01/05/2015 04:17 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

Poland's Feminist Genealogy

Ralf Hettler via Getty Images

There is an infamous story in Poland about a sign at the shipyard in Gdansk where the trade union movement Solidarity got started in 1980. Although nobody actually saw the sign, many people firmly believe that it existed. The sign read: "Women, do not disturb us. We are fighting for Poland."

"The sign is very important to Polish feminism," Agnieszka Graff told me in an interview outside of Bialystok in August 2013. "It puts in a nutshell the kind of arrogance but also the beauty of Polish patriarchal patriotism: 'Don't disturb us, ladies, we are the strong and tragic men who are fighting for Poland and we want to give it to you with a rose.'"

Graff, a specialist in American feminism, has been involved in many of the most important women's organizing efforts of the last two decades. She was part of the protests wrapped in street theater known as Manifa. She's been involved in the Congress of Women. And she has strengthened the feminist analysis of Krytyka Polityczna.

Her political activism began at the end of the Solidarity period when she was involved in an organization "devoted to abolishing Communism through laughter." She was 16 years old. "I remember sewing hundreds of red hats for the dwarf march across Warsaw," she told me. "The main dwarves were my boyfriend and two other flamboyant guys. Lenin, Marx, Trotsky, Engels, and so on were the bearded leaders, and the rest of us were the dwarves. We did a dwarf run on the Palace of Culture. The fun part was that the police were completely helpless: they didn't know what to do. The pretense was that we admired Communism and were trying to establish a truly revolutionary red state."

She has thought a great deal about that those early years of activism. "I won't pretend that I was a heroine of the revolution," Graff continued. "I was a revolutionary's girlfriend. In 1987, I gave an interview to one of the underground newspapers, and it was titled 'A Revolutionary's Girlfriend.' I was dead serious about it. I was very romantic. It took me years to revisit that part of my life from a feminist perspective and see this as an interesting adventure in a particular kind of Eastern European patriarchy."

Revisiting that period and analyzing the impact of the sign on the shipyard door has led her to help excavate the oft-overlooked contributions that women have made to the Polish opposition. "The reason I became a feminist in Poland -- though it's an oversimplification -- was because of reading Shana Penn's article "Solidarity's Secret," which was about the enormous contribution of women to late-stage underground Solidarity after Martial Law and the way that they were forgotten," Graff remembers. "I was overwhelmed by this story, it changed my view of things. I realized that the established image of Solidarity was just not true: of the underground as the place where bearded men were doing their thing, and their thing was brave and manly, and the women were at best the revolutionaries' girlfriends. This was my story, but that's because I was 16! The real women were brave and smart and involved in the struggle at the time. And their struggle was forgotten."

But then it turned out that not all of these women wanted to be remembered, or at least not as proto-feminists. "They did not see women's issues as political issues," Graff says. "These former heroines -- they didn't want to be adored by us, they didn't want us to express our gratitude, and they didn't want us to identify as their daughters, which we did, very strongly. We thought of ourselves as the new dissidents. And we wanted them, naively, to be our leaders. And they said, 'No, we're doing business now.'"

Graff added, "A lot of these women are deeply conservative. They did what they had to do in the late 1980s and don't see why should they identify with the progressive women's movement now. Theirs is a different story and different analysis from ours."

We talked about her involvement in a wide range of women's organizations, her pivotal essay on the Polish film Seksmisja, what it has been like to rediscover her Jewish roots, and why we can't leave the most important social questions to the "experts."

The Interview

You came back to Poland in 1995. You said that some people thought you were crazy because you could have had a career in the United States or Britain. What was your thinking when you came back in 1995?

Quite frankly, I was homesick. I'm not the emigrant type. I was not happy abroad. I realized that I was getting a wonderful education, but I felt like I was living someone else's life - mine was going on in Poland, without me. It would have been possible psychologically to stay in Britain. But I didn't want to do that either. I wanted to be an academic teacher. At the time I was finishing my PhD on James Joyce and I thought I'd be a literary scholar. The kids I wanted to teach and become fascinated by modernist literature were not British kids. I didn't see myself as someone with a slightly foreign accent teaching them how to read T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. I wanted to teach modernist poetry and literary theory to Polish kids.

I was teaching for a little while back here when I met a bunch of women, mostly doctoral students, and we infected each other with feminism. If you talk to some of the others, they might tell you that I was the source. But it was a synergy in part sparked by Maria Janion, whose seminar we attended. She's a key figure for this generation of feminists. She's now quite old, in her late eighties. Also in part it was sparked by Ann Snitow, a New York feminist, who came to Poland and taught at the Graduate School for Social Research. Finally, it was sparked in part by our fury with what was going on with women's reproductive rights at the time. Wanda Nowicka, leader of the pro-choice movement in Poland, was also part of that process. In the late 1990s, there was a lot of intellectual ferment in seminars at the Graduate School for Social Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences -- the professors Janion, Fuszara, Titkow, and Snitow were the key influences. Then there were also feminist debates at a cultural club in the Old Town. Barbara Limanowska was one of the leaders. She's now an important NGO figure in the Baltics. And there was Kraków -- the first feminist journal called "Pełnym Głosem" (In Full Voice) and the conferences they organized -- small and very intense.

In the late 1990s we were reading Western feminism and trying to figure what it meant for us. One of the crucial books was Backlash, Susan Faludi's book about the conservative reaction against feminism in the United States. That really clicked. But there were many other books: about domestic violence, reproductive rights. There was a lot of activism before that. But for me the breakthrough moment was 1999 when I published my article "Patriarchy after Sex Mission," which started the debate in Gazeta Wyborcza and made me realize that feminism was really my home base -- it was my main identity, not just something I did after hours. The English version of the article, a poor translation unfortunately, is appended to Shana Penn's book, Solidarity's Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland. The Manifa movement followed, and I was one of the organizers of the first two demonstrations. My first book, World without Women (2001) grew out of that article. For the slightly older women or those who were active before that, the breakthrough was 1993, during the struggle over the banning of abortion and the collecting of signatures for a referendum which never happened. This is when Wanda Nowicka became radicalized.

The Manifa Movement started in effect of an incident in Lubliniec, a small town where a woman was arrested during an underground abortion. It was an interesting legal situation. She wasn't arrested as a culprit but as 'evidence'. The media response to that, and the outrageousness of that situation, sparked a meeting that Wanda Nowicka was leading. We decided to do a street demonstration. The first one was quite tiny, but we had great posters we plastered all over Warsaw illegally. But they are still going on and attract thousands of people. It's probably the only real, radical, grassroots women's initiative -- not a NGO -- in Eastern Europe. Some people will tell you that it's unique worldwide. It's a lively group. I'm not really part of it anymore. I've drifted away. But they're still very active. They do things. They collect money for women in need. They organize the demonstrations. We started something that has lasted.

For me, the link between my pre-1989 past and Manifa is quite evident. We thought of ourselves as the new dissidents -- this time resisting the power of the Church and conservative politicians. We were using a lot of our former experience from the dissident years and also a lot of the same forms. For instance, rather than a direct expression of outrage, Manifa was a sequence of street theater events that were meant to laugh at the Catholic Church and the way that the government caters to the Church's needs, ignoring the citizens. We were doing it through laughter and ridicule. That form is not so vivid any more. But in the early years, it was like street cabaret. We were dressing up a lot.

The first Manifa included an interview with Matka Polka played by a very large feminist psychologist who was in an apron and I was a silly journalist in a purple wig. The idea is that she came to us to tell us that she was making pierogi in patriotic heaven and just couldn't stand it any more. Our first poster, in fact, was "I've had it!" -- signed Matka Polka. I remember getting phone calls from people who had had run into a tree when they saw the poster. The other poster in that first Manifa, which was my favorite, was: democracy without women is half a democracy. These two posters tell you what we were about. We did the interview, which was funny. And another piece of street theater was a scene from Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. Obviously, noone knew what we were talking about! We were students of literature doing our thing, building our language of resistance. We thought the Catholic Church was turning Polish women into handmaids.

Manifa was an expression of our helpless fury at how Catholic fundamentalism was taking over Polish politics in regard to women's rights. I still think that's true. What has changed is that I don't think any more that it was the most important thing happening in Poland. I think a lot of other processes were taking place that were not on our radar at the time because we did not think of ourselves as knowledgeable about economics. But it's true that the Catholic Church has irreparably damaged Polish democracy, taking over education among other things, and now it's too late.

What was the reaction from intellectual circles to Manifa?

At first they thought we were outrageous and that this was a great risk to us personally as future members of the elite. It took two or three Manifas for the professors to join in. I'm very close friends with these women, but I remember their fear that they would make themselves ridiculous. For some reason, I never had that fear.

Another woman who was most ferocious and unafraid of being ridiculous was Katarzyna Bratkowska, who's now a teacher in the multicultural school named after Jacek Kuron. Interestingly, she is my childhood friend from the Catholic group - KIK. She is now far to the left of me - from her point of view, I'm a rotten liberal. And there was Kazimiera Szczuka, a literary critic and still a very close friend of mine. She became a TV star, the host of the Polish version of the game show called "The Weakest Link."Part of her fame comes from her being unafraid of obciach. That's a very peculiar Polish word -- like inteligencja or etos. "Obciach" is public embarrassment or shaming -- it's when you make yourself look silly, uncool, or undignified in a way that is humiliating and will never be repaired. We live in a very conformistsociety, so for intellectuals, this fear of obciach, this fear that you're won't be dignified enough, is very important. Manifa was not dignified. We were doing outrageous things, wearing wigs, holding signs and so on. Manifa is a lot like some expressions of third-wave feminism where women dress up like prostitutes as an act of resistance to patriarchal rules. They simply refuse to be shamed.


Yes, that sort of thing. Or Femen, the Ukrainian group that has now gone international. I don't think we ever used nudity. But it could have gone that way. Nothing was sacred. There was one moment when we came close to censorship when someone wanted to do an event in which a priest would be raped by a gang of girls. We thought it would be too much -- because of an implicit approval of violence, not because of the priest. I don't think it happened. Though maybe it did and I missed it? At some point Manifa became multi-legged, where one thing would be happening at one end and another thing happening at another.

The notion of patriotism and the sacredness of certain places in Warsaw was a big deal. In 2003-4, I was in a discussion on TV with a progressive but serious Catholic ethos-based male journalist who told me that he was all for women's rights but why did we use the 8th of March and the area of the university when we all knew what that meant. And I asked, "What does it mean?" And he answered, "1968, of course." And I said, "Well, yes, I'm Jewish, and my mother was there at the demonstration in front of the university in 1968. And we are the new dissidents."

I don't see why women can't be claiming these symbols for themselves in subversive ways. If you know the Machulski movie Seksmisja [Sex Mission] then you know why the Copernicus statue would be so important for us. One of the first things we did was put a sign on Copernicus: "Kopernik była meżczyzną," which was a play on a line from Sex Mission ["Copernicus was a man" but with feminine ending to was -- there is a line in the movie "Copernicus was a woman"]. We thought of ourselves as the rightful inheritors of a tradition of Polish dissident life. We thought that the new oppressor - whom everyone for some strange reason was allowing to have everything it wanted -- was the Catholic Church. And we thought that women were the newly enslaved. That was our analysis, though it may sound like a bit of an overstatement.

The ban on abortion and the backlash against women's rights was not the only thing happening in Poland at the time. But it was really an important process and one that the whole male elite decided to ignore. They made this decision for a very good political reason, which they didn't really hide. They thought that the Church was needed for Poland to join the European Union. That was the deal. And actually Michnik said this in public much later, attacking myself and Kazia Szczuka for trying to ruin that deal by exposing it.

By 2003, Manifa had grown to several thousand people, and included university professors and the new LGBT movement. Obciach was not an issue anymore. Manifa was the first place where gays and lesbians were openly present. We welcomed them. We danced with a rainbow flag around the Cardinal Wyszyński statue. And I'm proud that we didn't have a homophobic stage, which might have easily happened. In 2003, we issued the so-called 100 Women letter, which basically said that we the undersigned are outraged that a dirty deal is being done behind the backs of half the citizens of Poland. The deal, we said, was that the government and the Church have decided to prevent any changes in the abortion law in return for the Church's support for Poland joining the EU.

We could say this openly at the time because one of the bishops had, a few weeks earlier, basically said the same thing openly. The official version was that the Polish people didn't want abortion to be legal. But of course that was a lie - that much was clear from polls at the time. I'm not sure if it's a lie anymore: because the anti-choice propaganda has been so strong, if we have a referendum today I'm not sure we would win. But at the time most people thought abortion should be legal at least on the grounds of economic need. They were not allowing this debate to take place. There was clearly censorship in the media on this issue. Later this was lifted, but at the time, you couldn't write an article about the social effects of the abortion law. The 100 Women letter was our first public success as a movement because we got famous people like Agnieszka Holland to sign. It was also a moment of great unity and action. We were sitting at a women's NGO, making all these telephone calls. I was one of the important callers because I was well known by then. I had published my first book, World Without Women. And I was one of the most recognizable feminists. I remember to this day who refused and who said yes.

I had a personal meeting with Helena Łuczywo at Gazeta Wyborcza who refused and explained why. "Of course you're right and of course this deal is happening," she said. "And of course Gazeta Wyborcza is part of the deal." I don't think she would have said this publicly. But it was true. The liberal elites were basically telling women that they had to wait. And the funny thing is that after 2004, when the referendum took place, and after 2005 when Poland joined the EU, abortion was still an issue that separated us from Europe. This is what my second book - Rykoszetem [Stray Bullets] is about: how limiting women's rights, reproductive rights, became a symbol of Poland's autonomy in the EU, even a symbol of our national pride. If I have a success as an intellectual, it is in making this idea popular among the left, almost conventional wisdom, through the articles I published in Gazeta Wyborcza and elsewhere and the speeches I gave at the Congress of Women. Not everyone will agree with me that this is outrageous, but they see that it's true: that women's rights and sexual minority rights were basically traded for Church support for EU accession. Homophobia and gender conservatism became synonyms of national pride.And the progressive elites allowed this to happen, the folks at Gazeta Wyborcza. Their fear was that without the Church keeping a lid on the outrageous part of nationalism, Poland would never join the EU. So they gave the Church women's rights...

What actually happened was that the Church took more than its due and didn't keep a lid on the nationalism. Now we are in a situation where the nationalist Right, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice Party or PiS), will probably win in the elections and there will be no more protection. I'm really afraid that Poland will tumble into a kind of neo-nationalist hell.

A kind of Hungarian scenario.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.