Building the Women's Movement in Poland

04/10/2015 07:56 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

In retrospect, it seems obvious: Polish women didn't really have a seat at the table during the transformation 25 years ago. The Solidarity trade union movement was dominated by men. During the Martial Law period, women stepped into critical positions when the government arrested the top (male) leaders, but their contributions were largely unrecognized. Only one female representative participated in the Round Table negotiations in 1989, and the talks didn't address women's issues.

But as long-time feminist and peace activist Malgorzata Tarasiewicz points out, "We thought that with the abolition of Communism would automatically come change and more freedoms, also for women. It was unimaginable that, instead of freedoms, restrictions for women's rights might be introduced! As women we were so marginalized - there was only one woman at the Round Table discussions. Today it would be unimaginable. We would demand a women's rights working group. But at the time of rapid change we were taken by surprise. Of course not only women but the whole society was taken by surprise."

When I met Tarasiewicz in 1990, she was still part of Freedom and Peace (Wolnosc i Pokoj or WiP), an independent peace and human rights organization that had been active in the mid-1980s but was then on its last legs. She had been in close contact with activists in the West, including American and European feminists. And she was committed to organizing women workers inside Solidarity. In 1989, she became the coordinator of Solidarity's women's section. But it was a short-lived job, as she explained to me when I caught up with her again in August 2013 at her home in Sopot, on the coast near Gdansk.

"Marian Krzaklewski, who became a leader of Solidarity, made it impossible for me to stay," she explained. "He used all sorts of persecution, like calling me to his office to talk for hours explaining how wrong I was in my opinions or not giving any funds to the women's section. He was doing everything he could to block all options, so I had to leave. The women in the women's section who were acting in the way Solidarity leadership didn't like also had to stop working. They were not allowed into the Solidarity offices in the regions, couldn't use the fax machines or phones. They couldn't even participate in the trainings. It was said that they did not have the right moral spine."

Tarasiewicz made one last effort with the women's section. "We decided to meet one last time, because the regions wanted us all to meet," she continued. "We tried to use the Solidarity headquarters in Warsaw. At first the leaders didn't want to allow us into the headquarters. But when they saw how many of us there were, they said, 'Okay, come.' One guy from Solidarity even tried to threaten me. He called me at home and said, 'If you meet again with those women of Solidarity and try to do something, we will punish you.' Of course I didn't care. It was quite dramatic. Human Rights Watch from New York wrote a report on that. Their representative came to Poland and wrote a report. But there was nothing much we could do. The women's section was abolished."

Since 2000, Tarasiewicz has worked as the director for the Network for East-West Women in Poland. She has watched as many foundations that funded women's issues have pulled out of Poland as money from the European Union became available. But the EU funding has been a mixed blessing at best.

"The EU has not helped civil society in Poland despite its claims to do so," Tarasiewicz explains. "The way they provide funding is very depoliticizing. At the same time, the EU funding is so tempting because it involves big amounts of money. Sometimes people become too preoccupied with applying for projects, working with the bureaucracy instead of working on a social or political problem. the funding from the EU is mostly for acting on a regional level. For example, we in Gdansk can organize something with Kaliningrad that is not based on real needs but on the misconceptions or erroneous ideas that we need, for example, a workshop on how to knit sweaters for women or how unemployed women can set up a little zoo in a village: because ten years ago a project like that had good results in a remote region on the French/German border. It doesn't encourage any political activity."

But because the EU offers a lot of money, "groups go for it, and don't have the capacity or the time to work on anything else," she continues. "A women's group in Bialystok that might be active on important issues is now working with mothers going back to the labor market after giving birth to become accountants or start a small business. And the way you have to account for the funding, it makes you like a slave to the EU. For me, the situation is much worse now than when we were supported by foundations, which have now moved off to Asia and elsewhere because they assume that we are doing well with this EU funding. It is harmful to the Polish women's movement."

We talked about her early days in WiP, the issue of abortion and the role of the Catholic Church, and initiatives like the Congress of Women. This fall, Tarasiewicz told me in an email update, she tried something new: running for office. With very little money, she was able to get 8 percent of the vote in the campaign for the president of Sopot. The conservative candidate, with all the resources from the Law and Justice Party, received only 2 percent more, so she was satisfied with the effort.

The Interview

When you look back at the women's movement in Poland, do you think anything could have been done differently after 1989 that would have put the movement or women in general in a better position today? Or was what happened here inevitable because of the power of the Church?

To some extent yes it was inevitable. We were too naïve. A similar situation happened when we were joining the EU. In a way we were ignorant because we were hoping that the EU would bring a lot of possibilities and a lot of change for women's rights and it didn't. We were working so hard and waiting for the EU and supporting the EU and not putting demands on the European parliamentary commission, just thinking that everything would happen by itself because it's such a progressive institution. Then it turned out that it's a group of apparatchiks that doesn't care, and there have been almost no mechanisms for women's rights that could be used in our harsh situation.

Going back to 1989, we thought that with the abolition of Communism would automatically come change and more freedoms, also for women. It was unimaginable that, instead of freedoms, restrictions for women's rights might be introduced! As women we were so marginalized - there was only one woman at the Round Table discussions. Today it would be unimaginable. We would demand a women's rights working group. But at the time of rapid change we were taken by surprise. Of course not only women but the whole society was taken by surprise, with the national property sold often much below its value. Before the workers could even think about starting a cooperative or developing some alternative ways of running an enterprise they woke up unemployed. The introduction of the free market did not consider the basic social rights of people. We believed that the Solidarity leaders would continue fighting for the realization of worker's postulates, but in the end they were in the government privatizing the national property, taking away women's rights, and planning nuclear power plants. We thought we had already achieved something in 1989, but in many aspects we were taken back to the very bottom and had to start working from the beginning.

The Church was using that critical time for their own ends by preaching that Poland should go back to the traditional values from before the war. People believed that together with the abolition of abortion and with women "in their places," meaning the traditional roles, Poland would go back to the imaginary world of manor houses, gentry, and all that mythology that was developed in the dark Communist times.

If we had not been so naïve, we should have prepared earlier and acted earlier instead of waiting and seeing. The positions in government went only to men, parliament became predominantly male, and our rights were taken away. We've had to begin again from scratch.
In the EU, meanwhile, the women's groups are so strong and we are so weak in Poland that only their voice is heard. We have no strength, no money, no capacity.

Can you give an example of how women's voices from other parts of Europe dominate?

Here's an example of how our voice is unheard. The groups from Western Europe deal very much with the issue of gender parity on corporate boards. Of course I am for parity on corporate boards. And the Congress of Women from Poland supported this. But actually there are many at least equally urgent issues that are not so high on the agenda such as the poverty of women or even reproductive rights.

Also, in Poland, for a while there was no minister plenipotentiary for anti-discrimination and equality. According to the European law, there should be one or else Poland will be punished by a fine. But nobody punished Poland, and no equality minister was appointed. A delegation went to Brussels and met with the Commissioner responsible for the directive. We asked him, "Why are you not demanding that the EU legislation be implemented in Poland?" Afterwards, he wrote a letter, and he came to Poland and demanded that someone be appointed to this position. But it took so much time and money and effort to meet him and get this done.

Let's say that a group of people was able to put together a strong political force in parliament to work on women's issues, what are the most urgent things that need to be done?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.