“Don’t panic, organize!”
– The Student’s Strike at UCL London (2009)
In the contemporary world gender equality is often taken for granted, while simultaneously repudiated and vigorously opposed. Poland is no different in this respect. Polish women got suffrage relatively early (in 1918), and the period of state socialism (1945–1989) brought about positive shifts, including the rise of women’s educational level, women’s incorporation into the labor market, and the securing of basic reproductive rights, including the legalization of abortion in 1956. However, gender inequalities persisted and the core of the patriarchal gender contract was not only preserved, but also revived after 1989. In contemporary Poland women’s occupations and earnings still follow the stereotypical division of labor; we remain responsible for the main part of unpaid domestic work, the upbringing of children, and affective labor. Whereas middle-class professional women enjoy a rather strong position in comparison with the rest of Europe (i.e., there is a relatively small pay gap, the smallest in EU), women are directors of top cultural institutions, the male-to-female professor ratio is relatively equal, almost 50% of candidates in 2019 European Parliament elections were women, etc., we still need to struggle for basic reproductive rights. Limited access to abortion (since 1993 it is legal only in case of rape, a threat to a woman’s life, or serious malformation of the fetus) and modern contraceptives, as well as the lack of sexual education in schools have become the main focus of the women’s movement in the last decades. While the lack of reproductive rights affects all women, there is a growing recognition that the assaults on bodily autonomy disproportionately affect women from rural areas and those who are economically underprivileged. Not only gender, but also class, sexuality, ethnicity and ability matter, and in recent years the Polish women’s movement has moved towards new ways of constructing its claims and identities. As we will show, in its heterogeneity and tendency for transgressing the borders between formal and informal forms of organizing, between the political and private spheres, the contemporary women’s movement in Poland appears to embrace the ideal of transversality, characteristic to many local, autonomous feminist movements.1
After 1989, feminist activism in Poland and other post-socialist countries was channeled mostly into non-governmental organizations, supported by Western donors and later European Union funds. In the literature on women’s movements, Eastern European feminism was often depicted as specifically prone to co-optation by neoliberalism due to the process of NGO-ization and the alleged weakness of the of local women’s movement, as well as a strong connection between the democratic transformation project and free market economy model.2 It is certainly true that post-1989 transformation and the process of Europeanization favored issues such as an anti-discrimination legislation on the labor market, which was compatible with neoliberal governance, but not all of the women’s movement prioritized cooperation with the state and the market. Many local groups, feminist scholars, and networks opposed neoliberalism by promoting feminist critiques of late capitalism, organizing opposition against cuts in welfare expenditures, and forging alliances with labor unions and economically underprivileged groups, such as single mothers fighting for child-care provisions.3
A closer look at these efforts reveals the transversality of the Polish feminist movement, understood as the ability to cross the binary oppositions of “reformism” and “revolution”, to forge connections between feminists engaged in institutions and those active in grassroots groups, to connect people working at universities, in the art world and engaged in feminist activism. Whereas in the first decade after 1989 the women’s movement was mainly preoccupied with discrimination in the workplace, representation of women in politics, domestic violence, and reproductive rights, during the last decade the question of economic (in)equality made its way into the mainstream feminist agenda. This process had to do with three important phenomena: the emergence of the Single Mothers for the Alimony Fund Movement around 2004, which were supported by local feminist groups;4 forging alliances between feminist autonomous groups and people affected by evictions and precarious living conditions in major Polish cities; and finally the nurses protest in 2007, supported by Warsaw-based feminist groups and intellectuals.5 The latter example is emblematic to the ways in which transversality became the main paradigm in contemporary feminist organizing in Poland. In June 2007 the All-Poland Trade Union of Nurses and Midwives initiated a protest against low wages, worsening working conditions and growing precarity. Hundreds of women working in the medical sector traveled to Warsaw and set a camp, called “the White Town” in front of the Prime Minister’s office. They continued their protest and lived in tents for several weeks, supported by feminist and left groups, as well as lay people delivering food and water, inviting the nurses to their homes to have a shower and promulgating information about the strike in social and traditional media.
The “White Town” brought only insignificant wage increase, and the situation of nurses remains dire, but the protests helped to connect women working in care sector, feminists from urban centers and the former “Solidarność” activists, providing ground for the further expansion of the feminist agenda concerning labor and thus reaching out to women in various social strata, including the working class. Whereas many women’s NGOs remained focused on reproductive rights, gender violence and labor market, some groups continued to highlight the injustices of late capitalism and “free market democracy.” One example is the Women’s March 8th Alliance, which originated in 2001 in protest against abortion politics, and by the mid-2000s focused mostly on social injustice.6 The Alliance has been organizing the biggest feminist demonstrations, held each year around March 8th (Manifas), increasingly voicing anti-capitalist slogans and cooperating with working class women represented in labor unions. In 2005 and 2010 the demonstrations were explicitly focused on labor and economic crisis, and the members of labor unions representing teachers, nurses, and supermarket workers joined the march. The feminist movement did not became a mass movement, but opened up to different types of critiques and voices.
The situation has changed in 2016, when ultraconservative organizations put forward a citizen law proposal, including total ban on abortion in the country. Already today, access to legal abortion is severely limited, the official amount of legally performed abortions in Poland is extremely low (around 200–600 cases yearly, which in a country of 38,000,000 inhabitants sounds ridiculous), and feminist organizations estimate that there are at least 100,000 illegal abortions per year. After the law proposal was officially presented in the media, women and men began to organize and network to oppose the ban.7 Already on April 1st, 2016 a group of 100,000 women and allies joined a social media group to resist this repressive law and local groups were formed (the main group, Dziewuchy-Dziewuchom – Gals for Gals – remains one of the core tools for discussing this issue and organizing protests). Existing feminist organizations and networks also intensified their activities. Initially, the coalition Get Back the Choice! was formed, and soon several groups prepared an alternative bill, liberalizing the abortion law. The Save the Women! proposal was supported by the signatures of 240,000 people and in September it was submitted to the parliament.
The first wave of demonstrations came in April 2016, with some 50 events taking place in large and small towns all over Poland and in the cities with large Polish communities abroad. In September the two proposals were discussed in Polish parliament, which decided to reject the Save the Women! bill and continue to discuss the abortion ban. Poles responded with mass mobilization, and the Polish Women’s Strike was formed – an informal network gathering mostly women with no prior activist experiences. On October 3rd, 2016 the Women’s Strike was organized, when over 150,000 women in almost 100 cities and towns in Poland and abroad took to the streets.8 The protests dubbed “Black Monday” led to political success: the parliament finally stopped the proceedings on the abortion ban. Important changes in discourse also occurred. Along with the liberal narrative focusing on choice, the question of economic (in)justice featured prominently in the public debate, highlighting that the ban on abortion is a tool for oppressing mainly poor and working class women. In late modern societies middle-class women have many ways of avoiding restrictions in reproductive care, thus the ban on abortion directly affects the poorest segments of society, becoming another capitalist tool of promulgating injustice and inequality.
Inspired by the national women’s strike in Iceland in 1975, the Polish strike encouraged women in other countries. Already in October that year women from South Korea held demonstrations in Seoul contesting the restrictive abortion laws in their country under the banner “Black protests”. Activists from Italy, Mexico, and Argentina also initiated mass protests around this time, focusing mostly on combating violence against women and feminicide. Responding to different challenges, the feminist wave was rising internationally. Feminists across over 50 countries began to cooperate and on March 8th, 2017 the first International Women’s Strike was organized in at least 60 countries across the globe, including some cities in Poland.
What are the consequences of the protests for the future of feminism in Poland? Today, there are definitely far more women from the working class joining the movement and identifying with feminist claims; however, the question whether the class composition of the movement changed much remains open. The mobilizational potential of the movement has increased: many feminist groups and organizations demonstrated on March 8th, 2018 and 2019, and we also had a huge protest on March 23rd, 2018, when another anti-abortion law was proposed in Parliament, with 90,000 women and allies demonstrating in Warsaw and much smaller protests all around the country and abroad. Definitely more women from small towns are currently involved in the feminist movement, and there is more attention to economic and political issues, and the economic dimension of reproductive rights. Nonetheless, the liberal individualist narrative focusing on choice and individual rights remains hegemonic. Regardless of the fact that the strike was chosen in 2016 as the main tactic, when Polish teachers began to protest law pay in 2019, they were not supported on a mass scale.
The recent women’s protests have definitely succeeded in stopping the abortion ban and changing the views of the Polish population at large: in 2016 only 37% of respondents were of the opinion that the current law should be liberalized, but in 2019 over 50% of respondents declared that abortion should be available “on demand”. As this was the only clear victory of grassroots resistance against the current government, it obviously has tremendous influence on the women’s situation in the country, making it difficult to argue that women are not an important political actor. The massive scale of the mobilization was conducive to strengthening women’s voices in public debates: panel discussions without women are publicly ridiculed, there are several #metoo actions, 47% of candidates to European Parliament were women (while e.g. in Germany 35%), and there are more female leaders, commentators, and public intellectuals. However, women still suffer discrimination in the workplace and in medical care, there are huge inequalities in domestic labor, and domestic violence still affects some 30% of Polish women on daily basis.
As for the possible collaboration with the unions – the only one that unconditionally supported women’s strikes and the feminist agenda was Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’ Initiative), a grassroots, radical union, effectively fighting for workers’ rights in workplaces such as Amazon, logistics, universities, nurseries, and in the cultural sector. The other unions, including the post-socialist OPZZ (organizing mostly the public sector) supported the women’s protests, but did not take initiative in this area. Today’s “Solidarność” sometimes works against workers and always against women, opportunistically backing up the current conservative government in their anti-abortion politics. Given that union membership in Poland hovers around 12-14% percent of the employed, the trade unions are relatively weak, but the lack of interest in joining forces with the women’s movement is a telling example of the divides that still permeate the struggle for solidarity and equality.
Forging coalitions, working together, and fighting together has never been easy. We think, however, and we expressed it in various texts, books, articles, and public discussions, that there is a need for a feminist international. Today, feminism is already the most important antifascist political force, in Poland and globally. Due to its transversal character, the (necessary!) ability of crossing borders and going beyond binary oppositions, feminism is a force that may bring social change across generations, political alliances and different forms of organizing, across classes and ethnicities. The women’s perspectives and various versions of feminism in Poland are increasingly articulated via social media, in books (both popular and academic), but most importantly in everyday conversations and encounters. Polish women attempt to form new groups and alliances, with workers’ unions and other movements, political parties of the left (there are currently two political parties openly defending feminist perspectives, Wiosna and Razem), the popularity of gender studies is growing, as is the amount of feminist groups, initiatives, and organizations.9
The feminist movement can and does influence the labor movement, by demanding gender equality and equal division of care and affective labor both at work and in households, as well as by criticizing neoliberal dismantlement of welfare state and corporate responsibilities concerning the rights of workers and citizens, by demanding an end to capitalist economic violence and by fighting for social rights for everyone, against conservative populism.10 The influence of the feminist movement changes the public debate and the media, resulting not only in having more women in public debate, but also in a different representation of women and topics traditionally associated with femininity, such as housework, affective labor, and reproduction. Women do understand themselves as “the oppressed”, but the class analysis is present only in small parts of the feminist movement, mainly associated with academia, radical grassroots groups and, to a much lesser degree, in the unions.
The “Feminist International” is (and for a long time has been) a lived reality of the Polish feminist movement – we participate in international feminist groups and activities, in workers’ unions, grassroots organizations, political parties and their alliances on the European level, as well as in initiatives such as the Women’s International Strike.11 The feminist international is perhaps the biggest and most promising international today, apart from the independently forming international of the fascist groups, which obviously inspire our resistance. What is more, the current convergence of neoliberal crisis and the rise of ultraconservative and nationalist forces demands closer cooperation, sharing experiences and working on common strategies among progressive forces.12 For the last two decades Poland have often been discussed as a somewhat hopeless case of European “backwaters” with its patriarchal gender order, restrictive abortion legislation and continuous dominance of the Catholic Church. In the context of the rise of the radical right and ultra-conservative movements around the world, there is a growing understanding that Poland is not an exception and that we need to work together for the future that we have always imagined.
This article is part of a dossier entitled “New Dispatches from the Feminist International.”
|↑1||Nira Yuval-Davis “What is ‘transversal politics’?,” Soundings 12 (Summer 1999): 94-98.|
|↑2||See for example Kristen Ghodsee, “Feminism-by-Design: Emerging Capitalisms, Cultural Feminism, and Women´s Nongovernmental Organizations in Postsocialist Eastern Europe,” Signs: Journal for Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 3 (Spring 2004); 727–753 or Ewa Charkiewicz and Anna Zachorowska Mazurkiewicz, Anna (ed.), Gender i ekonomia opieki (Gender and Economy of Care), (Warsaw: Biblioteka Think Tanku Feministycznego, 2009).|
|↑3||On feminism and neoliberalism in East-Central Europe, see the collection of essays, Eszter Kováts (ed.) Solidarity in Struggle: Feminist Perspectives on Neoliberalism in East-Central Europe (Budapest: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2016).|
|↑4||On the protests of single mothers, see for instance the analysis in: Iza Desperak (ed.) Homofobia, mizoginia i ciemnogród? Burzliwe losy kontrowersyjnych ustaw (Homophobia, misogyny, and backwardness: Controversial regulations in Poland) (Łódź: Omega Praxis and Hryciuk, 2008); Renata and Elżbieta Korolczuk, “At the intersection of gender and class: social mobilization around mothers’ rights in Poland,” in Beyond NGO-ization: The Development of Social Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Kerstin Jacobsson and Steven Saxonberg (London: Ashgate Press, 2013): 49–70.|
|↑5||The nurses’ protests were analyzed in detail in: Julia Kubisa, Bunt białych czepków. Analiza działalności związkowej pielęgniarek i położnych (White Caps Rebellion: Analysis of the activities of the nurses and midwives’ union) (Warsaw: Scholar, 2014).|
|↑6||For more on the history and activities of the Alliance, see Elzbieta Korolczuk, “Neoliberalism and feminist organizing: from ‘NGO-ization of resistance’ to resistance against neoliberalism,” in Solidarity in Struggle. Feminist Perspectives on Neoliberalism in East-Central Europe, 32–41.|
|↑7||A more detailed analysis of the mobilization and factors behind the mass participation of Polish women can be found in Elżbieta Korolczuk, “Explaining mass protests against abortion ban in Poland: the power of connective action,” Zoon Politikon 7 (2016): 91–113.|
|↑8||For further readings about the Polish Women’s Strike, see the edited volume Bunt kobiet. Czrane Protesty i Strajki Kobiet (Women’s Rebellion: Black Protests and Women’s Strikes) and the special issue of Praktyka Teoretyczna; Ewa Majewska, “When Polish Women Revolted,” Jacobin Magazine, March 8, 2018; Julia Kubiska, “We Will Not Fold Our Umbrellas!,” Obieg 3 (2017).|
|↑9||See the short piece on women and the Razem party: Antje Majewski, Ewa Majewska, and Karolina Majewska, “Three Women Under the Roof of Razem,” Obieg 3 (2017).|
|↑10||On feminism and unions in Poland, see “Migrating Tactics: An Interview with EwaMajewska and Katarzyna Rakowska,” conducted by Marianne Kaletzky and Ramsey McGlazer, Critical Times 1, no. 1 (2018): 226–40.|
|↑11||For more thoughts on the Feminist International, see Ewa Majewska, “The Weak Internationalism? Women’s Protests in Poland and Internationally, Art and Law,” L’internationaleOnline, May 9, 2018.|
|↑12||For a more detailed debate on the rise of anti-gender mobilization in Europe see e.g. Korolczuk, Elżbieta. 2015. “The War on Gender’ from a Transnational Perspective – Lessons for Feminist Strategising,” in Anti-Gender Movements on the Rise? Strategising for Gender Equality in Central and Eastern Europe (Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2015), 43–53.|