In retrospect, it seems obvious: Polish women didn’t really have a seat at the table during the transformation 25 years ago. The Solidarity trade union movement was dominated by men. During the Martial Law period, women stepped into critical positions when the government arrested the top (male) leaders, but their contributions were largely unrecognized. Only one female representative participated in the Round Table negotiations in 1989, and the talks didn’t address women’s issues.
But as long-time feminist and peace activist Malgorzata Tarasiewicz points out, “We thought that with the abolition of Communism would automatically come change and more freedoms, also for women. It was unimaginable that, instead of freedoms, restrictions for women’s rights might be introduced! As women we were so marginalized – there was only one woman at the Round Table discussions. Today it would be unimaginable. We would demand a women’s rights working group. But at the time of rapid change we were taken by surprise. Of course not only women but the whole society was taken by surprise.”
When I met Tarasiewicz in 1990, she was still part of Freedom and Peace (Wolnosc i Pokoj or WiP), an independent peace and human rights organization that had been active in the mid-1980s but was then on its last legs. She had been in close contact with activists in the West, including American and European feminists. And she was committed to organizing women workers inside Solidarity. In 1989, she became the coordinator of Solidarity’s women’s section. But it was a short-lived job, as she explained to me when I caught up with her again in August 2013 at her home in Sopot, on the coast near Gdansk.
“Marian Krzaklewski, who became a leader of Solidarity, made it impossible for me to stay,” she explained. “He used all sorts of persecution, like calling me to his office to talk for hours explaining how wrong I was in my opinions or not giving any funds to the women’s section. He was doing everything he could to block all options, so I had to leave. The women in the women’s section who were acting in the way Solidarity leadership didn’t like also had to stop working. They were not allowed into the Solidarity offices in the regions, couldn’t use the fax machines or phones. They couldn’t even participate in the trainings. It was said that they did not have the right moral spine.”
Tarasiewicz made one last effort with the women’s section. “We decided to meet one last time, because the regions wanted us all to meet,” she continued. “We tried to use the Solidarity headquarters in Warsaw. At first the leaders didn’t want to allow us into the headquarters. But when they saw how many of us there were, they said, ‘Okay, come.’ One guy from Solidarity even tried to threaten me. He called me at home and said, ‘If you meet again with those women of Solidarity and try to do something, we will punish you.’ Of course I didn’t care. It was quite dramatic. Human Rights Watch from New York wrote a report on that. Their representative came to Poland and wrote a report. But there was nothing much we could do. The women’s section was abolished.”
Since 2000, Tarasiewicz has worked as the director for the Network for East-West Women in Poland. She has watched as many foundations that funded women’s issues have pulled out of Poland as money from the European Union became available. But the EU funding has been a mixed blessing at best.
“The EU has not helped civil society in Poland despite its claims to do so,” Tarasiewicz explains. “The way they provide funding is very depoliticizing. At the same time, the EU funding is so tempting because it involves big amounts of money. Sometimes people become too preoccupied with applying for projects, working with the bureaucracy instead of working on a social or political problem. the funding from the EU is mostly for acting on a regional level. For example, we in Gdansk can organize something with Kaliningrad that is not based on real needs but on the misconceptions or erroneous ideas that we need, for example, a workshop on how to knit sweaters for women or how unemployed women can set up a little zoo in a village: because ten years ago a project like that had good results in a remote region on the French/German border. It doesn’t encourage any political activity.”
But because the EU offers a lot of money, “groups go for it, and don’t have the capacity or the time to work on anything else,” she continues. “A women’s group in Bialystok that might be active on important issues is now working with mothers going back to the labor market after giving birth to become accountants or start a small business. And the way you have to account for the funding, it makes you like a slave to the EU. For me, the situation is much worse now than when we were supported by foundations, which have now moved off to Asia and elsewhere because they assume that we are doing well with this EU funding. It is harmful to the Polish women’s movement.”
We talked about her early days in WiP, the issue of abortion and the role of the Catholic Church, and initiatives like the Congress of Women. This fall, Tarasiewicz told me in an email update, she tried something new: running for office. With very little money, she was able to get 8 percent of the vote in the campaign for the president of Sopot. The conservative candidate, with all the resources from the Law and Justice Party, received only 2 percent more, so she was satisfied with the effort.
How did you get involved in Freedom and Peace (WiP)?
I was looking for a way to participate in an opposition movement because for obvious reasons I didn’t like the reality that was surrounding us at the time. It was 1986. I didn’t know about the existence of WiP. I tried to get involved with Solidarity. I realized, and I was told by many people, that it was not such a good idea, especially here in Gdansk, where Solidarity was not really open and not very democratic. For a young woman, it would not be very satisfying to work in a group like this. My job would be to make sandwiches and give out leaflets, without any influence on the program or any possibility to get involved in decisions. Actually I was discouraged by many people who were insiders in Solidarity. They said it would be a waste of time, and they advised me to join WiP. When I met the people in WiP, I immediately knew that it was more open and accepting and interesting than Solidarity.
WiP had been in existence for one year at that point. It began in 1985 following the trial of Marek Adamkiewicz who was sentenced in December 1984 to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for refusing to take the military oath. If you want to know more about WiP, there’s a collection of documents in English on the Internet or a publication in English by Padraic Kenney, A Carnival of Revolution.
How old were you at the time?
I was 26.
So, you were of age when Solidarity began in 1980.
I was not in Poland when Solidarity started. My father was living in the United States, and I was visiting him there. It was during the period at the end of Gierek’s rule when it was easier to travel. That was the first time I could get a passport to visit my father. It was unfortunate because it would have been nice to be in Poland at that particular time. When I got back, Solidarity was already blooming. At the same time, I didn’t feel close to it because it was a workers’ movement, and also it was strongly connected to the Catholic Church and religious symbols. It was all interconnected. I felt like an outsider to some extent. I supported it wholeheartedly, but at the same time, I couldn’t really feel so much a part of it. Gdansk, of course, was special with Lech Walesa here. If it had been Wroclaw, it could have been easier to get involved in Solidarity.
I was a student after I came back from the United States. I looked around and became a member of NZS, the Independent Students Association.
Were you still in NZS when Martial Law was declared?
I was not a leader, just a low-level average participant. To some extent, NZS was also very patriarchal. It was not so easy to be a woman in that movement. Nevertheless I participated in the occupation strike at the university. I didn’t feel much danger nor did I feel exposed to the militia’s brutality. It was a thrilling time when one could learn a lot about politics and activism, and at that time I felt empowered.
A lot of people thought of leaving the country during Martial Law. What did you think were your choices at that point?
After being in the United States and coming back to Poland, I knew already that it would not be so interesting for me to emigrate. I liked the United States of course, but I didn’t feel that I could live there because of my interests. I’m very much connected to the Polish language, to the possibility of becoming socially and politically involved, and to be able to shape my surroundings. I felt that in the United States, all those powers were cut off from me. I could perhaps live there and have a job there, but I wouldn’t feel empowered politically and part of the political and social life as I do here. But maybe at that time, when I was 19 and 20 in the United States, I was not fully aware of all this. Nevertheless I felt at the time that I was somehow excluded from real life. I didn’t consider emigration as a real option. For some time, I was thinking about internal immigration. You are familiar with this concept?
From Czeslaw Milosz.
Yes. Then I started to seek other possibilities. And I arrived at WiP at the end of this road.
What were you focused on professionally after university?
When I was involved in WiP, I couldn’t really work professionally. I was doing some translation and some teaching, and I started to study at another faculty, political science, which took me some more years. After that it was 1989 already, and I started to work in the Solidarity trade union as the coordinator of the women’s section.
When you joined, what was the focus of WiP in Gdansk?
As with everyone in WiP all around Poland, the focus was conscientious objection to military service, which I found extremely important. It was not even just a problem in itself, which of course it was, but also as an example of how a totalitarian state violates an individual person’s rights. It was symbolic. At the same time, because I was in partnership with Adam Jagusiak and he was deprived of the right to get a passport because he hadn’t yet started military service, I also felt that it was against human rights to deprive a person of the right to travel just because he has not done military service. It was about not accepting the state’s interference into an individual’s life.
When you joined, was there already this cleavage between those who were anarchists and those who were more conservative?
It was clear from the beginning that the Krakow group was focused on the part of the military oath where the soldiers had to swear loyalty to the Soviets. But we in Gdansk did not accept that military service was obligatory in any country. That’s why we were criticized by Solidarity leaders. They said, “Once we have power, you will still want military service not to be obligatory when it is ‘our’ state?” So, this was a difference from the beginning. The same was true with nuclear power. Solidarity leaders wanted to abolish nuclear power because it benefited the Communist state, but once it was a Solidarity state in a “free” Poland, then why not have five nuclear power plants!
Did you have conflict over this within WiP? Or did these conversations not take place?
We accepted the fact that for now it was okay to have differences because we were fighting for a common goal. But also, in the Gdansk group we were very open. So we accepted that people in Krakow or Warsaw or wherever had their own opinions. But probably Krakow and Warsaw were more restrictive in their view of the world, and we as anarchists were more accepting.
How many people were involved in WiP from this area?
Around 20 here. But people moved around. For example, in our Gdansk group, some people came from other cities and lived here for a few months or for a year. Also foreigners lived with us. It was more like a commune.
When you first joined, what did you think the group was going to do and was it different from what it ultimately did do?
The people who gave me contacts to the group said that there were two slightly different centers in the Gdansk WiP, one that was completely anarchist and wild and the other one that was more conservative and looking for its path through discussions and reflection and trying to see what could be taken from Christianity. It was more contemplative while the other was more action-oriented. This action-oriented one was obviously more persecuted by the secret police. This is what I expected. I moved between the two groups, but I was more attached, in the end, to this action-oriented group. I became involved in nonviolent actions and civil disobedience.
What do you think was one of the most successful local actions?
The nuclear power action was really successful because it ended with the abolition of the attempt to build a nuclear power plant. We organized a social referendum where we collected people’s signatures saying no to nuclear power. Many people signed, and it was really a great success. This was in 1989, after the Round Table negotiations. It was the final stage of WiP.
We also had an action for the Club of Those Imprisoned by Borders. We organized a hunger strike demanding passports. This was in 1987. We felt in general that Solidarity was putting a lot of focus on economic issues and social issues while human rights and personal freedoms were not so interesting for them. They would say, “If you have nothing to eat, why should you care about traveling?” But of course, for us it was very important to have the freedom to move and read and act.
We also organized a hunger strike in Bydgoszcz when our colleague Slawek Dudkiewicz was imprisoned. It was widely supported by the other opposition movements. There were many things like that.
Of course, the fact that conscientious objection to military service was introduced is also a great success. This was in 1989-90. When the alternative military service was introduced, then it was the beginning of the end for WiP. Many people felt that our main goal was achieved, so what else to do? I didn’t agree with this, but that’s how it was perceived. For me, WiP’s role would have been important at that particular moment to monitor the new neoliberal actions of our new post-Communist authorities and help build civil society. But people rather thought that finally they could have some rest.
You mentioned that there was a play about WiP comparing it to the anarchist group in Russia in the 19th century. What did the play focus on in terms of WiP?
It was mostly about the Gdansk chapter of WiP because the director felt that we were somehow representative of the whole movement. His inspiration was also Stanislaw Brzozowski, the famous Polish philosopher and writer who became popular recently as the icon of Krytyka Polityczna and who wrote about civil disobedience and Narodnaya Volya. The play concentrated a lot on motivation in comparing our nonviolent actions to the violence used by Narodnaya Volya: why did we choose this way and not the other way? One of the similarities was of course that the secret police infiltrated both Narodnaya Volya and WiP. Part of the play was having excerpts from the files of the secret police read aloud on stage, which reminded me about speculations concerning secret police influences and manipulations in WiP. Actually there was even one person from WiP in Gdansk who apparently was an agent of the secret police. I read in the files of the secret police revealed by the Institute of Public Remembrance about how this person reported on our group, but actually I do not think his actions influenced our activities in any significant way.
I guess it was just a code name in the file.
Had you read many of the files?
I read some files. There are not many available on our chapter of WiP because our group was analyzed by counterintelligence and not regular secret police. That’s why our files are not in Gdansk and are not like the regular files that you can access. They are kept in the archives of counterintelligence. That’s why it’s not so easy. I only saw the files that were available.
What was that experience like?
Disappointing. I thought there would be fascinating stories and some surprises. Actually I didn’t learn much. Someone was listening in on my telephone conversations. If you’re not a journalist or a researcher, you usually only get access to the files that include you. I had some phone conversations with some people, and the secret police wrote them down.
Also, there was a short psychological analysis that appeared in the files related to my invitation to some conference in the Faroe Islands together with Jacek Kuron. The secret police wrote that I shouldn’t get a passport because I was a fanatic and I would do a lot of harm if I went because I would surely collect money for a printing machine. But they said that Kuron could go because his presence would do more harm than good for his cause.
The authorities didn’t give me a passport. I didn’t get a passport even after the Round Table agreement. Only in 1990 did I get it. For me it was so important to finally travel. So, I paid special attention to applying for the passport all the time. It shows how the Round Table didn’t really influence much in spite of the fact that today it is presented as an immediate remedy that ended Communism. At least the changes were not so quick.
You said you thought it was interesting to see yourself played on stage. Was there anything specific you found interesting about the portrayal?
I thought it was very accurate. Prior to the play, the playwright made a lot of effort to interview people in WiP. So it was not a surprise. I saw myself in the way that I presented myself. There’s also a book Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe by Myrna Kostash, a Canadian feminist. Adam and I are in this book, only under different names. I suggested to the playwright that he could take excerpts from the book as an inspiration for the play. He just had the actors read part of the book onstage.
It was very much like me in the past. It was fun to watch it. I had tears in my eyes because it was my past playing in front of my eyes again. People from Gdansk liked it. Nobody told me directly but I suspect that other groups of WiP were not so happy because they thought the play was dominated by the Gdansk group, that the play didn’t show the “real” WiP.
You could say that it’s compensation. Many of those in the Krakow and Warsaw groups went into government.
Yes, and we got a play! That’s a good argument.
You mentioned that NZS and Solidarity were quite patriarchal. Why was WiP different?
Those who joined WiP by nature did not accept the stereotypical roles of women and men. They were not stereotypical in any sense. The opposition mostly accepted the “norms” of our society. But the Gdansk group of WiP rejected those norms, such as viewing military service as patriotic. And it at least questioned some issues connected to the dominant role of the Church in our culture. Also, by their very nature, they didn’t accept patriarchal norms of what a man should do and what a woman should do. Some people from WiP had oppressive fathers who were military officers who terrorized their families with guns when they were drunk. I heard many of such stories. I didn’t feel patriarchal oppression in WiP. I felt it with some people later from Krakow, but it was not so important because within my group in Gdansk there was a lot of respect for everyone and everyone had a voice. Also at the Zytnia conference at the beginning of WiP in 1986 — one of the milestone events for WiP’s recognition among peace and human rights organizations in the West — a few feminist activists came from abroad and we met them and invited them to Gdansk where they very much accepted by all the members of our group.
Do you remember any examples between 1986 and 1989 of these patriarchal assumptions when you interacted with Solidarity or the media? Are there any examples that stick out in your memory?
You’d meet workers in Solidarity or even intellectuals who would always assume that you, as a woman, should act as a woman is expected stereotypically to act. And if you didn’t, they’d be shocked. They’d consider you a lesbian or somehow unacceptable within their norms.
Once there was a party at my place after the hunger strike. We called it Wielkie Zarcie (an allusion to La Grande Bouffe, a 1973 French–Italian film directed by Marco Ferreri). Sixty people came to my place for five days of eating and celebrating in my flat, because it was the biggest available. Two famous politicians, who were Solidarity experts and leftist intellectuals, came to the party, and it was immediately clear that for them women were not partners. They could serve food or be nice ladies to have a small chat with, but they were not serious activists that they would listen to.
And yet women played an incredibly important role in the opposition, particularly in Solidarity, and not just in 1980-81 but also during the Martial Law.
There’s Shana Penn’s book Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland, and also the book by Ewa Kondratowicz Być jak narodowy sztandar (To be like a national flag) about women and Solidarity. Kondratowicz also published interviews with women leaders in her previous book, which she called Lipstick on the Flag.
Why has it taken so long for this history to be told?
There has been a whole discussion about this. There are different issues behind it. Many women who were active in the opposition, like several women from a prominent daily Gazeta Wyborcza, who were very active in underground publishing feel, in my opinion, ashamed to be associated with feminism because feminism is associated with Communists, the people we were fighting against. The Communists had used the issue of women’s rights to win their ends. People who’d been in the opposition saw it as very important not to be associated with the Communist Party in even the slightest way because then you were immediately targeted as a lover of the Communist period, as someone who wanted the kommuna to come back. People automatically thought that if the Communists used women’s rights then women’s rights were wrong. As women groups, we were very unpopular.
Also, in the 1990s, the Social Democratic Party — the post-Communists — were very strong. Some people thought that supporting women’s rights was like giving additional strength to those post-Communists. They thought that our side should be at least silent so as not to strengthen them. Only 15 years after the fall of Communism and with the change of generation did people start to think more freely about the issue.
Then there was this whole problem that during Communist times the Catholic Church was strongly connected to the opposition and supported our side. At the beginning of the 1990s, right after the Round Table discussions, they started a campaign against reproductive rights for women. So, supporting women’s rights was asking for big trouble. It meant that you were not in the mainstream and you didn’t have any chance of being in the political establishment. You were immediately excluded from any hope of having a political career. In the 1990s, if you wanted to be a mainstream politician, you had to accept traditional values.
In the United States, in the 1950s or early 1960s, women asserted themselves but in traditional ways. As the women’s movement developed, there were three categories: feminists, anti-feminists and women who said that they weren’t feminists but acted in many ways like feminists.
Yes, we have that category too. It is so much easier not to be a feminist openly, not to do a feminist coming out.
Have you heard the recent discussion about gender ideology in Poland? I’m working in a women’s NGO, and we are cooperating with various organizations working internationally. One group supports women in Africa. This group was accused of promoting gender ideology as if it were promoting Nazism. We decided as a coalition to write a letter of defense for this group. But it turned out that others within the coalition didn’t want to sign the letter because they thought that gender ideology is something horribly wrong.
What is gender ideology?
For our counterparts it’s an attempt to forcefully deprive people of their biologically determined gender.
It’s become far more acceptable to give children the option to define their genders and even to take drugs at a very young age to prepare for a sex change operation.
Of course but the group working in Africa wouldn’t even know about such a discussion. They use gender in terms of culturally accepted roles, like women and not men carrying water to the village. That’s why they said in their project proposal that they want to build wells for women, so that the project has a gender aspect. For the UN proposal, they had to include a gender component. But they were immediately accused of being “gender Nazis.”
I’m saying this to show how harsh the attack was. At the moment it’s one of the biggest public discussions in Poland.
Tell me about the period of time when you were working inside Solidarity. When we talked last time, it seemed as though Solidarity was beginning to change on women’s issues.
Then it seems we talked at the beginning of the 1990s. Soon after that I had to leave Solidarity. It turned out not to be a genuine interest in women’s rights but just a demand by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which insisted that Solidarity do more work on women. That’s because they were sponsoring Solidarity. So Solidarity decided to do a fake women’s section. I didn’t know of course that I was going to be a fake something. I tried to do it for real. That’s why they got rid of me after nine months.
They got rid of you or you left?
Marian Krzaklewski, who became a leader of Solidarity, made it impossible for me to stay. He used all sorts of persecution, like calling me to his office to talk for hours explaining how wrong I was in my opinions or not giving any funds to the women’s section. He was doing everything he could to block all options, so I had to leave. The women in the women’s section who were acting in the way Solidarity leadership didn’t like also had to stop working. They were not allowed into the Solidarity offices in the regions, couldn’t use the fax machines or phones. They couldn’t even participate in the trainings. It was said that they did not have the right moral spine.
We decided to meet one last time, because the regions wanted us all to meet. We tried to use the Solidarity headquarters in Warsaw. At first the leaders didn’t want to allow us into the headquarters. But when they saw how many of us there were, they said, “Okay, come.” One guy from Solidarity even tried to threaten me. He called me at home and said, “If you meet again with those women of Solidarity and try to do something, we will punish you.” Of course I didn’t care. It was quite dramatic. Human Rights Watch from New York wrote a report on that. Their representative came to Poland and wrote a report. But there was nothing much we could do. The women’s section was abolished.
How many people did you bring to that meeting?
About 60. And we met at the headquarters of the regional Solidarity in Warsaw.
What did you decide at the meeting?
They would try to continue locally. But there wasn’t much they could do. It was clear that there wouldn’t be a position in the headquarters. Krzaklewski employed another woman who had the completely opposite positions on all the issues that we cared about. Nothing much could have happened — except in the Wroclaw region, because the local leadership was more open. The woman who was active, Krystyna Politacha, continued for some time. Perhaps even now she’s working in the Solidarity office there. But the others had no chance.
Later other people became afraid of being dismissed if they were too radical. They are doing a lot of work, very positive work, but it’s clandestine work.
What kind of work is it?
For example, they are doing a lot of work on domestic workers, people working in the grey zone, immigrant women, women who work at home without getting remunerated. They are exposing certain problems that are very important from the feminist point of view. They would never work on reproductive rights or women’s leadership. But by working on other issues, they are supporting our point of view on women’s rights. So I appreciate very much what they are doing under the circumstances.
Maybe I was too revolutionary after being in WiP. I expected too much. I was used to working openly and making demands. If I had been more diplomatic and worked more clandestinely, I could have achieved more, after five years.
What about the other trade union confederation, OPZZ?
There is a person responsible for women’s issues in OPZZ. We met at a conference in the spring. She appeared with a woman from Solidarity on the panel, and they got along very well. So it looks promising for women’s rights in the unions.
There will be an action this September where Solidarity and OPZZ will work together.
Yes, we’ll see: that will be interesting.
After you left Solidarity, what did you do?
I was more devoted to private life. I left for the United States. In 1997 I started to work for the Network of East-West Women (NEWW) with Ann Snitow in New York. After I came back, the NEWW asked if I was interested in running the Network in Poland.
By then the NEWW office in Washington had closed, because there was not so much funding and the focus was shifted to cooperating with the European Union, because all our countries were then in the pre-accession stage. So, the headquarters of the Network opened in Gdansk. First it was the Polish chapter, and I was moving around. I lived in Warsaw. We thought about opening the office in Warsaw. Maybe Ann dreamed about Krakow. But finally it was in Gdansk.
You’ve been doing this now for more than 10 years. But you’re also doing work in Poland separately.
Yes, I’m also the board member of the European Women’s Lobby, which is the biggest umbrella organization of women in the EU. I’m involved in so many initiatives. We work also on a bilateral/trilateral basis with groups in different countries. We do projects with women from the Caucasus or the Baltic states or sometimes Sweden or Denmark. It moves around with different issues. Mostly we concentrate on violence against women, on economic justice, and on general feminist education.
But recently, we started to work on participatory democracy, focusing at the level of the municipality. In Sopot, working with other organizations, a group of citizens introduced a citizens’ budget, like in Porto Alegre in Brazil. Many cities in Poland now do it, but Sopot was the first. Maybe it’s a secret, but it was only a few people who organized it. People might think that there were hundreds of us. Many people were mobilized, but the starting point was so small.
Maybe the starting point is always small. WiP started small.
Yes that’s true. Next year, we’ll have local elections. We have great hopes to change local government and make it more open to citizens.
Do you have a particular party or list?
We want to create a list. It will be a citizens’ committee. Only once I was connected to a political party – the Green party. Actually, I’m one of the founders of the Green party. But I’ve decided that civil society is much more interesting than party politics.
That would be the name of it: citizens’ committee?
Maybe, or maybe not. We still have one year to go.
The Green Party has almost disappeared, hasn’t it?
Yes. I was hoping that it would be an alternative force, like in Germany. Maybe one day it will be stronger. At the moment it is important to build a strong civil society.
The EU has not helped civil society in Poland despite its claims to do so. The way they provide funding is very depoliticizing. At the same time, the EU funding is so tempting because it involves big amounts of money. Sometimes people become too preoccupied with applying for projects, working with the bureaucracy instead of working on a social or political problem.
I’m interested in this issue of EU funding and how it depoliticized civil society. Can you give some examples from the women’s movement?
What we need as a women’s movement is the capacity to be strong on a nationwide scale. To have a real impact politically we have to act together. But the funding from the EU is mostly for acting on a regional level. For example, we in Gdansk can organize something with Kaliningrad that is not based on real needs but on the misconceptions or erroneous ideas that we need, for example, a workshop on how to knit sweaters for women or how unemployed women can set up a little zoo in a village: because ten years ago a project like that had good results in a remote region on the French/German border. It doesn’t encourage any political activity.
At the same time it’s a big amount of money. Groups go for it, and don’t have the capacity or the time to work on anything else. A women’s group in Bialystok that might be active on important issues is now working with mothers going back to the labor market after giving birth to become accountants or start a small business. And the way you have to account for the funding, it makes you like a slave to the EU. For me, the situation is much worse now than when we were supported by foundations, which have now moved off to Asia and elsewhere because they assume that we are doing well with this EU funding. It is harmful to the Polish women’s movement.
What do you think about the Women’s Congress?
I participated. But I think it promotes businesswomen, serving one particular group of women who became successful in business or politics and neglecting the situation of the majority of women. It’s more for businesswomen, for woman from corporations. But still I went to it, to one of the regional women’s congress and to the national one. Since so many women come to it, it’s an important audience to address, in case maybe a few people become interested in your work.
Did you think anything useful came of it?
Maybe the possibility to network was useful, but not on a huge scale.
What you were talking about – doing something nationwide – is something that the Congress could do.
It would be great if it could be used this way. But the Congress of Women is using funds from the government that were used in the past to finance women’s groups in Poland. In the past, a little group from somewhere could get 5,000 zloty to support a campaign against violence against women or to travel to a conference.
But now that whole chunk of money is going to the Congress. The resources should not be taken away from small groups. The Congress could serve to build the network of smaller groups.
I got a somewhat more positive report on it from Agnieszka Graff, who’s generally a critic of neoliberalism.
Last year, Agnieszka Graff made a dramatic speech at the Congress. It was applauded, and people liked it. It was in defense of women excluded from the Congress. She’s conscious of the negative sides.
On the one hand I’m pleasantly surprised at how much Polish society has changed after 25 years in terms of women’s role in society, representation in parliament, and so on. On the other hand, on some issues like abortion or in-vitro fertilization, Poland isn’t even in keeping with the rest of Europe. There seems to be a cultural shift but still no movement on these political issues. Is it the power of the Church? Is it generational?
Recently there was an opinion poll on reproductive rights that showed that people are getting more conservative, more disapproving of abortion. It’s very hard to understand. Magdalena Sroda once gave a good analysis. We have this double standard, she said. Because of the legacy of Communism, we don’t identify so much with government. Government is “them,” and legislation is “theirs.” She said that in France if abortion was made illegal, women would not accept it at all. In Poland, they say it’s illegal, and we go somewhere else and do it anyway. It’s this double life, one legal and one unofficial. For her, it goes back to not accepting Communist governments. Or it goes even further back in the past, when our territory was occupied and we didn’t accept the rule of the foreign powers. It’s very deeply rooted.
What are the prospects for changing Poland’s abortion law?
There’s no possibility in parliament. I read yesterday that even the Council of Europe’s ratification of the statute on violence against women is in danger because it mentioned gender too much. One of the leaders of Civic Platform (the ruling party) said that this statute was a hidden way for homosexuals to push their agenda.
The Federation of Women and Family Planning and many other smaller groups are doing what they can, but without much success. My group published Our Bodies Ourselves in Poland a while ago in 2005. We tried to cooperate with Wysokie Obcasy (High Heels), the women’s insert in Gazeta Wyborcza on the weekend. They had serious doubts if they want to do it with us because they said there’s a chapter on abortion in the book and we should include another chapter that discusses the suffering of women who had abortions. This was the liberal women’s magazine, already considered devilish by the conservatives, saying this stuff!
I interviewed Wanda Nowicka, and she seems like a very good politician and activist. But it seems like a lot of her energy is absorbed in the intraparty fight within Palikot.
There was a serious problem with the abusive, sexist language that Palikot used against Wanda when she opposed him. It is hard to explain why the first thing a leader of a party promoting tolerance and opposing the oppressive language of the Church does against a feminist in his party is to say that she probably would like to be raped and hence she is acting in such a way…?
She was able to get a parity rule into the Palikot statutes.
The Green party also did this. And Palikot might not even get into parliament in the next election.
When you look back at the women’s movement in Poland, do you think anything could have been done differently after 1989 that would have put the movement or women in general in a better position today? Or was what happened here inevitable because of the power of the Church?
To some extent yes it was inevitable. We were too naïve. A similar situation happened when we were joining the EU. In a way we were ignorant because we were hoping that the EU would bring a lot of possibilities and a lot of change for women’s rights and it didn’t. We were working so hard and waiting for the EU and supporting the EU and not putting demands on the European parliamentary commission, just thinking that everything would happen by itself because it’s such a progressive institution. Then it turned out that it’s a group of apparatchiks that doesn’t care, and there have been almost no mechanisms for women’s rights that could be used in our harsh situation.
Going back to 1989, we thought that with the abolition of Communism would automatically come change and more freedoms, also for women. It was unimaginable that, instead of freedoms, restrictions for women’s rights might be introduced! As women we were so marginalized – there was only one woman at the Round Table discussions. Today it would be unimaginable. We would demand a women’s rights working group. But at the time of rapid change we were taken by surprise. Of course not only women but the whole society was taken by surprise, with the national property sold often much below its value. Before the workers could even think about starting a cooperative or developing some alternative ways of running an enterprise they woke up unemployed. The introduction of the free market did not consider the basic social rights of people. We believed that the Solidarity leaders would continue fighting for the realization of worker’s postulates, but in the end they were in the government privatizing the national property, taking away women’s rights, and planning nuclear power plants. We thought we had already achieved something in 1989, but in many aspects we were taken back to the very bottom and had to start working from the beginning.
The Church was using that critical time for their own ends by preaching that Poland should go back to the traditional values from before the war. People believed that together with the abolition of abortion and with women “in their places,” meaning the traditional roles, Poland would go back to the imaginary world of manor houses, gentry, and all that mythology that was developed in the dark Communist times.
If we had not been so naïve, we should have prepared earlier and acted earlier instead of waiting and seeing. The positions in government went only to men, parliament became predominantly male, and our rights were taken away. We’ve had to begin again from scratch.
In the EU, meanwhile, the women’s groups are so strong and we are so weak in Poland that only their voice is heard. We have no strength, no money, no capacity.
Can you give an example of how women’s voices from other parts of Europe dominate?
Here’s an example of how our voice is unheard. The groups from Western Europe deal very much with the issue of gender parity on corporate boards. Of course I am for parity on corporate boards. And the Congress of Women from Poland supported this. But actually there are many at least equally urgent issues that are not so high on the agenda such as the poverty of women or even reproductive rights.
Also, in Poland, for a while there was no minister plenipotentiary for anti-discrimination and equality. According to the European law, there should be one or else Poland will be punished by a fine. But nobody punished Poland, and no equality minister was appointed. A delegation went to Brussels and met with the Commissioner responsible for the directive. We asked him, “Why are you not demanding that the EU legislation be implemented in Poland?” Afterwards, he wrote a letter, and he came to Poland and demanded that someone be appointed to this position. But it took so much time and money and effort to meet him and get this done.
Let’s say that a group of people was able to put together a strong political force in parliament to work on women’s issues, what are the most urgent things that need to be done?
If we had a magic wand? I would give more power to the people – that’s why I started to work locally. I think this is the way forward in our current situation. Civil society is so weak. Instead of strengthening it, the present government is diminishing its powers, just as the previous government had done. People should be organizing themselves, but because of the economic situation and the lack of capacities in Poland, they are discouraged from taking things into their own hands.
For example, the government right now wants to change the legislation concerning the ability of citizens to organize referendums. Again this is taking power away from people. I would do the opposite: empower people by giving them the tools to encourage participatory democracy. I treat it as an educational tool. Civil society would develop once people have the opportunity.
Speaking concretely, of course the issue of reproductive rights is urgent. It’s unbelievable that we don’t have the right to choose. There should also be many changes in the educational system. Also, institutional mechanisms concerning equality and women should be in place. The institutional mechanisms that do exist at the national level are just tokens that have no power.
In times of an economic crisis, it’s difficult to push for economic justice. In Poland, the stereotype is very strong concerning women. And that just adds to the economic injustice, that women suffer more from the crisis.
When you think back to 1989, has anything changed in your worldview since then or is your thinking more or less the same?
I’m definitely less naïve. Living in the Communist times we had illusions about the West and how politics function in the West. We were like children without political maturity. It was just naiveté. I sometimes think that it was one of the worst things that Communism did to us – to let us develop a false image of the rest of the world. The Communists said that the West is wrong, that there is exploitation of people, there is no justice. We said, “Okay, they are lying, it’s must be just the opposite in the West: there is equality, there is prosperity, and everything is great!” We learned very quickly that it’s not that way, that there is a lot of injustice and poverty. We were not conscious of all the many problems there. This process of learning was very painful. We had to learn our lesson in a very short time.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
And when you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate Poland’s prospects, on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Sopot, August 25, 2013
Malgorzata Tarasiewicz works with the new Solidarity commission on women. She was about to meet with the government representative for women to plan out a concrete government program. She also described in more detail the December meeting at which the idea of a women’s commission was first proposed. There were 54 participants including seven women unionists from the West. 35 Polish factory women attended and four feminists. Three men showed up, two because they had thought it was a conference on health and safety. All three stayed on and invariably were chosen to be the chairs of the small group discussions. At the end of the conference, the largest complaint came from the factory women who regretted the presence of the “strident” feminists. Nevertheless, by the end, most of the women who had initially been skeptical about the need for a separate group to address the problems of women workers were now convinced of the need. They supported the idea of the commission and expressed interest in several other initiatives including a newsletter.
In general, Malgorzata was disheartened by the Polish situation. WiP had all but died in the Gdansk area and there was hardly any alternative activity. People were dropping out of the political scene in large numbers. The Church was growing in influence. She had been working against the Zarnowiec nuclear power plant and, with the group “Wole Byc” (I prefer to be), had worked to get a non-binding public referendum on the question put on the local ballot. While the Polish government fished around for Western companies to finish (i.e., modernize) the half-finished project, the protestors are waiting for the results of the referendum. Civic society? No, she didn’t see much happening in Polish society that was truly citizen-oriented and citizen-led.