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Feminism after the Cold War: The Polish Case

"Przecinamy Pępowinę" or, translated, "Let's cut the umbilical cord", is the ominous message painted in white letters on the posters which hundreds of Polish protesters clenched during a cold morning in March 2012. The slogan recalled the need for a large part of the Polish population to end the intermingling of church and state. This approach has, since the collapse of the socialist regime, shaped national policies to the detriment of marginalized groups. It is precisely those who had so much hope in the ideals of men like Lech Wałęsa who found themselves in a condition of moral and legislative imprisonment to this day.

Social movements have characterized Poland for much of its national history and acquired an important socio-political significance. In particular, they situated themselves in the radicalized moral crusade concerning the civil rights of Polish minorities. This clash, between factions linked to religiosity and nationalism and others linked to liberal feminism, has recently grown in size and the severity of its violence. Such social criticism refers to the need to implement systems of protection for minorities and their fundamental rights, that are instead inhibited by political classes tending toward conservatism.

Source 1: Frazier, A. (2022).

The government's willingness to reduce the options for Polish women to resort to abortion or legal methods of contraception has recently resonated in the media. Indeed, since 1989 the country has seen a shift in national policies to positions increasingly linked to nationalist right-wingers. Their approach has progressively created bonds with the Church to promote an agenda of moralism and limitations of personal freedoms (Mishtal, J. 2015). Such restrictions on the ability to exercise direct control over one's biological condition are seen by Polish women as a clear violation of fundamental rights. Nonetheless, the Polish administration does not seem particularly interested in promoting effective change.

The decade from 1990 to 2000 was in fact punctuated by a series of legislative and institutional initiatives that progressively restricted the rights and attributions of Polish women. This approach derives from a rhetoric of recuperation of a past morality that drew its strength from the close relationship between the state and church. In this context, gender embraces multiple issues that nevertheless play a role in shaping socio-economic trends in present-day Poland. Ten years of restrictive policies relating to the reproductive rights of Polish women have led to the emergence of several issues of statewide significance. Some of them are a high rate of female unemployment, an exponential increase in illegal abortions, and an unprecedented demographic collapse that holds the record in Europe. It is precisely the growing demographic crisis that most pointedly represents the result of post-socialist logic and policies toward women. Poland experienced, between 2001 and 2002, the most impressive collapse in demographics in the European area of the period. Such data underlines how the Polish population tends to move away from contexts of reproduction or the family because of the institutional wall built around it.

Source 2: Ding, M. (2019). Sign at Women's March 2019, Kuala Lumpur.

State administrations have progressively removed all of the socialist period's governmental aid, leaving the population without the protections that allowed them to balance the needs of the home and of the workplace. To this day, a good portion of Polish women say they are interested in building a family, but the unstable labor market, where gender discrimination is common, does not provide the preconditions for focusing on the home sphere. Such change is driven by factors like the lack of economic support for families, and the total absence of a policy to counter harmful gender stereotypes in the workplace. These elements make it impossible for Polish women to consider putting their jobs at risk in an economic context already troubled by the economic crisis.

Another element that formed one of the cornerstones of the policies of post-socialist Poland could be the religiosity-inspired political rhetoric that attempted to relegate women to a domestic role. Catholic-inspired morality not only failed to stimulate population growth but also set the stage for bitter social criticism. Indeed, it was religious rationality that promoted an approach geared toward promoting fertility but without laying the groundwork for state economic and structural reform. Such reforms would have ensured optimal conditions in which families could plan a married life without fear of being unable to support themselves, but the reality is much different.

Source 3: Egricesu, E. (2022). Istanbul Convention Protest.

Thus, a dual view of the gender issue emerged in Poland. On the one hand, we have the state positions – closely intertwined with the religious ideals of the national Church – which carry on a form of political propaganda based on morality and duty (Graff, A. 2003). On the other hand, we can identify a multitude of popular voices that refer to a much more concrete context of suffering and crisis, clamoring for tangible intervention to end a problematic socio-economic situation.

The Polish feminist movement, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, faced several challenges in a social and political context that did everything to prevent its involvement at the institutional level. Two decades of post-socialist management in Poland led the population to become accustomed to the restrictions imposed by the government (Sidorenko, E. 2000). In this situation, it is evident that a feminist movement would encounter considerable difficulties in gathering social support. Nonetheless, the population recently saw a gradual loss of trust in those state and religious institutions that were at the heart of the Polish social structure. This distancing of public opinion from the church, in particular, is traced to popular discontent with the progressive religious involvement in political affairs, and the growing wealth of the higher clergy ranks (Korbonski, A. 2000).

Source 4: Frazier, A. (2022).

The historical situation thus proved favorable to the proliferation of ideas promoted by feminist movements, such as the Dziewuchy Dziewuchom Foundation, which has been concerned with spreading knowledge and awareness of women's issues. This form of social critique drew strength precisely from that paradigm shift in the social structure. In particular, the new wave of Polish feminism approaches the population more directly. This is done by making issues more accessible and by taking advantage of means of communication that are typically "third wave", such as marches, sit-ins, and social media.

As a result, the feminist movement flourished in a more socially-inclusive form, to make issues such as reproductive rights, labor, and social equity much more approachable (Heilig, C. 2019). The prospects for the Polish feminist movement are set in a context in which its evolution appears to be a necessary and inescapable condition. The promotion of awareness concerning the gender issue is a constant that stimulates Polish protesters, who no longer seem willing to accept the democratic façade that the Polish state championed during the 1990s. What Polish democracy currently lacks is an awareness and acceptance of those issues that it marginalized in the post-socialist period. The Polish scholar Joanna Mishtal reiterates this concept in her text "The Politics of Morality, The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland," referring to the need for the Polish state to begin to place women in a position of political, social and institutional equity, because only in this way could the gender issue be institutionalized and, consequently, approached with the right caution and a long-term vision.

Bibliographical References

"Abortion Law In Poland – Conscience Clause Prevents Legal Abortions". 2021. Bnt.Eu. Accessed June 13. legal-abortions.

Alicia Czerwinski, Sex, Politics, and Religion: The Clash between Poland and the European Union over Abortion, 32 Denv. J. Int'l L. & Pol'y 653 (2004).

Breslauer, George W., Victoria E. Bonnell, Ákos Róna-Tas, Valerie Sperling, and Gail Kligman. 1996. "Identities In Transition: Eastern Europe And Russia After The Collapse Of Communism".

Brunell, L. Feminism - The third wave of feminism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 16 June 2021, from

Ekiert, Grzegorz, and Roberto Foa. 2011. Civil Society Weakness In PostCommunist Europe: A Preliminary Assessment. Ebook. Harvard University. 2018/11/no.198.pdf.

Erbel, Joanna. "Charting the Transformation in Poland's Feminist Movement." Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 51 (2008): 50-57. Accessed June 15, 2021.

Fodor, E. (2002). “Gender and The Experience of Poverty in Eastern Europe and Russia after 1989.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 35 (4): 369-382.

Fuszara, Małgorzata. "Feminism, the New Millennium, and Ourselves: A Polish View." Signs 25, no. 4 (2000): 1069-1075. Accessed June 15, 2021.

Fuszara, Małgorzata. "Between Feminism and the Catholic Church: The Women's Movement in Poland." Sociologický Časopis / Czech Sociological Review 41, no. 6 (2005): 1057-075. Accessed June 16, 2021.

Grabowska, Magdalena. 2017. Bits Of Freedom: Demystifying Women’S Activism Under State Socialism In Poland And Georgia. Ebook. 1st ed. Feminist Studies, Inc. files/bitsoffreedom.pdf.

Graff, Agnieszka (2003). Lost between the Waves? The Paradoxes of Feminist Chronology and Activism in Contemporary Poland. Journal of International Women's Studies, 4(2), 100-116.

Heilig, C. (2019). “Re-claiming ‘the people’: Young feminist activists in Poland” Conference: European Conference on Politics and Gender, Amsterdam.

Korbonski, A. 2000. “Poland Ten Years After: The Church” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 33(i): 123-145

Mishtal, Joanna. 2015. The Politics Of Morality: The Church, The State, And Reproductive Rights In Postsocialist Poland. 1st ed. Ohio University Press.

Sidorenko, Ewa (2000). “Feminism? How do you spell it? Associability in the (Post)Communist Order”. Gender Studies Conference, Warsaw.

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Niccolò Fantin

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