Feminism in Poland
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The history of feminism in Poland has traditionally been divided into seven periods, beginning with the 19th century first-wave feminism. The first four early periods coincided with the foreign partitions of Poland, which have led to the elimination of sovereign Polish state for 123 years.
Prior to the Partition of Poland in 1795, the tax-paying women were allowed to take part in political life. The first-wave feminism of the 19th century reached Poland later than other Western European countries due to political instability and economic exploitation by the partitioners. In that period, Poland experienced three successive waves of feminism (during that time the first feminist texts were produced); the first and weakest wave came before the November uprising of 1830. It was then that Klementyna z Tańskich Hoffmanowa wrote the first Polish text with ‘feminist’ features, Pamiątka po dobrej matce (Remembrance of a Good Mother) (1819). Although the author asserted the traditional social roles of wife and mother for Polish women, she nevertheless advocated the necessity of education for women as well.
The age of insurrections
The second (and stronger) wave took place between the November and January uprisings. This period was influenced by French ‘proto-feminist’ ideas: the literary works of George Sand and the newspaper La Gazette des Femmes (Women’s Daily). The leading advocate of feminism was the newspaper Przegląd Naukowy (Scientific Review). It published (among many others) articles by Narcyza Żmichowska (the Warsaw leader of "entuzjastki"), who advocated 'emancipation' and education for women. Żmichowska was also an active speaker, acting on behalf of women’s causes. The first Polish female philosopher, Eleonora Zimięcka, wrote Myśli o wychowaniu kobiet (Suggestions for Women's Education) (1843), which postulated that the most important aim in women’s education was forming their human nature and only afterwards – feminity.
Poland experienced the third (and strongest) wave after 1870, under preponderant Western influence. In this "wave," it is worth noting, men were principal advocates of the feminist cause: Adam Wiślicki published the article "Niezależność kobiety" ("Woman’s Independence") in Przegląd Naukowy (1870). This piece contained radical demands for equality of the sexes in education and the professions. In the same newspaper, Aleksander Świętochowski criticized Hoffmanowa’s books, which he said "transform women into slaves." Another newspaper, Niwa, pushed for women’s equality in education and work. The most radical feminist demands were included in Edward Prądzyński’s book O prawach kobiety (On Women’s Rights, 1873), which advocated full equality of the sexes in every domain.
The question of women’s emancipation was especially important at the University of Lwów (Lemberg). In 1874 a University lecturer, Leon Biliński, gave a series of lectures "O pracy kobiet ze stanowiska ekonomicznego" ("On Women’s Work from the Economic Standpoint"). He strongly supported women's intellectual and economic emancipation and their free access to higher education. His efforts later bore fruit — in 1897, the first female students graduated from Lwów University.
In Eliza Orzeszkowa’s literary output, the motif of women's emancipation is particularly important. In her book Kilka słów o kobietach (A Few Words about Women, 1871) she stressed the fundamental human nature of every woman, perverted by society.
In 1889 the newspaper Prawda (Truth) published an article by Ludwik Krzywicki, "Sprawa kobieca" (The Women’s Cause), which postulated that women’s liberation was inherent to the capitalist economy.
The fourth – modernistic – wave of feminism reached Poland around 1900. While male writers focused on the ‘mysterious and mystic’ nature of women, female authors (e.g. Maria Konopnicka, Eliza Orzeszkowa) were occupied with more rational aspects of feminity. Zofia Nałkowska was especially active in the Polish women’s movement. Her speech Uwagi o etycznych zadaniach ruchu kobiecego (Remarks about Ethical Objectives of the Women’s Movement) during the Women’s Congress in Warsaw in 1907 condemned female prostitution as a form of polygamy. Nałkowska’s first novel, Kobiety (Women) (1906), and another novel, Narcyza (1910), denounced female passivity confronted with what she perceived as masculine domination.
The fifth wave of Polish feminism took place in the interwar period (1920s and 1930s). Feminist discourses of that epoch (in Poland as well as in other countries) searched for new definitions of feminism and tried to identify new goals (there were doubts about whether to fight for full equality or rather for protective legislation). Almost every feminist (even radicals) believed that women had achieved their liberation. Róża Melcerowa expressed those feelings: Feminism (...) in fact ended among those nations where de iure had secured its object: social and political equality.
In Poland, however, feminists were remarkably active. Nałkowska continued to analyse women’s questions: in the novels Romans Teresy Hennert (Teresa Hennert’s Liaison) (1923) and Renata Słuczańska (1935) she dealt with the limits of women’s liberty in traditional society.
The 1920s saw the emergence of radical feminism in Poland. Its representatives, Irena Krzywicka and Maria Morozowicz-Szczepkowska, shared an aggressive rhetoric and advocated women’s deliverance from the emotional relationship with men ("fight against love") as the sole medium towards individual independence. Krzywicka and Tadeusz Żeleński (‘Boy’) both promoted planned parenthood, sexual education, rights to divorce and abortion, and strict equality of sexes. Krzywicka published a series of articles in Wiadomości Literackie (Literary News) (from 1926), Żeleński wrote numerous articles (Brewerie (Brawls) 1926, Dziewice konsystorskie (Consistory Virgins) 1929, Piekło kobiet (Hell for Women) 1930, Zmysły, zmysły (Libido, Libido) 1932, Nasi okupanci (Our Invaders) 1932), among others, in which he protested against interference by the Roman Catholic Church into the intimate lives of Poles. Both Krzywicka and Żeleński were exceptionally active speakers, promoting the ideas of feminism in the whole country. A different aspect of Polish feminism figures in the poetry and drama (Szofer Archibald (Chauffeur Archibald) 1924 and Egipska pszenica (Egyptian Wheat) 1932) of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. That author advocated a female erotic self-emancipation from social conventions.
The Second World War virtually silenced Polish feminists.
Under the communist rule
After the Second World War, the situation of Polish women was very different from that of their Western European and American counterparts. The new Polish Communist state (established in 1948) forcefully promoted women’s emancipation in both family and work. That period is known as the sixth wave of Polish feminism. It was characterized by the considerable production of simple propagandist texts, advocating equality of sexes and a massive participation of women in the industrial production and farming (as exemplified by the popular slogan: Kobiety na traktory! (Women onto the tractor!)).
The second-wave feminism as a period of feminist activity began in the early 1960s in the United States. The same wave reached its peak in Poland already in 1956 with the legalization of abortion, which generated the production of polemical pro-choice texts. Afterwards, feminist voices were almost silenced (until 1989); the state considered feminist demands fulfilled, any open discussion about women’s problems was forbidden, only official (‘materialist’ and ‘Marxist’) feminist texts, mainly focused on taking off women the burden of ‘traditional’ female domestic work, were allowed. ‘Western’ feminism was officially prohibited and was practically absent in the Polish social life until 1989.
In Poland during the years 1940–1989, feminism in general, and second-wave feminism in particular, were practically absent. Although feminist texts were produced in the 1950s and afterwards, they were usually controlled and generated by the Communist state. In fact, any true and open feminist debate was virtually suppressed. Officially, any ‘feminism of Western type’ did not have the right to exist in the Communist state, which had supposedly granted to women every one of the main feminist demands.
Formally abortion was legalized in Poland almost 20 years earlier than in the USA and France (but later than in Scandinavian countries), equality of sexes was granted, sexual education was gradually introduced into schools, and contraceptives were legal and subsidised by the state. In reality, however, equality of sexes was never realized and contraceptives were of such a bad quality that abortion became an important method of planned parenthood. Those real problems were never officially recognized and any discussion of them was forbidden.
After the fall of communism
That situation changed only with the fall of the Communist state in 1989. New democratic Poland experienced the seventh wave of feminism and was suddenly confronted with concepts of Western second-wave feminism that at once met with fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Western feminism has often been erroneously identified with the prior Communist reproductive policy, similar in some aspects, and feminism for that reason has often been regarded as ’suspect’.
In the beginning of the 1990s, Polish feminist texts often used the aggressive rhetoric related to feminist publications of the interwar period. That kind of ‘striking’ argumentation was more adequate in that epoch of violent polemics about prohibition of abortion. After the Polish government introduced the de facto legal ban on abortions (on January 7, 1993), feminists have changed their strategies. Many Polish feminists since that event have adopted argumentative strategies borrowed from the American ‘Pro-Choice’ movement of the 1980s. In Polish feminist texts, the mixed argumentation of ‘lesser evil’ and ‘planned parenthood’ has prevailed. In fact this argument is contrary to the feminist ideology and has proved ineffective. The ban on abortions has appeared immovable. Both sexual education in schools and state funding of contraceptives have been strongly suppressed since 1998. But Polish feminism is seemingly undergoing change; new feminist books include Agnieszka Graff’s Świat bez kobiet (World without Women) (2001), which directly points out the contemporary phenomenon of women’s discrimination in Poland; and Kazimiera Szczuka’s Milczenie owieczek (Silence of the Flock) (2004), which passionately defends abortion and often takes positions directly related to the interwar period and radical French feminism, thus renouncing the hitherto dominant ‘moderate’ American argumentative strategies. Ewa Dąbrowska-Szulc expressed the necessity of changing the Polish feminist stance as well: "We [feminists] have lost a lot by these lessons of an appeased language we are still giving each other".
- The term "Poland" in the 19th century refers to the Polish territories within boundaries from 1771 (from 1795 until 1918 the Polish state did not exist, being partitioned by its neighbours: Russia, Austria, and Prussia)
- Łoch, Eugenia (ed.) 2001. Modernizm i feminizm. Postacie kobiece w literaturze polskiej i obcej. Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu M.Curie-Skłodowskiej, p.44
- Davies, Norman. God's Playground: a history of Poland. Revised Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005.
- Compare with the first English claim for women’s education from 1675 (Hannah Woolley’s The Gentlewoman’s Companion)
- in: Łoch, 2001:46
- in: Łoch, 2001:47
- in: Łoch, 2001:48
- Poland granted to women the right to vote in 1918.
- in Łoch 2001: 59
- in: Śleczka, Kazimierz, 1997. "Feminizm czy feminizmy". In: Zofia Gorczyńska, Sabina Kruszyńska, Irena Zakidalska (eds.). Płeć, kobieta, feminizm. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego: p.17
- The European Parliament stated in 2002 that sexual education in schools does not exist in Poland
- in Szczuka 2004: 13
- Eugenia Łoch (ed.) 2001. Modernizm i feminizm. Postacie kobiece w literaturze polskiej i obcej. Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu M.Curie-Skłodowskiej.
- Kazimiera Szczuka 2004. Milczenie owieczek, Rzecz o aborcji. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B.
- Kazimierz Śleczka 1997. "Feminizm czy feminizmy". In Zofia Gorczyńska, Sabina Kruszyńska, Irena Zakidalska (eds.). Płeć, kobieta, feminizm. Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego: 15-34.