Polish feminism is no longer ridiculed

For a good part of the last two decades, becoming a feminist was a sure way to make oneself ridiculous in Poland. You were viewed as a naive enthusiast of western ideas, supposedly irrelevant to Polish culture, or worse – a fossil from former times, a communist. Well, the days of feminist martyrdom are over: in the runup to Poland’s presidency of the European Union, women’s rights have become a serious and respectable topic of public debate. Feminism is all but a fad, with major celebrities speaking publicly for equality, and attending Women’s Day street demonstrations. The third European Women’s Congress, planned for September 2011 in Warsaw, is presented as one of the presidency’s major events, a showcase of Poland’s successful modernisation. The prime minister, Donald Tusk, recently said in a speech that his government intends to listen closely to the recommendations of the congress.

How did this happen? And is it true commitment to gender justice or mere public relations? In part, the movement owes its new visibility to a strategic change of focus. After 20 years of exhausting and fruitless struggle for reproductive rights, its efforts have shifted. Given the enormous political influence of the Catholic church, legalisation of abortion is likely to remain a fantasy for decades. But there are areas where both massive mobilisation and real success is possible. The new strategy is to downplay topics that divide women (abortion and sexual minority rights) and to attract celebrity women who will bring in crowds. The «patrons» of the Women’s Congress include legend of underground «Solidarity» Henryka Krzywonos, Danuta Wałęsa (Lech Wałęsa’s wife), former first lady Jolanta Kwaśniewska and novelist Olga Tokarczuk.

Within just two years of its birth, the congress has managed to bring about two major changes in law: 35% electoral quotas and a bill on childcare for under-threes, both passed by parliament in recent months. The two bills were viciously attacked by the right as dangerous to family values, and are justly criticised by the left as insufficient. Why require parties to place 35% women on election lists and not the 50% as originally demanded? Why is the childcare reform so poorly funded? Still, these are the movement’s first tangible achievements – pro-woman legislation won through activism and not forced by EU regulations.

Together, the laws may bring about real change. Poland has one of the lowest proportions of women in the labour market in Europe (53%, compared with the EU average of about 60%). Lack of accessible childcare is a major factor. Workplace discrimination is widespread. The wage gap, now broadly discussed in the media, is about 23%. The last to be hired, the first to be fired, more likely to be stuck with uncertain, short-term employment with no benefits, women have clearly been losers in Poland’s turn to free market economy. Young women lose their jobs when pregnant, older women are pushed out of their jobs and asked to retire. Prospects for a decent pension may be grim for all, due to financial and demographic crises, but they are far grimmer for women, who not only earn less, but retire five years earlier then men (60 and 65 respectively). If enough women can leave toddlers in nursery schools and head to work, and if enough women can get elected and press for gender justice, at least some of this might change.

The women’s movement is now big enough to be internally divided. Magdalena Środa – the charismatic intellectual who is the brain behind the Congress – is often vilified by the right as a leftist ideologue, man-hater and destroyer of the family. But in fact the Women’s Congress is the moderate wing of Polish feminism. The true radicals – groups of leftwing women who work in feminist NGOs and organise annual street demonstrations known as Manifa, criticise the congress for its neoliberal agenda, its flirtation with the government, and its disregard for poor women. Its leading figures (and much of its funding) come from the business world, and meetings are often held in the Warsaw stock market. The goal of this year’s Manifa was to publicise the atrocious employment conditions of nurses and women working in supermarkets, its slogan: «Enough exploitation.» Meanwhile the congress is initiating a campaign for quotas on boards of directors.

Another cause for controversy is that the congress has abandoned the struggle for reproductive rights. Abortion was banned in Poland in 1993, and a huge underground has evolved. With sex education long gone from schools, and religion lessons securely installed in its stead, public debate about sexuality and motherhood is run by the Catholic church – a discourse of shame, not rights. Can reproductive freedom be strategically placed on a back burner for a time, and then made central again when women have gained political power? It sounds like a good plan, but the «right time» may never arrive, and meanwhile the conservative forces continue to push their agenda. The struggle for abortion long lost, we now need to defend in vitro fertilisation, which – like abortion – is viewed as «murder» by the church.

The rifts within the movement may be painful, but «Polish feminism» is certainly no longer an oxymoron. After two decades of talk about the «special status of women in Poland», supposedly due to the importance of the Virgin Mary in national culture, commitment to gender equality is becoming a new selling point for Poland as an EU member. The new feminism may be somewhat shy on issues close to the heart of the Catholic church, but given Poland’s well-earned reputation for conservatism, homophobia and abuse of women’s reproductive rights, mainstream enthusiasm for gender justice is a welcome change.

By Agnieszka Graff, a Polish writer, translator, commentator, feminist and women’s and human rights activist.

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