Women’s Anniversaries: Snapshots of Polish Feminism since 1989

Women’s Anniversaries: Snapshots of Polish Feminism since 1989

On June 4, 2009, Poland celebrated the twenty-year mark since the first (partially) free elections in the Soviet bloc, the result of the roundtables where communist and Solidarity leaders negotiated what we now recognize as the beginning of the end of communism in all of East Central Europe. (Some recall this moment as a politically brilliant breakthrough to freedom, others as an unholy coalition between bankrupt socialist managers and neo-liberals.) Though my focus here is Polish women’s organizing in these twenty years, for everyone the scale of social and economic reorganization is barely imaginable. Older people, often too busy recasting their lives to reflect on what such massive change means to them, have a fleeting sense of wonder. Those now in college were born in 1989; for them, life under communism is something their parents remember and can barely communicate, drowned out, as past experience is, in the cascade of new opportunities, new things to buy, new calls to urgent self-invention.

An often-stated wish during the Polish transformation is, simply, to be “normal.” This key word has power; “normal” means parliamentary democracy and a return to Europe; it means free: travel, markets, religion, and speech—all swirled together and, at least at the outset, undifferentiated. Openly, and without many public statements of regret, “normal” also means a return to the idea of the public sphere that prevailed before 1945, a world that assumed male dominance as the natural state of things, a half-remembered, half-mythic life, which, it is felt, communism distorted.

Given the complex new mixture of memories and desires, where does the variable “gender” fall in the fast-developing structures and relationships? Is “being a woman” a political identity anyone in Poland wants? What new femininities and masculinities are in formation, and where do they come from? And, finally, is there a publicly audible feminist discourse that seeks to influence the direction of profound and far-reaching change—and toward what end?

The twentieth-anniversary celebrations were the occasion of many screenings of the famous events of ’89. In grainy black-and-white film clips, one could watch Lech Walesa strut and workers throng in a glorious performance of newly freed masculinity. Violence they wisely rejected as a strategy doomed to failure, but the return of (western-style) maleness after a season of terrible repression provides most of the central images: In a famous election campaign poster, Gary Cooper in High Noon draws his Solidarity ballot instead of his gun. A few women stand out as heroines, but the sign on the factory gate tells women supporters to go home; the men are busy, fighting for Poland. And when it comes to sitting down with the government, women—so active in the underground and in the strikes that led to the explosion—are simply gone, along with questions about how to protect people from the trauma of creating a market economy overnight.

What may be hard for outsiders to understand is how unthinkable it would have been at the time to complain about this trade union and dissident machismo. Equality of men and women was, if not realized, at least a well-established idea under communism, but a self-conscious feminist sensibility was largely absent. Far more important was the shared thrill of new possibilities for action after long passivity. Here was the return of hope, seasoned with the long-suppressed zing of national pride and colored by the solemn and beautiful rituals of approving priests. These heroic emotions about freedom were coded male as a matter of course, but everybody felt them. The brief moment of unity was (nearly) universally intoxicating, while concrete ideas about the future were conveniently absent. Those were what Aristide Zolberg calls “days of madness,” (he was describing 1968); to quibble about the aggressive return of male pride would have felt vulgar, divisive, a betrayal of a genuinely shared ecstasy.

So imagine many women’s shock to learn that the first initiative of the first postcommunist government was to thank the Catholic church for its long support for anticommunism by the writing of a new law—at the very moment of liberation, women were to lose their long-standing right to abortion. For many, this confirmed an old skepticism about politicians, reinforcing the common belief that politics is a dirty business and women should stay outside and get what they need underground. (About 150 women are able to persuade the state and hospitals to give them legal abortions each year, but activist Wanda Nowicka estimates that currently there are anywhere between 180,000 and 300,000 illegal abortions annually in Poland.) In this “a-ha” moment, it was obvious that the glowing term “democracy” did not automatically translate into women’s freedom or their participation in the new order. Instead, as any historian of democracy can confirm, the exclusion of women—and by extension, of women’s rights in the private sphere of sex, birth, and bodies—is business as usual.

The outrage many women felt (big demonstrations and a massive, successful petition drive calling for a referendum, illegally quashed by the government) soon disappeared from public view once the new law took effect in 1993. Later, when in reaction to precipitous structural readjustment schemes, the postcommunists were elected, their campaign promise to rescind the law was dropped. The Catholic church was too powerful in Poland for fledgling women’s groups to prevail. To the new men in government—of whatever party— the proliferating, grassroots movements of women at every level of Polish society were simply not recognizable as a meaningful constituency. Demands for women’s rights could be traded off to satisfy powerful groups like the nationalist right wing and the church.


A less visible but perhaps more important source of women’s collective weakness lay in the dynamics of the new economy. In the process of redefining public and private, new class divisions emerged among women, fracturing their interests in new ways. Some were thriving, while others had few defenses as the old order collapsed. For example, private doctors began to make pots of money from women who could afford to pay for illegal abortions. At the same time, formerly public hospitals, now in various stages of privatization, were happy to offload this illegal service, leaving poorer women with no place to go in a reorganized economy where services in general are taking a major hit.

Abortion can be a figure for what was happening more generally. Totalitarianism is gone, but some of the new life conditions are harsh in new ways. Suddenly, it is each one for herself. “Success” is becoming an individual quest (often opposed to the negatively toned “nostalgia” for lost support systems under communism). Struggling in the new competitive atmosphere has called for new personalities, now in rapid construction. (It’s “New Socialist Man” in reverse.)

A bit later in this strange story of the loss of abortion rights on the very heels of proud new achievements of freedom and autonomy, an unholy deal was struck: the church would support Poland’s entry into the European Union, quieting conservative nationalist fears, if Poland would stipulate its right to maintain its own “cultural” preference for the criminalization of abortion. And so it was: Poland joined the EU in May 2004, while maintaining its anti-abortion law, raising general questions about just how EU directives about gender equality will play out in the new member states in the East.

In some respects, the loss of abortion rights signals a deficit in democracy, since a majority of Poles think women should have at least some measure of control over their fertility. But, as a by-product, the loss also created one of the first theaters of public debate in the new democracy—closely followed by discussions about the existence and rights of gays and lesbians and about free speech for transgressive artists. From the beginning, feminist groups have put on brilliant, colorful performances in public squares to make known their resistance to the new “normal.” There they confront skinheads doing aerobic jumping (“Jump if you are not gay!”). Behind these brilliant street dramas about sexuality and style lies a basic anxiety both men and women share: What should be the values of postcommunist life?

There are questions of emotions and aesthetics here that will require long-term political attention by any movement that seeks change. When the underground newspaper of Solidarity became legal in 1989 and was reborn as Gazeta Wyborcza, the paper of record in Poland, a group of female editors sat around a kitchen table working on the new paper, shaping it. A doctor had requested space for an ad offering his abortion services, a procedure that had been allowed since 1956 and, in 1989, was still completely legal, cheap, and routine. These women, intellectuals and well-known Solidarity dissidents, talked it over and decided that, no, this wasn’t the kind of thing they wanted in their newspaper—this treasured voice of a new Poland.

I wish I could have been a silent witness at that moment. What could these women, freedom fighters all, have been thinking? Was abortion perhaps an ugly and sometimes painful experience, which, under communism, women had all too often, either for lack of contraceptives or because of overwork? Or was abortion something the church denounces as murder and, whether one is a believer or not, the taint of that word stained this basic human right for those passionately involved in an antiviolent movement? Or was abortion as a commercial enterprise disturbing, even though Gazeta and its founding editor, Adam Michnik, generally welcomed capitalism and free markets?

Whatever it was they thought, getting abortion back will involve extended public discussion, a shift in values. Are markets to be free while socially and sexually free women are a step too far? Are women autonomous beings with rights separate from their symbolic function as nurturers of family and state?

For divergent reasons, people are deeply ambivalent about this new possibility for women’s—and everyone’s—autonomy. It’s frightening to think that the new freedom is simply every man and woman for him- or herself. Is the new goal, tout court, money? New energies and passions are loose, and now people can strive—but for what? A popular ad on television shows a woman straining to give birth, but what comes out is a new vacuum cleaner. The message is clear to Polish viewers: the new consumer culture is killing the family and the nation. People across a wide spectrum of political opinion worry that life is becoming a soulless quest for things. (A clever bunch of anarchists went into a Tesco megastore and wheeled the huge shopping carts around for hours, blocking the aisles without buying anything.) One can now acquire wonderful and long-needed conveniences, but the glitzy new shopping malls are also choked with things that are tawdry, shoddy, unexpectedly disappointing. The seeming ease of all this shopping tends to obscure both the invisible hard work of consumption and the new feelings of deprivation felt by those without money to buy much of the ruck on offer. In this new market place, women are trying to manage, navigating the new economy, day by day.

Poland is hardly the first place where women have been asked to mitigate the shock of change. Indeed, women’s triple labor holds postcommunist economies together in ways that are all too familiar. But some women are performing their work of daily maintenance under increasingly dire circumstances. Polish feminist theory has only just begun to take on the differences among women, only just begun to recognize the importance of where different women are placed in the steep class system the neoliberal economy has created almost overnight.


But like everything else in the new Poland, feminism is moving fast. The nascent feminism of the 1980s was the work of elites, often people with some kind of contact with Western movements. The first political project was to build community and a shared feminist sensibility, a culture in which outsiders could thrive, using the new freedoms to make a separate space for themselves. These early feminists shared with their antagonists an understandable allergy to politics. In the book of experience, they read that the state was tainted; making demands on the state was unproductive and possibly dangerous. These first activists were refugees from both the old order and the new.

But the issue of abortion broke in on all of that. The word “feminist”—however mysterious or reviled—entered popular discourse, and feminism in Poland began the rapid mitosis that signals its health and vitality. Ideas multiplied about what political terrain feminism should include and were further expanded, some would say derailed, by Poland’s drive to enter the European Union, with its liberal, universalizing rhetoric of “equality” and “gender mainstreaming.” Contested and constantly being redefined, feminism is now national.

Last year’s nurses’ strike was a watershed moment for the growing movement. It brought together workers and feminist supporters in a combination reminiscent of the coalitions briefly possible in the Solidarity years. For a moment, this looked like the old, winning combination, but, in spite of public disclosures of the nurses’ shockingly low wages, the strike failed. The nurses and their supporters lacked leverage under restrictive union laws, and the new privatization of hospital services made it hard to locate and confront the enemy. Everyone agrees that workers’ wages are too low and privatized pension plans wholly inadequate, but at the moment, neither trade unionism nor feminist organizing is strong enough to win social protections in the Wild West of the growing capitalist economy.

Out of this kind of failure, a left language about redistribution and economic justice is emerging, particularly among some younger feminists, both female and male. Only a decade ago, a media star of the new feminist movement told me that if she had known I was of the Left she wouldn’t have dreamed of taking my course about feminism in Warsaw. Now she would never say such a thing. However alienated from left constructions some Polish feminists still are, a subtle shift has taken place. The variable of class can now be taken seriously again, thickening the analysis of gender inequality by exploring critical questions, which, until recently, were often dismissed as the dirty residue of communist thought.

How these changing sensibilities and cross-class alliances will evolve among Polish feminists I won’t venture to predict, but both the fragmentation and the growth of feminism have just been on show at an extraordinary event which took place June 20-21, the Congress of Women (Kongres Kobiet). I arrived in Poland shortly afterward, and the continuing buzz was intense, both among feminists and in the press. I interviewed fifteen activists about how it happened that over 3,000 women converged for two days of plenaries and panels about “the Polish Woman” in the largest meeting place in Warsaw, the Palace of Culture.

My interlocutors differed fundamentally about the meaning and political value of this first mass women’s event since the abortion protests of the early 1990s, though all agreed that no such gathering could have taken place ten years ago, when the category “women” was still coded as communist rhetoric. This meeting was funded by the government. Something new, this—for some a sign of success, for others an instant cause for skepticism, since successive governments have ranged from neoliberal to fanatically right-wing. My interviews were layered with more local detail than I can report here, but perhaps I can generalize about some of the central themes in dispute, as people positioned themselves as insiders, outsiders, converts, skeptics, harsh or mild critics of this highly visible event.

The Congress, hastily put together from the top in only a few months, was to be another of the twentieth-anniversary celebrations, but the first to pay any attention to women’s enormous contributions to the Solidarity victories of 1989. Henryka Krzywonos, the driver who stopped her tram to keep workers from leaving the strike, was given an award. Famous women spoke passionately: beloved actresses and media stars, including serious and influential feminist writers such as Agnieszka Graff and Kazia Szczuka. Hillary Clinton sent a video message. The Congress also coincided with the tenth anniversary of Manifa, the annual March 8 demonstrations for International Women’s Day, converted by radical feminists to their own festival of resistance. Many Manifa women were present, but this anniversary, a decade of radical action, went unremarked.

The prime movers behind the Congress seem to have been Jolanta Fedak, the minister of labor and social policy, who spent over $150,000 of government money on the Congress; Yolanta Kwasniawska, the wife of a former postcommunist president, who may wish to become president herself; Henryka Bochniarz, an immensely wealthy officer of Citibank in Poland and leader of the Polish Employers Association, Leviathan, also perhaps an aspirant to the presidency; and, finally, Magda Sroda, a former head of the (often dissolved) Government Plenipotentiary for the Equal Status of Women and Men. The keynote speaker was Maria Janion, now in her eighties, a hero of feminist theorists for her original work and famous monthly seminar.

Few long-established feminist organizers from outside Warsaw were included in the planning of the Congress, a source of much bitterness. Some had boycotted what they disapproved of; some were simply not informed or asked to help and therefore failed to connect with an event that seemed not to be intended for them. Their angry criticisms have been labeled sour grapes, but this is an evasion of the important questions these outsiders have raised about just who the Congress was for and what it was really about.

Of the high-profile players who put the Congress together, Sroda is a particularly interesting case: politician to the bone, she is a passionate feminist who keeps skillfully repositioning herself, responding to the political winds. A few years ago, she got herself fired as director of the Plenipotentiary when, on a trip to Sweden, she let slip her opinion that the church was partly responsible for violence against women because it fosters the view that women are dependent, passive, and inferior. She is all for women as active members of the economy, remarking that she is tired of the constant insults heaped on those communist images of women on tractors: “What’s wrong with women on tractors?”

In a dispute about whether small-business owners should have to pay maternity benefits, however, Sroda took the side of business, arguing that women entrepreneurs are clustered in the small-business sector and will be driven bankrupt if they have to pay for pregnancy and maternal leave. This position was met by a howl of feminist opposition. Sroda backed off on the issue at once but, in a letter of self-defense, she argued that, in Poland, motherhood is always sacred, always put first, while the other things women might want to do are undervalued. This was a surprising turn, a daringly open critique of the culture’s repositioning of women post-1989 as primarily mothers. But the political ground is shifting under Sroda’s feet; Poland’s current cultural imagery may romanticize mother and family; but the social security systems that once supported them are being stripped away.

What Sroda wants, above all, is to win something for women. Where, she is constantly asking, can we win? Obviously not on abortion, a still bitterly contested topic that was rarely mentioned during the two-day meeting. Obviously not on some hard-to-define “feminism,” a political identity that was rejected by a show of hands early in the proceedings. Obviously not on the rights of lesbians. A well-known, if marginal, radical, Anka Zet, seized the microphone and called for lesbian recognition, much to the consternation of the well-heeled organizers on stage. The only males openly permitted in the hall, the security guards, hurried the interloper out. (But, one more turn: Zet was allowed back in later, and some of the organizers, including Sroda, apologized, saying they had not intended to manhandle her and that there was a place for lesbians on the panel called “Minorities.”)


So, what do Sroda and the other women who organized the Congress think they can do? Where can feminism and political opportunity meet? The issue that they have chosen is parity, the establishment by law of 50/50 quotas for men and women on all electoral party lists in a zipper pattern, which alternates male and female names. (Women currently make up 19 percent of the Polish Parliament, already an excellent number by U.S. standards, though at times it has dipped much lower.) Quotas have had interesting success internationally; now more than forty countries have them. Political scientist Mala Htun, has argued that parity is something weak governments can give women without spending a cent, legitimizing themselves as democratic in situations that often barely deserve the name. Nonetheless, as she also argues, the appeal to justice is inarguable. A place in Parliament may well have little to do with making basic changes or reshuffling priorities, but parity introduces new experiences into the public sphere, with unknowable results.

Sources close to the government told me that legalized abortion is not coming any time soon, but liberal political rights like parity are more winnable. These enthusiasts argued that once women become a respected (or feared) constituency, more might be possible; maybe the women who met at the Congress will start to build something together. (Follow-up meetings are already taking place, and Bochniarz’s Leviathan, an openly neoliberal group, is funding a permanent Congress office, which will convene another mass gathering next year and will represent the constituency “women” in policy struggles.) Over a hundred demands emerged from Congress panels, which remain to be sorted out by the organizers. Time will tell what priorities are set between the policy-neutral electoral parity and more controversial agendas. Parity is a sort of lowest common denominator, though there has already been a letter in Gazeta, signed mostly by academics who are not feminists, denouncing parity for all the usual reasons that make affirmative action unpopular.


Many cynical observers think the Congress was no more than a show to support the political careers of neoliberal women like Kwasniawska and Bochniarz. Some of my interviewees were seriously alarmed by the turn to neoliberalism the Congress publicized as a viable feminist position. In addition, the participants evinced little anxiety about the problem of difference. Certainly, coming from the U.S. movement experience, I was surprised at how cavalier the powerful and famous were about the obvious exclusions in conference planning. Women were bussed in from many cities, but their presence seemed intended as a public representation of a force, “women,” in an essentialist unity that does not reflect the current situation either inside the women’s movement or in Polish culture at large.

In fact, differences among women have come into sharper conceptual focus in the last few years, and feminists disagree significantly about what their goals should be. Some see possibilities in the brimming promises of capitalism and try to help women join the new entrepreneurs. After all, with trade unionism so weak and the Right so strong, market participation can seem the only path to economic independence. Others are developing a critique of the new capitalism, and of its shadow, the new poverty, though the points of entry for resistance are far to seek.

A general unease about feminist identity at the Congress was captured in a demonstration by one of my students, who passed out stickers that asked, “Is a jobless woman a Polish woman?” “Is an intersexual a Polish woman?” “Is someone who wants an abortion a Polish woman?” “Is an illegal immigrant from Ukraine a Polish woman? “ (There are now hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in Poland seeking work, the majority of them women.) Finally: “Is a feminist a Polish woman?”

Others among my interviewees were simply blown away by the vision of so many women, mostly strangers to each other, talking together on serious panels about topics like women in unions and women in local government. Perhaps diversity emerged without fanfare in the richness of so many discussions. Some harsh critics of the Congress’s deficiencies were nevertheless willing to suspend their disappointment about exclusions and silences, mistaken priorities, and absent critiques. As one student who had been a skeptic told me, “People met and talked. It was amazing just to see that many women together, demanding political space.” Everything, she reported, was in a jumble: in the commercial hall, you could buy feminist books, Manifa buttons, and cosmetics. Activist groups had tables and so did a fortune teller and a fashion adviser. (She told my student, “Never wear stripes.”) This kind of wild mixture reminds me of early mass feminist events in the United States, messy cultural explosions that were to change so much.

For decades, U.S. feminists have worried about the neo-liberal capture of women’s organizing. With funds so tight, the question of who has the money to make institutions and push policies is particularly vexed in East and Central Europe, where outside resources enabled many of the feminist groups that now exist. In a struggle for survival, feminists in Poland are fighting among themselves over both grants and political direction. “Power for women” couldn’t be a more ambiguous battle cry, and, in the context of a new, aggressive capitalism, power itself is the bone of contention—power for whom, and for what, wielded by what institutions?

The recent emergence of a self-consciously left feminism coincides with new kinds of women’s mobility. Women are active in locations all over the social and economic map. Is any authentic, politically effective mass women’s movement possible? One of the young leftist theorists, Joanna Erbel, told me she rather liked the Congress. I was surprised: Why? So many trustworthy, hardworking activists who share her politics saw the Congress as a circus that only derailed their kind of work. She answered straight out of a postmodernist sensibility to be seen everywhere in the radical art practices of the new Poland. (The well-known curator, Aneta Szylak, organized a twentieth-anniversary art show in Wroclaw to “remember,” not to “celebrate”; she lined up artifacts of 1989 in ironic juxtaposition without comment, allowing for very different responses to events heavy with emotional baggage.) Erbel argued that the Congress was open, unfixed, available for multiple interpretations: “It is now up to us to make the Congress mean what we want it to mean.” She hopes to push feminism as a radical critique—of domination in general, of the new economy, and of the new kinds of men and women that economy produces. It remains to be seen if this hopefulness is a rarefied, outlier position or if a new activist generation might push the center to the left, giving political voice to doubts many people share about where the new Poland is going.

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Ann Snitow was the co-founder, in 1990, of the Network of East-West Women, now based in Gdansk, Poland. She is director of the undergraduate Gender Studies Program at the New School for Social Research, and her current writing is about women’s changing situation in East Central Europe since 1989.