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Charting the Transformation in Poland's Feminist Movement

A significant change occurred in the Polish feminist movement in 2006-07. Until then, the major women's groups concentrated almost exclusively on fighting sexual stereotypes and ignored all political and economic issues. This restricted their appeal to middle class women since it was economic issues that were more important for women from the lower classes. It was only when the groups began taking up the latter issues, aligning with left trade unions in some cases and acknowledging political differences among themselves, did they start attracting women from different socio-economic, ethnic and religious categories.


Charting the Transformation in Poland’s Feminist Movement

Joanna Erbel

A significant change occurred in the Polish feminist movement in 2006-07. Until then, the major women’s groups concentrated almost exclusively on fighting sexual stereotypes and ignored all political and economic issues. This restricted their appeal to middle class women since it was economic issues that were more important for women from the lower classes. It was only when the groups began taking up the latter issues, aligning with left trade unions in some cases and acknowledging political differences among themselves, did they start attracting women from different socio-economic, ethnic and religious categories.

Joanna Erbel ( is on the editorial team of Political Critique and is a doctoral student at the Institute of Sociology at University of Warsaw.

rom the beginning of the 21st century, feminist initiatives in Poland have begun gaining in significance. On 8 March 2000, the first feminist demonstration, known as Manifa, was held with the slogan, “Democracy without women is half democracy”. It was organised by the Porozumienie Kobiet 8 Marca (Women’s 8 March Agreement). Since then the manifas have been held annually, with the slogans and mottoes of each of them reflecting a changing social and political situation in Poland.1

At the same time new formal and informal feminist groups were being formed focusing on struggle against various forms of women’s oppression. This paper examines a specific aspect of the Polish feminist movement – the way in which the groups are organised and the subjects are discussed. I will deal with significant changes in the feminist movement that occurred in the years 2006-07, when the feminist critique based mainly on an analysis of cultural oppression was being gradually replaced by economic issues, while at the same time the feminist movement was taking on a more formalised structure with the transformation of informal groups into foundations and associations.

The empirical basis of my analysis includes the over 30 interviews I conducted with feminist activists all over Poland in mid-2006 and early 2007; a focus interview with young, shortterm activists; manifestos, feminist writings and a participating observation. I was particularly interested in the popular initiatives that aimed at changing the present social and political situation and which were supported by feminist organisations. I tried to find out if the initiatives dealt with some aspects of public movement “as a network of informal group associations and individuals which get together either to realise a particular programme or out of the sense of community” (Diani and McAdam 2003). I decided not to study organisations which aspire to strengthen women as independent individuals by way of a therapeutic discourse, which are not based on collective actions and aim only at changing women’s outlook, without trying to change social relations as a whole. I will be looking at the current and future scope and influence of the feminist movement in Poland, its motivational potential, and its limitations and capabilities in representing women’s interests. Like many other feminist movements all over the world, its aim is to fight for women’s interests and counteract sexual discrimination. The question of how to wage this struggle and what strategies to use has been a bone of contention since the feminist movement started. To better examine the movement I will refer to the division proposed by Maxine Molineux (1985). She believes that although at a certain level women may have some interests in common, there is no

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consensus over what these interests are, and how they are to be formulated. Thus “women’s oppression is recognised as being multicausal in origin and mediated through a variety of different structures, mechanisms, and levels which may vary considerably across space and time”. For a better recognition of women’s interests she classifies them as women’s interests, strategic gender interests and practical gender interests.

Women’s Interests: This category, although present both in political and theoretical discourse, is a disputable one because it is difficult, if not impossible, to specify what women’s interests are as women are not a homogeneous isolated group. They always occupy a certain position in the social structure which is affected by different factors (like class and ethnicity). Therefore “the interests they have as a group are similarly shaped in complex and sometimes conflicting ways” (ibid). Molineux does not say that women may not have certain interests in common, but she warns that analyses and political strategies should not deploy the notion of women’s interest imposing a false homogeneity. Instead she introduces gender interests.

Gender Interests: “Are those that women (or men, for that matter) may develop by virtue of their social positioning through gender attributes. Gender interests can be either strategic or practical, each being derived in a different way and each involving differing implications for women’s subjectivity” (ibid).

Strategic Interests: These are mainly derived deductively, namely from an analysis of women’s subordination and from proposing an alternative arrangement of social relations. This leads to the formulation of the strategic purposes such as the abolition of division of labour, along gender lines sharing domestic labour and childcare, freedom of choice in the matter of childbearing, political equality, and ending violence against women. These are the interests that are usually considered by feminists to be “real” women’s interests, and they are termed “feminist”.

Practical Gender Interests: These are formulated inductively and are derived from concrete conditions of women’s positioning within the gender division of labour. They are “a response to an immediate perceived need, and they do not generally entail a strategic goal such as women’s emancipation or gender equality” (ibid). They arise in response to a change of external factors, such as the decisions of a government that is unable to implement social policy favourable to women. They often result from the deterioration of the economic situation of women and therefore they cannot be considered separately from economic factors. The most expressive example of mobilisation for practical interests was the case of the so-called “alimony receivers”, who were fighting for the restoration of the Alimony Fund but did not make any feminist demands. On the contrary, they rejected them.

Molineux shows that there is no direct relation between practical and strategic interests, and that women often do not link them together. It concerns even the most basic and general demands such as complete equality with men, control over their own bodies, greater personal autonomy and independence from men.

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This is not just because of “a false awareness” as is frequently supposed

– although this can be a factor – but because such changes realised in a piecemeal fashion could threaten the short-term practical interests of some women, or entail a cost in the loss of forms of protection which are not then compensated for in some way (ibid).

Dealing with this discrepancy constitutes a challenge for the feminist movement whose effort is to realise women’s interests. “Indeed, it is the politicisation of these practical interests and their transformation into strategic interests that women can identify with and support which constitutes a central aspect of feminist political practice”, she explains. Molineux emphasises that although cohesion in relation to the postulated gender interests may form a platform for women’s unity based on a joint programme, such unity is never a given and always needs to be constructed in advance. Moreover, a multitude of other factors, apart from gender, affecting various groups of women always make women’s unity conditional, and the form of its expression significantly influences the mobilisation potential of the feminist movement.

The division into practical and strategic interests helps us to describe in detail relations between the feminist ideology, which dominates the movement, and the activities it undertakes. This concept enables us to review whether activities aimed at the realisation of practical interests translate into strategic interests of women recognised by the movement, and also to establish the relation between practical gender interests realised by groups of women (both feminist and non-feminist). Does the way in which the feminist movement defines women’s problems and do the issues it raises serve in creating women’s unity, or are they merely an answer to a specific need of a particular group of women? What is the movement’s mobilisation potential? Finally, which groups of women accept and recognise the problems defined by the movement as their own, and which are the groups whose strategies represent them the best?

Specificity and Transformation

While analysing the feminist organisations in Poland we need to bear in mind that the setting up and disbanding of various groups has no relation to the growth or fall in their members’ activity. This is because many of the members work in several organisations at the same time. It also frequently happens that in spite of the existence of many initiatives, new groups are formed to organise a particular event (e g, the Women’s 8 March Agreement) or for a concrete purpose related to a changing political situation.

Over the period of my research, many of the organisations I studied underwent significant changes in their structure. Even their numbers changed. Some of them disbanded (for example, the informal group Coolezanki from Bydgoszcz), some suspended their activity (the Women’s Section of the Oppressed Employee Assistance and Defence Committee) or were transformed (the formalisation of the pro-choice movement and the establishment of the Same o Sobie SOS Association (We About Ourselves)). Some of them operated seasonally like Ulica Siostrzana (Sister’s Street), organising Summer Feminist Actions, or the Women’s 8 March Agreement, activating itself for a dozen or so weeks to organise the annual manifa and other feminist demonstrations or


to participate in strikes and demonstrations organised by other groups.

The Polish feminist movement includes both formal and informal groups, some having the status of a foundation or association (e g, eFKa, Feminoteka, the Federation or the Women and Family Planning) as well as informal (e g, the Women’s 8 March Agreement, the women’s section of the KPiORP (the Oppressed Employee Assistance and Defence Committee), the pro-choice movement, the Gender Circles at universities). At the same time one of the features of the feminist movement is its relatively dynamic character. Formal and informal groups of all kinds are set up or are disbanded, and the activists are members of more than one group. The majority of the groups are informal, and apart from the Gender Circles at universities, they do not operate on a continuous basis. One of such groups is the Women’s 8 March Agreement, which embraces most of the feminists. As one of its activists emphasises, “it is an informal group which will never be formalised. The main purpose of the Women’s 8 March Agreement is the organisation of annual manifas, and especially the manifa in Warsaw”. To be included in the Women’s 8 March Agreement activist list one needs to be recommended by a member of the group. Apart from organising manifas, the email address list is used to coordinate other protest campaigns organised by the feminists themselves or jointly with other groups.

The emergence of new informal groups is also an answer to concrete political events. The best example is the pro-choice movement, that came together in November 2006, when the bill introducing amendments to the constitution of the Polish republic (aimed at toughening the antiabortion act and guaranteeing protection of human life from the moment of conception) was to be presented to parliament. The first meeting of the pro-choice movement took place at the REDakcja Krytyki Politycznej (REDaction, the centre started by Political Critique, a quarterly left-wing journal) at the promotion of the book The Mother Mark by Marta Dzido which deals with abortion. There, in response to a spontaneous question by Katarzyna Bratkowska – “Which of you will stand with a banner ‘I HAVE HAD AN ABORTION DONE’ in front of parliament next Tuesday?” all hands were raised, and an email address list was drawn up, which served in the coordination of protest campaigns in the months to follow. A mode of operation based on work in fits and starts may be interpreted as the feminist movement’s incapacity to adopt and realise a long-term strategy. It forces feminists not only to work with very limited financial resources (since an informal group cannot collect money in a short time), but also hinders planning. The girls from the pro-choice movement are aware of these shortcomings and often treat their engagement as an ad hoc activity. However, at the same time, they claim that when the political situation is endangering women’s rights, as it is now, they cannot afford to change the way they operate.

As a result a considerable part of the Polish feminist movement operates mainly by taking on tasks in response to a changing political situation. This spontaneous way of working, if it is not the only mode of operation, turns out to be very effective in a longer perspective, and is the sign of political intuition, which at the time of the “emergency state” (the attempt to change the constitution was recognised as such) makes it possible to act “beyond divisions” without the necessity of negotiating strategies at the level of organisations and associations. This is especially vital as creating such an informal group does not entail breakdown of other groups. Moreover, by acting in response to the current political situation it has a bigger mobilisation potential than groups and associations operating on a continuous basis. Furthermore, it can be transformed any time into a formal group, as it was in the case of the pro-choice movement, from which the SOS emerged. After a period of informal activity a group of activists may establish a foundation of their own centred on some particular issue raised by the movement or some concrete demand addressed to a smaller group of women. Apart from the SOS, which struggles for the legalisation of abortion, other organisations of this type are: the MaMa (Mother) Foundation and the Mama w Centrum (Mother in the Centre) Foundation set up by the members of the Women’s Agreement. This shows that activity in informal groups not only allows to articulate one’s disagreement with the present form of social reality but may also lead to setting up of formal organisations that will link the realisation of practical gender interests with strategic interests.

Subjects and Operating Strategies

Deciding on strategic interests and analysis of the type of social relations related to them, specifying the most important issues, recognising the basis of identity and the aim of the struggle are all aspects that show the character of a movement and its range. Most of the organisations and feminist groups I examined focus on women’s oppression which is seen as the cause of cultural factors (social representation, shared cognitive patterns). These are, in my understanding, diagnoses that explain the marginalisation of women as a result of sexual stereotypes based on men’s domination. They also condemn the attribution of specific sexual roles and sexually determined “natural” abilities to men and women, but at the same time they do not criticise the social and economic system. Organisations based on such premises concentrate on the fight against stereotypes, as according to them, it is the most effective way of giving equal opportunity to men and women to realise their chosen life goals. This type of feminist critique that dominates the groups and organisations I examined ignores economic conditions that both men and women have to wrestle with. The two biggest organisations representing this type of feminism (which are also the biggest feminist organisations in Poland) are the Women’s Foundation (eFKa), operating since 1991, and Feminoteka, which started out in 2001 as a feminist news bulletin and bookstore but transformed into a foundation in 2005. This type of feminism is also present in smaller feminist organisations and informal groups, as well as in the Gender Circle at universities.

From the above mentioned organisations, the Feminoteka enjoys the biggest response, as far as the number of recipients of its services is concerned. Owing to the fact that it operates as a portal its range is not limited only to big cities, where feminist organisations have their offices but also covers small towns. The Feminoteka is not only a bookstore. It publishes books and news

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bulletin delivering the latest news and information that may interest feminists. It has wide membership and is often one of the first sources of information on feminism for people interested in this subject.

The statutory goals of the Feminoteka are fighting against sexual discrimination in literature, culture, art, and political life; promotion of women’s rights, adopting measures against men’s violence against women, eliminating the barriers related to gaining knowledge, spreading new technologies and propagating information about women, gender issues and feminism.2 During my research the Feminoteka took part in the Gender Index Project. It was mainly a campaign for equal opportunities in the labour market and convincing employers that employing women is profitable. The Feminoteka was also a partner of the Akcja Akacja (Acacia Action) organised by the Partners Polska Foundation, for promoting local leaders. Apart from participating in various projects, the Feminoteka realises its own statutory goals by organising meetings with feminist activists, feminist events (book fairs, book promotions), promoting feminist literature, and conducting WenDo self-defence courses. The fight against gender discrimination is also the main goal of the Women’s Foundation (eFKa), which aims at “supporting women’s solidarity and independence, taking action against women’s discrimination and developing women’s culture”.3 The eFKa, like the Feminoteka, operates in various fields. As a publishing company and internet bookstore it organises public meetings, lectures on feminism as part of the Feminist Academy, festivals, workshops and runs a library. Under the patronage of the eFKa, an online “gender” discussion forum is held, where the activists comment on various happenings from the feminist point of view. Since 1998 the eFKa Foundation has been publishing the feminist magazine Zadra (Splinter), which uses language comprehensible not only for the activists but to a larger group of women of different educational and social status.

The Zadra’s goal is to take feminism to a larger audience and show them the cultural codes which underline various forms of discrimination. It argues that gender relations based on domination and the traditional role division not only can be but also must be questioned. The Zadra, like many eFKa’s initiatives concentrates on cultural and educational activity serving the fight against prevailing gender stereotypes and helping women to overcome them. It holds training courses for the unemployed, offering skills indispensable in the labour market, such as computer literacy, writing and submitting application letters, or setting up a business.

Concentrating on popularising feminist awareness arranged around the critique of culture and organising courses and workshops to build skills and self-confidence perhaps generates ability to better function in the neoliberal capitalist society and acts more efficiently according to its rules, but it does not mean questioning it. A large number of feminist groups struggle for equal gender opportunities, but as they fail to question the relationship between power and economic structures, they do not take action against the inequalities that result from this relation. The postulated “equality of opportunities” does not necessarily mean an improvement in the situation of all women

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to the same extent. According to bell hooks (2000), women from the lower social and economic classes

would not define women’s liberation as the achievement of social gender equality because they are reminded on a daily basis that not all women have the same social status. (…) Aware of the fact that men from their social groups do not have either social, political or economic power, they would not recognise the sharing of their status as liberating.

For an educated woman working in the city, equality of chances means something entirely different from what it means to a single mother from a small town. While it is more likely that the former would be able to realise her practical interests by attending courses and workshops, it is not so obvious in the case of the latter.

A similar type of reflection, focused on cultural oppression while overlooking the economic sphere is also present during discussions held at the Gender Circles at universities. The Gender Circles of Warsaw and Gdansk also emphasise analysis of stereotypes of gender images and take up educational activity to make people more sensitive to the problem of gender discrimination. The main issues discussed within the framework of the initiatives raised by the Gender Circles include broadly understood moral concerns (family model, abortion, prostitution, sexuality), the image of women in cultural traditions, advertisements, commercials, films, politics, in both debates and smaller parliamentary groups.

Political discussions are rarely held at the Gender Circles meetings. “We (the members of the Gender Circle of Gdansk) are blocked by the aversion to politics”, says the founder of the circle. This does not mean that political questions are not brought up, but that they are presented as issues related to some gender stereotypes. These issues include mainly abortion, prostitution, pornography, and their critical analysis most often relates to some concrete political situation (e g, the current ruling party’s administration) rather than exposing the social and economic mechanisms. The political is defined here in relation to the feminist slogan, “private is political”, and the emphasis is put on the way corporality (especially female) is entangled in the power mechanisms and how the choices and behaviour concerned with the intimate sphere of family life, in other words, private matters, translate into social and political ones.

Rarely, however, does the politics of moral issues relate to economic matters. It does not, for example, identify the type of reflection on corporality in relation to the social class the particular woman comes from. Privacy and the political in such analyses define each other, but are not related to economy, which is seen not as a system of relations significantly affecting the character of social life, but as a completely autonomous sphere with little influence on social relations. The economic system is not included in the scope of interest, and the attention is drawn only to unequal opportunities on the labour market due to the division of labour based on gender stereotypes, for example, the conviction that men make better employees than women. In consequence, the analyses concentrating on the fight against stereotypes show gender inequalities (rarely race or religious discriminations), but at the same time completely forget about economic or class disparities among women themselves. As one of the members of


KPiORP put it, ignoring economic issues is in some way “natural” for the members of the Women’s Agreement.

The reason why reaching beyond the cultural perspective is difficult is that Polish feminism was born through the faculty of humanistic fields of study at universities. On the one hand, feminist activists were well-equipped with the refined methodology of critical culture, and, on the other, they formed a homogeneous group as far as social and demographic characteristics were concerned. Therefore, they showed interest in analyses of cultural texts and deconstruction of femininity, while ignoring economic issues. This kind of feminist critique – based primarily on critique of culture, moral issues, and associating women’s discrimination in the labour market with prevalence of gender stereotypes which generate unequal opportunities – dominated Polish feminism at the beginning of the new millennium. Consequently, the scope of the feminist movement was very limited, and its postulates only reached a small group of women. Some of the efforts undertaken to go nationwide involved: placing the Feminoteka on-line, supporting local initiatives, training programmes organised by the eFKa, attempts to adjust the content and language used in the Zadra to the needs of a larger public. However, in practice all these initiatives, despite their intention to meet the needs of various groups of women, overlooked the differences among women resulting from the social stratification and economic disparities, assuming that all women regardless of their social status have the same interests and needs and are subject to the same forms of oppression. It manifested itself, on the one hand, in the conviction that all women share the same model of a successful woman (mobile on the flexible labour market, easily adapting to changing working conditions by attending subsequent training courses) and that the area of feminist activities is, as one of the members of the Women’s Agreement put it, the so-called “vice squad”.

The feminist movement’s strategies were also based on the implicit assumption that either women do not have political views or if they do, the monolithic women’s interests would drive them to act in the name of one cause or against one enemy. When asked which party she supported, a member of Women’s Agreement said that they did not talk about it. Although a part of the feminist movement was involved in politics and belonged to a political party (the majority of the Zieloni 2004 (the Greens 2004)), the members of the Women’s Agreement not only ignored politics but were not even aware that they might have views similar to the programme of some party they could identify with. The very structure of the movement allowed them to fight gender discrimination without sympathising with any political option.

Divisions between feminists were not based on different views on economic or political system, but rather on moral issues. Within the framework of the Women’s 8 March Agreement only one group, the anarchist Emancypunx group, defined itself with reference to political identity. Political issues were brushed aside because they might cause unnecessary divisions and weaken the feminist movement. Concentrating on critique of culture and defining the struggle for social changes in reference to the rhetoric of equal chances deprived the feminist movement of political awareness. By adopting such an attitude, the Polish feminist movement, despite its active involvement in many initiatives, questioning of social relations and politicising of issues that are private, remained apolitical and blind to the goods redistribution discrimination and limited the feminists’ activity to critique of culture and so separated from the economy or social politics.

Focusing on corporality and making moral issues the major plank restricted the area of reflection of the feminist movement. Emancipation and developing the ability to look through the gender perspective did not question men’s domination or liberate women from the male gaze that made them self-conscious of their body, but only changed the type of concern. By concentrating only on stereotypes and cultural issues women’s energy was again directed to where it had been directed for ages by male domination, to what is private and intimate, in contrast to what is political. Such strategy does not allow identification of differences between women, which makes it impossible to lead an effective feminist policy in order to realise the practical interests of a large group of women. This policy as Chantal Mouffe (1992) puts it: “is not a separate form of politics created to realise interests of women as women but rather, a race of feminist goals within broadly expressed needs”.

The Polish feminist movement was based on the assumption that all women are subject to the same form of patriarchal oppression, which as bell hooks puts it, implies that they share the same type of the victim experience, “the same fate: that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preferences, etc, do not make a difference in the experience which determines the moment when sexism starts to be an oppressive force in the life of an individual woman”. The lack of differentiation between various forms of oppression made it impossible for the feminist movement to realise practical interests of this group of women which was not excluded in any other way except for gender. This practical approach to women’s problems did not allow the movement to represent a larger group of women, especially those who were affected by unfair goods distribution to a greater extent than by masculine domination, or those whose religious identity and convictions had not been recognised in the movement’s strategy.

The best example of an unsuccessful alliance between the feminists and women standing up for their rights is the case of the alimony receivers. When in 2003 the Democratic Left Alliance-led government decided to liquidate the Alimony Fund, a lot of women aggrieved by this directive started to apply for help to the Women’s Rights Centre of Kraków and the Critical Intervention Centre. Feminists from these organisations encouraged the women to organise themselves, held meetings and gave them advice on how to set up an association. In autumn 2003 the former activists of the Women’s Environment Information Centre Foundation Oska (Axle) appealed in a letter sent to all the parliamentary clubs to vote against the liquidation of the fund. The only answer they got was from the chief of the Democratic Left Alliance club and all it contained were arguments for the liquidation. They also appealed to all women members of parliament from all the parties to support the women fighting for alimony and to vote against the bill, but they did not get any response (Gazeta Wyborcza, 10 April 2007). In the beginning the alimony receivers also took part in feminist demonstrations. This

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c ooperation lasted until 2004 during which time several protests for the reintroduction of the Alimony Fund were organised. It ended when the political parties – first the Samoobrona (the Self-Defence) and then the Liga Polskich Rodzin (the League of the Polish Families) promised the single mothers support in their fight for the restoration of the Alimony Fund. The women broke up completely with the feminist movement and after the election sympathised with PiS (Law and Justice), a conservative party. Thus, single mothers decided that it was the conservative party that articulated their economic situation and which stressed the importance of Catholic values that would allow them to realise their practical interests. The alimony receivers did not identify themselves with the strategic interests of the feminist movement and did not recognise their problem as one due to their gender. The feminist movement, on the other hand, propagating only emancipation postulates connected with sexual parity did not notice two other factors responsible for the alimony receivers place in the social structure: economic exclusion and Catholicism. The lack of full recognition of the social position of the alimony receivers not only made the alliance impossible, but also caused them to distrust the feminists. The alimony receivers declared they did not like feminists because instead of standing up for the rights of ordinary women they defended lesbians (ibid). This shows the alimony receivers’ conviction that there is a contradiction between the postulates of gender emancipation and “ordinary women’s” rights, between equal opportunity postulates and the improvement of their economic situation. This unsuccessful alliance proves that the mobilisation potential of the movement concentrated on gender equality principles based on critical culture is very limited.

This limitation of the movement was gradually overcome in 2006, when several new organisations which were critical of the economic system were set up, like the women’s section of the Oppressed Employee Assistance and Defence Committee (KPiORP), and the Feminist Think Tank operating as part of the Tomek Byra (Ecology and Art) Foundation. Both these groups were the answer to the problems of the feminist movement which arose from ignoring economic issues and all the limitations that resulted.

The Feminist Think Tank aims at broadening the area of feminist discourse and developing critical social and political feminist critique, including a critique of the “transformation” project analysis and its relation with economic globalisation. The Feminist Think Tank notices the weaknesses of the feminist critique, which dominates the movement, and believes that

Today the movement is facing a lot of political and intellectual challenges. Apart from critical culture we need multilevel, detailed analyses of the institutions such as the state, law and market. (…) The feminist voice in the public area cannot be restricted to a narrowly understood “women’s issue” – it should be concerned with all vital problems of the world today as the world’s problems involve


also women.

Ewa Charkiewicz, director of the ecology and art foundation believes that feminist critique cannot be limited to the so-called “women issues”, remaining on the microanalysis level and ignoring the macroanalysis level.

The Feminist Think Tank believes that moral issues cannot be discussed (for example, the right to abortion) without a critical

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analysis of the legal system and economic relations regarding a particular issue. Its goal is to carry out such an analysis and deliver a set of tools to make feminist critique possible. To achieve this the Feminist Think Tank organised workshops, meetings, training courses (for example, a course on the feminist economy on the internet) to connect on the level of an analysis what is private and relates to individuals’ bodies with what is political and global, revealing how an individual is involved in power relations.

The emergence of the women’s section of the KPiORP was also a respone to the need for a critical analysis of redistributions of goods and characteristic apoliticality of the feminist movement. It was not much concerned with cultural issues, but rather with employee rights and women’s presence in the labour market. Its task was to propagate gender awareness in the framework of the KPiORP, which invokes the ideas of the old Left, and until then had given priority to employee rights over minority rights. The women’s section strove to wipe out divisions between the so-called “vice squad” and the economic left and prove that it is important and possible to connect postulates of the old Left, concentrating on the class struggle, with the emancipation postulates of the new Left. The people forming this section of the KPiORP were aware of both the class discrimination as well as gender discrimination prevailing in our society. They also noticed that although there are women’s trade unions, they are not able to deal with the specific situation of women employees created by their femininised jobs such as those of nurses, midwives or flight attendants. Most of the trade unions, irrespective of the degree of femininisation of a job, stress class disparities very often ignoring acute gender discrimination.

The cooperation of feminists with trade unions had a great influence on the character of the manifa in 2006. It was devoted to employee rights, and a march through Warsaw carried banners like “Let’s fight together!”, “Let’s be free!” “Let’s stand up for our rights!”. The focusing of attention on trade issues was a significant change. It was for the first time in the manifa’s history that not only moral issues but also economic postulates were explicitly brought up. The former were related to the problem of participation in the social life. “Democracy without women is half democracy” (2000), “Don’t allow them to shut you up with junk” (2001); the involvement of corporality in the power structures, “My life – my choice” and “3 times YES: YES for sexual education, YES for contraception, YES for a right to abortion” (2002), and “Our bodies, our life our rights” (2003), “Girls, we need action” (2004), and “We are strong, stronger together!” (2005) (http://

A move towards trade unions was a very significant step for the recognition of divisions in the movement, which resulted from different economic views. One of the first signs of this change was the two different statements issued by the feminist movement against the government proposal to extend maternity leave: a neoliberal one signed by the Polish Confederation of Private Employers “Lewiatan”, Feminoteka, feminist groups and others,5 and a left one drafted by the female section of KPiORP.6 Both appeals criticise extending maternity leave from 16 to 18 months,7 which was only an illusory improvement in the situation of


women. Each of them points out the negative results which that reform might cause such as driving mothers out of the labour market and restricting the employment of women generally on grounds of being “costly”. Although each of them assesses the reform as harmful, they propose different solutions. The Feminoteka and the Lewiatan stress the necessity of promoting flexible forms of employment and working time organisation, enabling women to combine their careers with bringing up children by developing a network of cheap day care centres and nursery schools, as well as financial assistance to cover the cost of pre-school care for single parents and large families; moreover, extending maternity leave by two optional weeks, of which one week is to be mandatorily paternal, which according to the signatories serves to increase the balance on the labour market and improve the situation of women. Despite postulates to increase the number of day care centres and nursery schools, as well as delivering financial assistance, much more stress is laid on the flexibility of mothers as employees rather than on system changes. They recommend reduction of legal restrictions which will favour women provided with proper skills and capabilities move more efficiently on the labour market.

Another solution is presented in the KPiORP statement, which gives priority to economic postulates. It demands abolition of the asymmetric vision of childcare by introducing parental leave (regardless of whether the parents’ relation is formal or informal), defies liquidation of social benefits, and increase in social protection and assistance because as it claims “for women social safety which is guaranteed by this kind of institutions is more important than the problem with extending maternity leaves”.8 It also points out that the idea of extending maternity leave is closely related to the economic policy of the government: “the government offers women, like other social groups in need of support handouts instead of rights guaranteed by the system – two weeks mean really very little in this situation” (ibid).

The statement includes solutions that take into account the threats that a great number of low-paid employees face and show that “social protection and welfare, i e, parental and childcare leave, as well as the protective period are due to all parents irrespective of whether they have an employment contract or whether they take jobs under civil contracts such as a specific task contract or order contract.

In case of such contracts all four health insurance contributions should be equally divided between employee and employer (ibid). The KPiORP statement puts stronger emphasis on social exclusion resulting from the economic situation while the Feminoteka and Lewiatan’s appeal focuses on the question of unequal opportunities in the labour market. We are dealing here with two types of feminist critique: one culture-oriented, the other underlining exclusion caused by economic inequalities. We can also observe two different alliances, the one with the Confederation of Private Employers and the other with trade unions.

Recognising economic issues as one of the factors that determine the place of women in the social structure, and including social inequalities caused by the economic situation in the discussion on feminist strategy is not without influence on the character of the movement. This allows feminists to form new alliances with groups like trade unions, which up to now because of e ssential class differences, were strangers to them, and used to have completely different. if not contradictory interests. Since the manifa of 2007 the cooperation between these two groups has grown stronger and become more frequent. The September 1980 Free Trade Union let the feminists use its premises for meetings and its members supported feminists’ demonstrations and rallies (the manifa of 2006, the Great March for Women’s Solidarity of 2007 and abortion coming-outs), both by participating and acting as security guards against potential attacks by right-wing squads. This shows that women may form alliances not only with other women or sexual minorities, as it used to be until now, but also with other groups dominated by social and economic factors. This also proves the thesis by Pringle and Watson (1998), that

if “women’s interests” are more constructed than preconstituted, then men’s are the same. If we are to be liberated from the authentic women’s subject, then we can be liberated from the men’s as well. The patriarchal discourse should not be viewed as homogenous and equally oppressive, and women do not need to be presented as victims. This makes it possible to reveal differences among men, and where appropriate, to form alliances.

The alliance of feminists with the September 1980 union should be recognised as one such alliance based on differentiation of men’s oppression.

An example of different forms of association was the involvement of feminists from the Women’s Agreement in the protest of nurses from 19 June to 15 July 2007 and participation in the life of the so-called “White Town”, a camp pitched at this time in front of the prime minister’s office. Unlike the unsuccessful feminists’ alliance with the alimony receivers this cooperation was feasible. Feminists were present in the White Town for the entire period of the protest. They were welcomed by activists of the National Nurses and Midwives Union, spoke together at public appearances, and helped organising the town. The nurses, for their part in their speeches and texts, repeatedly underlined the issues recognised as feminist, such as women’s solidarity with their colleagues, and in the White Town Courier they emphasised their strength as the strength of independent women. “We are inventive. We can do something out of nothing, if need be. Essentially, nurses are superwomen” (Gazeta Wyborcza, 22 June 2007), who are not afraid to stand up for their rights. The White Town Courier9 (9 July 2007) published a feminist text by Kazimiera Szczuka on the association of the protest of nurses with the struggle of feminists. As Szczuka writes: “You don’t need to think for a long time to realise that disgracefully low salaries for nurses have probably something to do with the fact that nurses are most often women. Feminism has been called ‘the longest revolution’ ”. “Step by step we are developing a better social contract between the sexes for everyone, a new arrangement of public sphere she says and stresses”. She also speaks of how much she a Warsaw citizen and a feminist had learned from the nurses. “I have no doubts after the protest of nurses the Polish public sphere will never be the same”. Whereas, in the first days of the protests Agnieszka Graff wrote in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza (22 June 2007),

Nurses are still patronisingly called “ladies”, as if the thing was about letting them go through the door first and not about money postulates.

December 20, 2008

A characteristic sentence by the deputy minister of health about “political” context of the protests means that it is being manipulated, not autonomous. The authorities suggest that nurses don’t know what they want.

Graff explicitly shows that nurses are subject to double exclusion – economic and gender-determined, and emphasises their awareness of the fight for their rights. Such recognition of the practical interests of the nurses as corresponding not only to trade unions’ interests, but also to the strategic interests of the feminist movement is an entirely new phenomenon. Until now labour’s fight for economic interests and the feminists’ fight for emancipation were mutually exclusive. The protest of the nurses proved that the two can meet.


The period between 2006 and 2007 can be recognised as a breakthrough in the Polish feminist movement. Till then by restricting its area of activity to cultural oppression the feminist movement marginalised itself as a political subject. Not only were the feminists unable to meet the demands of groups of women other than those from the middle class, but they also naturalised division into male and female matters prevailing in patriarchal societies. Cultural feminism deprived feminist postulates of power and limited their scope to moral issues, and this way pushed feminist activists into activity in the field of culture, making them incapable of putting forward postulates other than those pertaining to corporality, emancipation, or discrimination. Although their activity was based on the principle that “private is


1 Although in my analysis I refer to the beginning of the 21st century, it’s crucial to remember that a feminist movement existed in Poland from the 1980s. In 1986 Siemienska’s students organised a feminist film festival in the cinema “Kultura” (Warsaw). After 1990, a group led by Bujak and Labuda set up committees to gather signatures for a general referendum on abortion. A strong movement arose then. When abortion was delegalised in 1993 (without the referendum) the activists concentrated on building formal structures (NGOs, gender studies).

2 From the Feminoteka Foundation statute, http:// pdf.



5 The appeal was signed by more than 150 people and institutions, among others: the Lewiatan – The Polish confederation of private employers, women’s organisations, associations and foundations: the Humane Childbirth Foundation, the Mama Foundation, the Centre for Women’s Promotion Foundation, the Feminoteka Foundation, the Karat Coalition, the “Let live”-Association of Single Mothers Assistance of Warsaw, Magdalena Sroda, Wiktor Osiatynski, Ewa Lisowska, Ewa Woydyllo-Osiatynska, participants of the “Equal opportunities – greater effectiveness “Conference, and also participants of the Gazeta Wyborcza debate, “Occupation- Mother”, http:// www.feminoteka.psl/news.php? readmore =742.

6 The statement of the KPiORP of 18 September 2006, /1134.

7 Under the regulations binding in Poland an employer cannot terminate an employment contract

political” their involvement was not entirely political; sometimes even apolitical as it ignored political economy, which strongly affects women’s life. As they were unable to notice other reasons for social inequality save gender discrimination, they could not reach a larger group of women especially those suffering from the unfair distribution of goods. Only when they got interested in economic issues did they manage to break the feminist movement’s elitism. Attempts to develop cooperation with trade unions are a sign of the movement overcoming its own limitation of ignoring economic dimension. In the collaboration between nurses and feminists there was evaluation of feminists’ and nurses’ postulates and two ways of understanding politicalisation. Politicalisation associated with emancipation postulates culture as an area of activity. This confrontation had an influence on the broadening of awareness by including employee rights and the left-wing view of economy into areas of their i nterest. It also helped the feminists recognise political divisions amongst themselves and the shortcomings of their strategy which then dominated the Polish feminist movement. Simultaneously, despite formalisation and the foundations and associations, the movement still retains its spontaneity in reacting to a changing social and political situation. The transformation that the feminist movement has undergone allows it to put forward political postulates more consciously and act more efficiently, as well as to broaden its area by incorporating p ractical interests of women of different social status, ethnicity, religion and assets.

with a pregnant woman or during maternity leave.

8 The statement of the KPiORP.

9 The White Town Courier was published during the nurses’ protest by a team of journalists and activists connected with the Leftist collective and the Political Critique (Krytyka Polityczna).


Diani, Mario and Doug McAdam (ed.) (2003):

Social Movements and Networks: Relational

Approaches to Collective Action (US: Oxford University Press).

hooks, bell (2000): Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre, South End Press.

Mouffe, Chantal (1992): “Feminism and Radical Politics” in Feminists Theorise the Political, Judith Butler and Joan Scott (ed.) (New York and London: Routledge).

Moulineux, Maxine (1985): “Mobilisation without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State, and Revolution in Nicaragua”, Feminist Studies, Vol 11, No 2 (Summer), p 231.

Western Ghats Calling

Save Western Ghats Movement, a civil society coalition, extends invitation to all those who are empathetic towards the preservation of Western Ghats, not only from the standpoint of incredible ecological services it renders but as a diverse source of rich culture, traditions and lifestyles that it has on offer. This invitation is to all those who, through their work, have reflected a deep concern for conserving the ecological continuum of Western Ghats for the monsoon clouds to lash it year after year. From researchers to activists, from writers to poets and from planners to commoners, this is an invocation to make contributions towards building a holistic perspective for creating and expanding social space for developing public policy on the subject. A National Consultation to capture the diverse perspectives to Save Western Ghats is proposed to be held at Goa from February 8-9-10, 2009. Your abstracts should reach us on or before January 5, 2009 by email

Organised by Prakruti/Keystone Foundation/Peaceful Society

December 20, 2008

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