Magdalena Moskalewicz is a Polish art historian and curator who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago.
International Women’s Day might not be widely celebrated around the world. But this year’s March 8 is proving a hard date to ignore. In more than 50 countries across the globe, women are going on strike and marching in the streets.
This remarkable international movement was inspired by “Black Monday,” the National Strike of Women that took place in Poland on Oct. 3, when hundreds of thousands of “annoyed women,” as the organizers refer to themselves, protested in more than 150 cities and towns in Poland, as well as 60 other locations abroad. Today, women are striking globally under the shared slogan “Solidarity is our weapon,” though the marchers in each country are addressing the concerns that are most important to them. The Polish organizers have drawn up a list of more than 20 demands that have circulated widely online. The list includes calls for full reproductive rights, comprehensive sex education, prosecution of the perpetrators of domestic violence and measures to improve women’s economic situation.
These demands are a direct response to the country’s current political situation, just as “Black Monday” was provoked by a parliamentary bill that would have imposed a comprehensive ban on abortions. (Abortion has been illegal in Poland, with three very narrow exceptions, since 1993.) On the face of things, the Black Monday demonstrators achieved a notable victory. Their mass protest persuaded Parliament to reject the proposal.
Yet officials soon moved ahead with other projects violating women’s rights. In February 2017, Parliament passed a law limiting access to emergency contraception; another bill, in November 2016, stipulated a risible one-time stipend of $1,000 for any woman giving birth to a terminally ill or severely disabled baby. Meanwhile, lawmakers also slashed state funding to a number of nonprofit organizations offering support to female victims of domestic abuse.
In January, Polish President Andrzej Duda publicly called upon Poles to ignore the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, which had been signed by Poland’s previous administration. He claimed it is “unnecessary.” Recently, Parliament passed a comprehensive education reform that enshrined “Education for Family Life” as a substitute for sex education at schools nationwide. The aim is to promote Catholic Church-inspired “family values,” which in practice means condemning extramarital sexual activity and asserting conservative gender roles. It is all too obvious what sort of role for women lawmakers have in mind.
Today’s strike is set to offer a strong response to all of these “reforms.” To be sure, women are not the only Poles currently fighting the policies of the current government. For months now, the country has also been experiencing a wave of protests aimed at defending democracy against the ruling party’s authoritarian tendencies. But the women’s movement should not be reduced to a mere subset of this wider surge of activism. The Women’s Day demonstrators are pursuing an agenda much broader and more ambitious than that.
Polish feminism still has a long way to go. We missed out on the so-called “second wave” of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed the West, and that fact still has a palpable effect on our public life. Then-candidate Donald Trump’s crass remarks about sexual assault, while appalling in their own right, prompted an impressive backlash among broad swaths of American society. In Polish public discourse, such statements would have barely made a ripple. Polish politicians and public figures have a long and pitiful track record of overtly sexist comments. One of the most recent came from the minister of foreign affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, who responded to the October women’s protest this way: “Let them play. If someone thinks there are no bigger worries in Poland at the moment, then go ahead. Women’s rights are not being undermined in Poland.” It was a textbook example of the tried-and-true patriarchal strategy for downgrading women by infantilizing them.
This sort of thinking does not spring up overnight. Conservative attitudes to women have been around long before the current government. The patriarchal bias of Polish society goes back for generations. Soviet-era Eastern Europe had little experience of Western-style feminism before the 1990s, in part a result of socialist-era propaganda touting the emancipation of women. Vladimir Lenin famously stated that every female cook should be able to rule the country, but the reality was much bleaker.
It is true that many socialist countries gave women wide access to work, education, free medical care (including abortion) and maternity leaves — to an extent surpassing what was available in the West at that time. Even so, however, the male monopoly on power — at all levels of state administration as well as in society at large — remained largely unchanged. The same attitudes also affected the underground political opposition that ultimately brought down the communist regimes.
This helps to explain why many of the women protesting in Poland today would refuse to define themselves as “feminist” – or even openly reject the label. Feminism and gender studies, which have been around only since the 1990s, are often seen as Western imports that run counter to ingrained traditions. The recent Church-driven hysteria against the so-called “ideology of gender,” depicted as an alien Western attack on family values, offers a particularly telling example. Feminist vocabulary has been hijacked and distorted by the conservative mainstream.
Feminist awareness has risen in the past decade among educated women and men in cities, but there is still a profound culture gap between urban populations and the countryside. This helps to explain why the strike’s organizers, who predict that 90 percent of today’s events will take place in cities with less than 100,000 people, never use the word “feminism.”
Today, Polish women — and millions of women around the world — are striking together to fight institutionalized oppression. It is important to note that, in Poland, this movement is not aimed only at the current government. This is also a struggle against decades of patriarchy, enforced by both socialist and democratic governments and deeply entrenched in every level of social life. This, now, is the great wave of feminism that Poland never had. If, for rhetorical reasons, this fight cannot be called “feminist,” then so be it. But the awareness is here to stay.