Gender Trouble in Poland

Gender Trouble in Poland

Poland’s proposed abortion ban is part of a broader attack on women by the right-wing PiS government, which has sought to banish the word “gender” itself from the country’s vocabulary. But Polish feminists and their allies are fighting back.

At the twenty-fifth anniversary gathering of the Network of East-West Women, Gdańsk, Poland, June 2016.

In the Polish parliamentary elections of October 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party won enough seats that, for the first time since the fall of communism, Poland is being governed by one party alone. The new government acted swiftly to control media, to disable democratic checks and balances represented by the Constitutional Court, and to reject any assumed loyalty to EU policies, particularly any demand that Poland has to accept refugees. The Roman Catholic Church is in overt alliance with Law and Justice and is dictating new attacks on what it has recently begun calling “gender ideology.” With even less daylight between them than is usual in Poland, both church and state are now aggressively attacking feminists, the “homosexual lobby,” and the liberal values of a threatening West. In concert with these attacks, there’s an effort to banish the very use of the term “gender” in public policy documents, a shift from sexist attitudes familiar here and everywhere to a state codification of anti-feminist positions.

Though a carefully manipulated panic about being swamped by immigrants was no doubt key to the dramatic outcome of the election, chains of related anxieties—some with deep historical resonance—were also mobilized. A tension between tradition and change ran through many public debates surrounding the election, creating space for “anti-genderism” to thrive. The church’s “STOP GENDER” campaign is unapologetically against “equality,” which it casts as a collapse or a top-down leveling of traditional gender roles. (The word “gender” is left un-translated in all these discussions as a way to mark it as an alien import, erasing the extensive work of Polish feminists from the nineteenth century onwards.)

In response to this new level of mobilization against any and all feminist ideas and values, the Network of East-West Women (NEWW), an international feminist organization, decided to hold two meetings in Poland this past June—one in Gdańsk, where the NEWW office is located, the other in Kraków—to discuss ways to fight back. The Network, now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, was founded to connect and develop support among feminists in post-communist countries and the United States. At the moment, Poland has Law and Justice; the United States has Trump. Recognizing the parallels and together crafting possible responses is one kind of internationalism that feels urgent now.

While the Polish organizers were enthusiastic about meeting, they were also critical of what they viewed as an alarmist tone and evocation of political “crisis” in a first draft of the open invitation. Several emphasized the need to analyze and celebrate all we had done in twenty-five years, rather than ignore all that effective work as if the new government could instantly cancel it out. In fact, Polish activists reported paradoxical opportunities in the new government’s open attacks: for example, the generally shocking suggestion that the current law, which permits abortion only in exceptional cases, be amended to a total ban on abortion and include punishment of both women and doctors, was bringing people out onto the streets as nothing else had in recent years.

Others argued that we would not want to suggest that the immediate past had been all that much better. Polish feminists had been frustrated by the last few governing coalitions, in which a few brave feminists had struggled, winning what victories they could without much money or even their own parties’ support. Indeed, some argued that people in general had voted massively for the ultra-conservative party because they were sick of the status quo and, seeing no alternative, were mainly registering their desire for fundamental change. (We’ve witnessed shades of this phenomena in support for both Brexit and the Trump campaign.)

More devastatingly, several of NEWW’s long-term partners in feminist work expressed a still deeper disaffection with all political parties and, more generally, with any hope that conventional politics ever responds to feminist demands or values. These activists believe strongly that feminist work will always be primarily outsiders’ work, the building of our own imaginative, transformative communities and institutions.

We argued this question of where to locate feminist politics back and forth across the Atlantic. Many of us, on both sides, saw the belligerent certainties of the Law and Justice party—its nationalism, its attacks on democratic institutions, its proud illiberalism—as far more dangerous than what the previous post-communist Polish governments had stood for. But, finally, we agreed to focus not on negative critiques of Law and Justice but on building positive alternatives. People were eager for hope and for action after the post-election loss of movement momentum.

In the end, the invitation to the two meetings brought over 150 feminist activists together from all over Poland and from eleven countries of East Central Europe. The language of our discussions was Polish with translation when necessary. A key goal for the meetings was to make room for very different conceptions of feminist work, aiming for cooperation but not for unity. The more varied our methods and locations—including both insider and outsider strategies—the greater the visibility of feminism.

In Gdańsk, we had a variety of discussions—about the weak left, about the difficulty of finding effective words and aesthetics to respond to the right’s attacks. The intensification of backlash was already undermining our work and lowering our collective expectations in both explicit and subtle ways. Ewa Graczyk, a literary scholar at the University of Gdańsk, spoke about the lingering traumas of both the Second World War and communism and the need to address common public feelings such as humiliation and anger. She remarked that backlash has been the prevailing climate in which Polish feminists have worked since 1989. Because they were largely hypocritical and unrealized, official policies of gender equality under state socialism had been hated. Now, men and women alike were returning with passion and relief to the dignity of “natural” gender roles, free from the state distortions of the painful, recent past. Polish feminists then and now have had to advance their work surrounded by a reservoir of easily accessible public sentiment about the sanctity and vulnerability of the natural and the private.

The meeting in Kraków took on this challenge to confront the past. There, we discussed our personal entry points into feminist work, lining these up with larger events in the former East Bloc and internationally. This emphasis on our rich activist past raised morale and galvanized new energy. Revisiting how much we have accomplished in the past twenty-five years led to excitement about current plans and to a sense of community—a striking outcome.

In spite of the atmosphere of brimming enthusiasm in Kraków, particularly among the young, we all recognized some recurring difficulties underlying our discussions about future organizing. First, the tone and style of righteous certainty adopted by the new conservative governments in Poland and elsewhere cannot be used by feminists, who inevitably insist on a more nuanced account of what’s going on and what action to take. Second, like us, current right-wing movements are often critical of both neoliberalism and globalism, arguments that they are mobilizing effectively, and that, at times, echo elements in our ultimately different critiques. Similarly, feminists too have a stake in critically engaging with the European project, and must question whom it includes and excludes and on what terms, but nationalist attacks on the EU have sucked much of the oxygen out of feminist and left worries about EU deficits.

After their great election success, it’s easy for the new government to call its detractors neoliberal elites disconnected from the needs of the majority. Often cynically, Law and Justice uses this advantage to preempt more liberal projects, such as the government’s new subsidy program, Family 500+ (Rodzina 500 plus). With 1.35 children per woman in 2015, Poland has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe. The Law and Justice party made boosting natality a flagship of its campaign, promising to make “family” a priority. Their Family 500+ program, which went into effect in July 2016, offers any family with a second child 500 złotys per month (about $130). A third child gets the family yet another 500 złotys and so forth for each additional child. Though there is skepticism that the government can actually afford this for long (some 2.7 million families will be eligible for this benefit), the difference it will make to many Poles is substantial. At this writing, people are trying to apply, but both a common lack of trust in the internet and bureaucratic red tape are making it hard to successfully register.

Feminists can point out all we like that this is a pronatalist policy designed to take some women out of the workforce and is a poor substitute for the kind of social safety net families actually need. But it is absolutely impossible to suggest that this money shouldn’t be spent this way. Pronatalism through social programs is not the same as coercing women to have children. As even local feminists keep saying: finally we have support for raising children like other European countries. Some think this policy alone may guarantee that Law and Justice will win the next election in four years. No one wants to give up this tangible benefit; rather, feminists will need to build on it.

In a final irony, the loudest criticism of this program has so far come from free-market liberals, who argue that people shouldn’t get “handouts,” and who are introducing a political vocabulary new in Poland by calling women lazy for generating this money and staying home to take care of the kids—echoes of the United States’ derogatory language of “welfare queens.” There is no way feminists would consider insulting women taking the 500+ in this way, so our quite distinct objections are immobilized. The program is a clever preemptive move by the new government to suggest that it is taking care of Polish women even while waging a campaign to “stop gender” (equality).

Hungarian women told analogous stories about direct and indirect attacks on feminist activism there under the right-wing government elected in 2010. Bureaucratic harassment and budget cuts are likely soon to shut down many institutions in Hungary such as domestic violence shelters. Polish participants offered similar anecdotes about withdrawal of state support for feminist projects and gender studies programs. In Poland, teachers have been fired for discussing “gender equality” with children, rather than acquiescing in an unspoken understanding that the difference between the sexes is obvious and unchanging, not subject to questioning.

Though each country’s story was different, the family resemblances were alarming. One problem shared across contexts is the instrumental use of women to symbolically represent political positions, rather than to treat them as a constituency capable of becoming enraged and of wielding political power. Once again there is an asymmetry between conservative certainty and feminist complexity, in that “women” themselves disagree about standing as a voting block or adopting this particular political identity, though they continue to be over-determined by it. In this symbolically rigid gender map, any malleability of gender represented by LGBTQ movements is also rendered invisible.

In 1993, in what became known as “the compromise,” abortion rights were traded away in the first law passed by Poland’s new governing democratic coalition, with the participation of the activists of Solidarity, as a way of rewarding the Catholic Church for supporting resistance to communism. All sides seemed to assume that women are pawns in a game not of their own making. They are the crank that winds up a moralistic politics. Women’s actual suffering was outside of political imagination. This time, we learned, the proposed total ban on abortion in Poland, which alarmed observers all over the world, had similarly instrumental aspects; both the government and the church colluded in using abortion as a bargaining chip to further other political agendas.

Out of these two meetings, we reached some general conclusions. Above all, we pledged to help each other internationally at a time when nationalist movements are trying to cut ties between nations. Conservative movements are already cooperating with each other globally, and feminists, too, will have to jump back and forth from the local to the global in order to respond to these powerful, international, conservative networks. In addition, most of us see an urgent need to build a range of left and liberal alternatives on both sides of the Atlantic in order to create choices that are now weak in the United States and almost entirely absent in East-Central Europe. In the East, this will include explicitly talking about class again, something that has been taboo since the fall of communism and that has, as a result, disabled activism against rising poverty and the structural injustices of the current economy. Finally, we agreed to challenge the right’s efforts to monopolize all discussion and images of families and their needs. Feminists, too, have traditions of nurturance and community, and it is feminists who have developed an ethics of care that supports, rather than undermines, an open range of family forms.

The following strategies reflect the variety of feminist organizing sensibilities and tactics discussed during our two meetings. We’ve made a rough grouping that reflects common differences in organizing styles in Polish feminist political culture: first, efforts to raise consciousness about feminist ideas and desires; and second, plans for political organizing in relation to the state with an eye to the next election in 2019.

Raising consciousness

Getting media coverage of feminist issues and activism is a growing problem as the government is moving swiftly, constantly adding new controls. At the time of writing, 163 journalists have been fired or have left their positions, protesting new curbs on their speech and new management hires by Law and Justice. Nonetheless, we agreed that even hostile coverage is better than silence; attacks initiate a conversation. In addition, the women’s movement in Poland has a strong history of generating its own independent media, creating leaflets, newspapers, and popular feminist books. Poster campaigns (legal but expensive) and stencil campaigns (illegal) are already well-known moves to blanket public space with evidence of disagreement in order to contradict the government’s claim on state-controlled TV that all is well.

The state of Polish education is abysmal and repression of teachers endemic, partly due to privatization and the collapse of state educational structures. One practical suggestion was to introduce feminist anti-violence work in schools, and to fund such projects through local government budgets for civic initiatives—structures which still function in Polish towns and cities. Another was to initiate lawsuits to challenge harassment and the illegal firing of teachers.

One subject that came up frequently was whether feminism—through education or media discussion—could intervene on the subject of ethics, which is so central to Polish public discourse. One participant asked: what can feminists say to practicing Catholic women? Duty and sacrifice signal women’s virtues in Poland, but can solidarity with immigrants and belief in equality and justice be added to the canonical female virtues? The language of women’s morality, virtue, dignity, and duty is anathema to many feminists for good reason, but some participants saw room for feminist reinvention of these unstable terms, which, in Poland, are deeply evocative.

We also brainstormed about consciousness-raising actions:

Poland has a brilliant theater tradition. Under communist rule, an important theater of protest evaded the censors through all kinds of subtle coding. Censorship is taking different forms now, as are the prevailing images of threats to society, but theater still has its potential here to be a key location for public political expression. Could a theater group or groups perform feminist plays on streets all over Poland (like Vermont’s Bread and Puppet theater)? We also imagined public skits in which local groups could create a new image for feminism, for example by setting up a big table with free food in public squares. The sign would read: “Feminists are accused of not caring about families and children, but really, it’s feminists who care far beyond anything the government is offering. Please eat until you’re full.”

Polish feminists are famous for comic, rogue demonstrations. People remembered publicly eating the flowers given to them on Mother’s Day and sending used tampons to anti-abortion members of parliament and tweeting menstrual updates at them. One group gave out kitchen utensils to men on the street, urging them to use them.

We tried to find venues for conveying our alarm about the implications of the proposed total abortion ban, particularly to young people. One priority is to build intergenerational dialogue among feminists: for example a Generational Jamboree is planned for 2017. Ideas for celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Polish women getting the vote are also underway for 2018. The government is planning demonstrations in support of women’s “dignity” (in other words, as mothers) and feminist organizers plan to define dignity in quite different ways—as equality and the struggle for freedom and self-determination.

Government and law

Those interested in more conventional political action urged that feminists run for parliament and learn how to lobby, a new skill in post-communist countries.

On an international front, Law and Justice refuses to honor the treaties past governments have signed and must be forced by international pressure to comply. By law, these conventions require state action and funding for implementation, and the new government must be called on its non-compliance.

Finally, we need to build solidarity, both locally and internationally, with other marginalized and economically disadvantaged communities, including the unemployed, refugees, and immigrant groups. (In Gdańsk, we issued a statement of support for a coalition of care workers on strike.)

Above all, in the arena of government and law, participants saw building coalitions as key. A recent ad hoc citizens’ mobilization called KOD (Komitet Obrony Demokracji, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy), whose name echoes an earlier democratic movement, KOR (Komitet Obrony Robotników, the Worker’s Defense Committee, a forerunner of Solidarity), is currently very successful at bringing thousands into the streets across Poland to demand the restoration of democracy.

The large numbers responding to KOD’s call for demonstrations attest to its broad appeal to many different kinds of Polish citizens. To maintain this popular surge, KOD claims that it is “not political” and has no position on any controversial issues, perhaps drawing on a tradition of communist times, when staying outside the available political culture was seen as a strength and a virtue. For example, to keep everyone on board, KOD refused to let protestors fly a rainbow flag at a demonstration, explaining that it works under no flag and supports no specific group. A big public outcry forced KOD to change its position on that one, but in general it is drawing its strength from a return to “anti-politics,” which leaves key issues outside the realm of political discussion.

At this point, feminists, LGBTQ activists, anti-racists, trade unionists, and all equality advocates can’t afford this kind of bland neutrality and the resulting invisibility. Those being damaged by the new government need to state their case, fly their flags, and insist to KOD that real democracy includes antagonistic relationships and controversial choices about policy. We shouldn’t sideline specific demands for justice in the name of an abstract democracy.

KOD is not alone in leaving out gender when criticizing the growing strength of conservative movements through the region and beyond. As CUNY political scientist Janet Elise Johnson insists, it is important to recognize that the sexism, misogyny, and homophobia of self-named “anti-gender” movements are the new tools of illiberalism in many parts of the world.

The only way to defeat Law and Justice at the polls will be with a strong coalition of opposition parties. It has been suggested that KOD might offer a platform on which to build such a group, but opposition parties are distributed over a wide range of different political positions and cultures. The recent exploration in many countries of city-focused work is very promising and is becoming a new strategy for bypassing conservative or deadlocked parties.

The large Kongres Kobiet (Congress of Women), a yearly gathering of thousands initiated in 2009 by powerful women in corporations and government, offers potential for coalition building. Though feminists in Poland have deep disagreements about the founding politics and initiatives of this group, it is an unusual and highly visible expression of inclusion and of reaching out to many different kinds of women. Its very existence is probably the reason why several feminists have gained posts in recent governments. Barbara Labuda, a well-known feminist parliamentarian particularly prominent in the 1990s, told a small group of us that, this year, Kongres Kobiet was unusual because the usual disagreements were somewhat overcome by a sense of “shared endangerment.” Others praised what they thought was the Kongres’s continuing lack of unity as a strength, and see it as an important place to debate feminist ideas—a ground constantly changing and expanding.

Also in the realm of legal action, the list of gender initiatives of the Polish Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights is exemplary, but now the new government has slashed its budget and it is doubtful that any of its programs will be pursued.

In what may prove a more promising initiative to push the government in Poland, citizen-sponsored petitions that receive 100,000 signatures or more must be considered in parliament. Two rival petitions about abortion were circulating nationally at the time of our meetings. The anti-abortion petitioners succeeded in getting 450,000 names, using the signature-gathering infrastructure provided by the church. The feminist counter-petition, which demands safe and legal abortion, full healthcare for pregnant women, easy access to contraception, and sex education in schools, succeeded in collecting 215,000 signatures by the deadline, an amazing number considering that organizers had no budget, no institutional support, and, in the current media climate, little access to publicity. This means that by law the Polish parliament has three months to have a debate on abortion once more.

When the Polish state and the church are offering sustenance and the comforts of tradition, what can feminists offer? Sturdy traditions of Polish women’s independence, their energy to sustain their communities, and their determination, in the face of repression, to craft their own destiny. Women all over the world face their own versions of this conflict between the richness of tradition and the uncertainties of an unknown future, of potential new freedoms and threats, and, in the midst of change, of the possibility to invent new desires.

A full report of the two meetings, including a list of thirty-four Polish and East Central European feminist organizations represented there, can be found at

Katheryn Detwiler is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. She was the director of the Network of East-West Women’s Book and Journal Project from 2009 to 2014.

Ann Snitow, a co-founder of the Network of East-West Women, is a professor of Literature and was the Director of Gender Studies from 2006 to 2012 at The New School. Her most recent book is The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary (Duke University Press, 2015).

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