Polish Women’s Strike

Polish Women Resist

Irma Allen

In 2014, the Polish documentary 'Solidarity according to Women' attempted to reinstate the key role that several women played in the rise and success of the 1980s Solidarity movement.

Largely working behind the scenes, they left the visible leadership roles to the men who wanted them, and so were written out of history. Today, women are making history again in defense of Polish democracy, but this time they are the leaders and they will not be forgotten this time.

On Saturday 15 July, an urgent communique from the Polish Women's Strike (PWS) warned in clear terms: "Poland is burning down!'' The rallying cry called on all opposition parties and pro-democracy forces to unite against the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party's attempt to take control of the judiciary announced in a rush a few days before.

This latest anti-democratic move by an increasingly authoritarian government would see the destruction of the principle of tripartite division of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches that underpin a functioning Polish democracy. PiS had already taken apart the Constitutional Tribunal in a crisis that paralysed the country last autumn. Now it sought to dismantle the independence of the judiciary.

Frustrated at the opposition's fragmentation, civil society groups' inability to collaborate, and lack of a united plan between them to block PiS, the Polish Women's Strike took it upon themselves to organise an emergency coalition meeting on Sunday 16 July—to seek cooperation between groups on a strategy for resistance at least for the immediate future while on red alert. Their communique stated: "When our home is on fire, we do not discuss who did and did not do what eight years ago we do not remember sins, we do not compete for beautiful words and looks, we do not beat our breasts in front of the camera, we do not go on holiday. We save what we can".

After an intensely urgent meeting, a memorandum of agreement was signed between many allies to agree to create a pro-democratic coalition, at least for the upcoming days. Since then large-scale mass protests have swept the country. Cooperation has been shaky at times, but largely intact. "We are not naive—we don't think we've created a longterm reality, this political collaboration is for here and now—we don't know how it will develop next,"—says 49-year-old Elzbieta Podlesna, a leading PWS activist and professional psychologist.

How and why did women, under the banner of Polish Women's Strike, become a key mobilising force and convening power in the struggle to defend democracy in a country where women have low political visibility and feminism is a bad word?

On 3 October 2016, in the dripping rain, 100,000 women from 149 different towns and cities in Poland took to the streets, dressed in black, in what became known worldwide as the 'Black Protest' or 'Polish Women's Strike' against a proposed total ban on abortion. Many more women as well as men wore black to work in an act of solidarity.

Marta Lempart, who is now PWS's formidable leader, was the main impetus behind this action, taking inspiration from Iceland's 1975 women's strike for equal pay. This was a lightning rod moment—a point at which many women stepped out onto the street to protest for the first time to say enough is enough. As one 73-year-old protesting woman told this writer "PiS has now got into bed with us! No more!" The result of the Black Protest was a retreat by PiS on the abortion law—at least for the moment.

While PiS was not the first government to strip away women's rights, it has ramped up the attacks. In 1993 abortion law was restricted for the first time since the 1950s, putting Poland amongst the most conservative on this issue in Europe. This near-total restrictive law was known as the 'compromise'—'it had nothing to do with women', says Elzbieta Podlesna, 'and everything to do with a compromise between the Catholic Church and the state'. As Kasia Narkowicz for Open Democracy wrote last year, people slowly came to accept this status quo, and only a small circle of feminists continued to battle a growing anti-women tide.

Journalist Joanna Solska writes in a recent Institute of IDEI report on women’s rights, that in the last eight years, under the former government, headed by Civic Platform, 'the cauldron wasn't hot yet'. Women were discriminated against on the job market, had lower pay, and family policy aided their tie to the household, but still, most women were taking it. "But after eight years in cooler water, now the frogs are starting to cook. And it's the PiS government which is heating things up with increasing fervor. The church is supplying fuel too".

On 8 March 2017, International Women's Day, the new found group 'Polish Women's Strike' organised a second protest—this time international in scope. "We surprised the whole world!" says Marta Puczyniska, a 26-year-old PWS activist who has just thrown in her whole 'former life—as she calls it, having quit her job in Poznaft to move to Warsaw to be full-time at the picket-fence. "It was a historical moment—protests in 60 countries worldwide—a phenomenon!"

Now in July, the government upped the anti by accelerating its attempts to tear apart the country's democratic structures, motivated by a paranoid, conspiracy-theory led vision in which such institutions needed purging of communist relics. The sense of impending bodily threat spurs these women on yet further. "We, women, in particular are in great danger. Our right to safety and self-determination at the biological level is being undermined. We fight for life", the Polish Women's Strike wrote in their call to collaborate.

Around 75% of those currently sleeping at the protest tent village, keeping 24-hour watch over the goings-on in Parliament opposite, are female. ''More women sleep here in the tents at night, even beneath the open sky, than men because we have greater determination", Marta Puczyniska says. "Not only are we threatened right now by the ruling government's dismantling of the tripartite division of power as citizens, but our rights as women have never before been so threatened—so we have twice the determination of men, because some things don't affect them directly. This threat for us is so much more personal".

Alicja Molenda, who at 51 lives- and organises in Berlin for PWS, notes that—"Women have everything to lose—in women an awareness has awoken that if I don't fight for my own rights then nobody will—neither politicians, men—nobody. Without democracy we will have no rights for women—and without women's rights there is no democracy! So we are here because we must be".

The success of the Polish Women's Strike also meant that PWS was catapulted into a leadership role at this critical time. 'The one protest that had an effect was the Women's Strike—so we are seen as people who can make things happen. We don't just talk, we do", Agnieszka Wierzbicka, a lawyer who actively supports PWS's work, says. PWS have played a big part in mobilising citizens, organising actions, being vocal in the media, leading protests, and keeping a presence day in day out in the tent village opposite Parliament for the last eight days.

There is a sense that women offer a different kind of approach to protest and ways of working too—one that is more 'effective', Marta Lempart has said, and based on collaboration. Not all in PWS are sure whether this is innately to do with being a woman, or just because they are who they are as people.

With events moving fast, and Polish Women's Strike being less than a year old, interpreting and understanding womanhood is still emerging, both individually and collectively. What feminism means to them is not a one-trick answer. Where there is at times a seeming impossibility of moving away from stereotypes, they are made use of, or drawn upon, as inspiration instead.

Agnieszka Wierzbicka recalls a moment of insight when she was proofreading the Polish Women's Strike call for collaboration. The metaphor of the house burning down immediately reminded her of a poem by Wladysfaw Broniewski called 'Bayonets for Weapons' which is a call to take up arms for Poland and starts 'When they come to burn the house down...'

"The poem describes a male reaction to the burning down of one's house—to go to war. PiS have set our house on fire and we are reacting like women—coming together. Those people in our house are family. These are not the relations of those mythical concepts of fatherland—which are also important—but of the home, and this speaks closely to people".

[Source : Open Democracy]

Vol. 50, No.19, Nov 12 - 18, 2017