in 2004), while some of their organizers entered political life like, for example, Robert Biedron, an advocate for LGBTQ+ communities who became Mayor of the city of Slupsk or Wanda Nowicka, who founded and led the Federation for Women and Family Planning and who was the Deputy Marshall in the Polish Seym (parliament) for several years. Some of the most prominent feminist debates in the early 2000s distanced Polish women’s reality from the socialist slogans of gender role equality, as if nothing that came from that historical period was worth retaining. The concomitant desire to become accepted by the West, and to emulate its feminist discourses, not to mention transplanting it lock-stock-and-barrel to the home ground, often led to paradoxical statements, as exemplified by the feminist scholar and Professor at Warsaw University, Maria Janion, who elucidated the paradox of 21-century Poland thus: “We are a postcolonial nation, which at the same time – and it happens often – feels it is superior to its former colonizer, Russia.…Yet, being a postcolonial country, we are not real Europeans either because – as Slavs – we’re of secondary importance and reflect our having been marked as russo-slavic mutts.” Missing from that statement are Jewish or Roma women, not to mention other minorities, whose lives were often very different, and who, in some cases, like the writers Agnieszka Graff or Agata Tuszynska, discovered their Jewishness only in adulthood, once their parents felt safe revealing it to them post-1989.
Overview of The Interviews
Anna Lipowska-Teutsch, known as Hanka, is a psychologist and a feminist based in Krakow. She is the founder of the first in Poland center for victims of violence. As is obvious in her interview, she has never much cared for social conventions. Yet she has been lucky enough to find support networks of people like her, who didn’t lead conventional lives. She began to call herself a feminist rather late in life, and it began with the center she founded, where all of the victims were women and children—victimized by their husbands and fathers.
Agnieszka Graff, a Professor in American Studies at Warsaw University, is one of the few feminists whose voice has made it into mainstream media. For the tenth anniversary of Solidarity’s victory, Agnieszka published an article in Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest Polish newspaper, reminding readers that women played key roles in the rise of Solidarity, but who later were excluded from powerful positions within the newly formed, male-dominated post-communist government. While already discussed in feminist circles, that topic was finally noticed by a large audience, and Agnieszka’s article sparked a two-month long debate in the pages of Wyborcza.
Inga Iwasiow is a professor of literature at Szczecin University, a small academic center on the Baltic Coast, who has incorporated gender perspectives into her pedagogy, creative writing, and literary criticism. She also plays a less formal, but nevertheless important role on behalf of her female students’ rights in academe. As a result, she has often entered into conflict with her male colleagues.
Barbara Labuda was one of the best-known activists in the anti-communist opposition movement before 1989. She was also one of the most active government representatives arguing against the repressive abortion law instituted soon after the fall of communism in Poland. At the time of our interview, Barbara Labuda was Poland’s ambassador to Luxembourg. She first encountered feminism while a student in France during the 1968 student revolts.
Bozena Uminska expresses her liberal views as an intellectual and publicist. She is a passionate and humorous writer whose articles identify and stamp out all forms of individual repression, and especially anti-Semitism and misanthropy.
Barbara Limanowska co-founded the Polish Feminist Association and has been active in a variety of international feminist projects, e.g. in Thailand and Croatia.
Joanna Regulska immigrated to the United States from Poland and was director of the Women’s StudiesWomen’s Studies Center at Rutgers University.
Malgorzata Tarasiewicz was active in the anti- communist opposition movement. She now lives in Gdansk and directs the Network of East West Women, which includes several countries.
Anna Gruszczynska is the youngest of our interviewees. She was graduating from college when we interviewed her. She is an activist in the gay and lesbian movement in Poland. Thanks to her determination and organizational skills, the march for tolerance took place in Krakow in 2004. It was the first public and on such a large scale march of this kind in Poland.
Anna Titkow is a well-known Polish sociologist. In her interview, she spoke about a very difficult and rarely discussed, in her opinion, topic in feminist thought: relations between mothers and daughters and between women of different generations.
Procedures for Producing Final Interview Videos and Transcripts
All of the interviews are presented in transcript and video form complete and unedited.