Saying No to Children, Kitchen, Church: The Pioneers of Women’s Rights in Poland
Many important heroines fought against “women being sacrificed to the mercy of pots and brooms". But their story comes with a sad moral: many of their demands are still not being met today.
It is the second half of the 19th century. Polish society lives in three annexed territories, and the law in each is oppressive towards women. In the German part, there is the rule “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (“Children, Kitchen, Church”), and in Tsarist Russia, women are de facto subject to their husbands and fathers. Women have neither the right to vote nor attend schools in any of the territories. In Galicia, they cannot join political associations either.
At the same, the failures of the period’s various uprisings led to a sort of matriarchy. Many men had either died, been forced to emigrate, or been exiled to Siberia, so women took over the roles traditionally reserved for men. It was against this background that the feminist movement blossomed on Polish lands.
Sistering and the Enthusiasts
Klementyna Hoffmanowa is the figure that usually opens any history about Polish feminism. It’s true that she was an independent woman, living only from her writing and pedagogical activity, which in those days was certainly rare. But was she a feminist? She popularised education for girls but her works parroted the traditional distribution of roles for men and women.
The real mutiny was fomented by her students, primarily Narcyza Żmichowska. After graduating from the Governesses' Institute in Warsaw, she became a home teacher for the Zamoyski family in Paris. Whilst there, she came into contact with the democratic movement and absorbed the ideas of the first wave of feminism, leading to the loss of her job.
She came back to Poland a changed woman. She became involved in educational and public demonstrations (she even served some time in prison), and she shocked people with her “male lifestyle” (riding horses and smoking cigars). She gathered a circle of supporters that created an informal group called “Entuzjastki”(“The Enthusiasts”). Their aim was to increase female influence in public life and ensure equal access to education. They promoted ideas of self-fulfilment and economic independence. Żmichowska wrote:
Study if you can. Learn, if you can, and consider earning enough to look after yourself. Because in times of need, nobody will be waiting with support and care.
Their texts were published in Pierwiosnek. Described as “a magazine consisting solely of texts by ladies”, it was the first publication in Polish made strictly by women. The group's activities were based on Żmichowska's idea of “posiestrzenie” (literally “sistering”), an affirmation of the platonic friendships between women. They stood in opposition to arranged loveless marriages which they claimed were simply financial contracts between families.
Other members of the Entuzjastki group included Eleonora Ziemięcka (the first Polish female philosopher) and Bibiana Moraczewska, a writer and activist engaged in issues connected with society and independence, and a daring conspirator. Entuzjastki's ideas bloomed over the next few generations. Emerging from this period was Ewelina Porczyńska, mother of Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit who was dubbed the “hetman of Polish feminism”, and Wanda Grabowska, later Żeleńska, mother to Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, the main male feminist of the Second Polish Republic.
Demanding Human Rights
Amongst the many demands of the suffragette movement during the partition era, two of them came strongly to the fore: political rights and equal access to education. The action that caused the biggest stir (today we might call it a “performance”) was when Maria Dulębianka, a close companion of Maria Konopnicka, stood in the election for Galicia's Sejm in 1908. Dulębianka received over 400 votes (from men, naturally) but, despite this respectable result, her application was rejected "due to formal issues".
Polish suffragettes weren't imprisoned or beaten like their British colleagues, but their slogans were treated by many with aversion and derision. The press printed damning caricatures and comments about them, criticising their commitment to “trivial matters” while Poland was held captive. “Does a woman stand outside her nation?” retorted Dulębianka.
Even the leftwing sometimes sabotaged their actions. In her book Damy, Rycerze i Feministki (“Dames, Knights and Feminists”), Sławomira Walczewska wrote “socialists would offer words of support to suffragettes during their rallies, but at the same time they forbid their members from taking part in suffragettes' meetings”. Born in Zamość, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that bourgeois women who “savour the ready fruits of class domination”, add “a burlesque trait” to the suffragette movement. In her opinion, women's emancipation had to go hand-in-hand with a social revolution:
Proletarian women, the poorest of the poor, the most deprived of those who have no rights at all: come fight for the liberation of women and humankind from the atrocities of capitalist domination.
The women’s movement declared itself as apolitical, but it was unable to overcome the nation’s divisions. Attempts to establish cooperation between Polish, Jewish or Ukrainian activists often fell apart due to nationalist antagonisms. This situation continued even after Poland regained independence.
It is impossible to write about the women’s movement in the 20th century without mentioning Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit, the founder of Związek Równouprawnienia Kobiet Polskich (“The Polish Women’s Equality Association”) and the editor-in-chief of Ster magazine. Ster was supposed to be a platform for exchanging information between suffragettes scattered across the three annexed territories. It published not only humorous texts, but literary pieces by Orzeszkowa, Konopnicka and Żeromski, and tried to attract a larger readership with a regular column by Ludwika Ćwierczakiewiczowa, an author of cookbooks and guides for housewives who was very popular at the time.
Most suffragettes were engaged in educational activities, especially for those excluded or deprived of access to education. Initiatives were established, many of them illegal, such as reading rooms for women, “Flying Universities”, and “Kobiece Koła Oświaty Ludowej” (“Educational Circles for Women”). Important figures included: Faustyna Morzycka, an organiser of educational groups and a PPS fighter who inspired the Polish writer Żeromski to write the story Siłaczka (“Strongwoman”); Filipina Płaskowicka, founder of Koło Gospodyń Wiejskich (“The Association of Rural Women”); and Stefania Sempołowska, who was said to “have taken part in everything that happened in Poland during her 50 years of active life”.
Kazimiera Bujwidowa, the founder of the first junior school for girls in Poland, was tireless in her fight for women to have equal access to education. In her school, students could take a final exam that was the first step in applying for university, something unheard of before for women. She also initiated a campaign for women to apply to Jagiellonian University, resulting in the institution accepting their very first female students in 1897.
Another important case raised by suffragettes was workers' rights. The disproportion between the sexes’ salaries was huge, and women were often sacked when they got married or became pregnant. Human trafficking was a big social problem too. In towns and villages in Central-Eastern Europe, many crooks deceived unprivileged women by offering them lucrative jobs, only to put them in brothels. Activists fought this practice by organising missions at train stations where they engaged female arrivals seeking work and provided them with accommodation and aid in finding a job.
"We Want a Complete Life!"
For the younger feminist generation, which, paraphrasing Zofia Nałkowska, already knew that they “have the right to have rights”, it was something more than having the right to vote or access to education – it was about changing rigid and hypocritical customs. Izabela Moszczeńska wrote in her 1904 article Cnota Kobieca (“Woman's Virtue”):
Giving women the right to establish and break off romantic relationships, without limits, with no scruples and no qualms, lies far beyond the borders of the current worldview (…) This kind of morality humiliates women and lowers them to the role of a purchased and well-protected cow.
Mentioning such bold morality topics during this period outraged not only public opinion, but also divided the feminist community. Nałkowska's speech, Uwagi o Etycznych Zadaniach Ruchu Kobiecego (“Observations on the Ethical Tasks of the Women’s Movement”), at the Polish Women’s Meeting (“Zjazd Kobiet Polskich”) in 1907, ended in great scandal. There was an attempt to disrupt the reading, and Konopnicka and Dulębianka left the room in outrage. Nałkowska’s speech included the following:
Our aim is to thoroughly re-evaluate today’s governing ethics. The division of women into either moral or immoral is based on a male point of view. Our liberation has to give us a new criterion of classification, a new ethical census. Neither our erotic qualities nor our attitude toward men should dictate our morality.
The writer finished her speech with the renowned sentence: “We want a complete life!” She wrote in her diary:
A man can know the fullness of life, because he lives as a man and as a human being. But for a woman, there is only a fraction of life – she has to be either a woman or a human being.
It’s possible similar conclusions influenced her rival Maria Komornicka, a Young Poland poet, to change identity. In 1907, she publically burnt her outfit, put on male clothes and started to introduce herself as Piotr Odmieniec Włast. Her family thought she had gone mad and had her placed in a psychiatric institution.
In 1903, Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit wrote:
Throughout history, all the periods when societies flourished or had serious turmoil brought women to light. A passive slave who always takes part in the momentary upheaval but, once the peaceful era returns, is again left in the shadows of the home – her reward for joint achievements.
When the country was on the brink of independence, making legislation equal for both sexes was not a prominent issue. The first draft of the constitution in 1917 did not consider it at all. Marshal Józef Piłsudski, for example, was unconvinced, and thought that women were conservative by nature and susceptible to manipulation. However, on 28th November 1918, a group of suffragettes gathered outside his villa in the Mokotów district of Warsaw. The umbrellas they used to bang on his windows would soon became a symbol for the movement. The marshal kept them waiting for several hours in the rain and freezing cold outside, but finally he gave in. One of the reasons for his capitulation was most certainly Aleksandra Piłsudska, his wife at the time, who was also a feminist activist. The constitution was hencefore amended to become equal and included women's right to vote in the newly-reformed country.
After the declaration was made on paper about gender equality, many past activists moved onto broader social activism – raising education standards, improving conditions for mothers, or campaigning against alcoholism. But others saw it as a symbolic move rather than a real one, and did not accept that the fight was over.
“Gender” Looms over the Second Polish Republic
Despite being a topical word in today’s Poland, the ''G'' word was not commonly used during the interwar period. That being said, many of the ideological debates back then had plenty of similarities to contemporary disputes. One of the hottest topics was the anti-abortion bill that recommended a punishment of up to five years in prison. Writing in the 1930s, Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka commented:
When a woman does not want to, or cannot give birth; when she shrinks at the thought of giving birth to an unwanted child, one she was forced to give birth to against her will, a child whose arrival could bring a tragic fate to its mother – then this woman is subjected to the old-fashioned, unrealistic and strict male legislation in our penal code that forces her to give birth, that demands forced maternity. A code that shouts in an inhuman voice: Woman, you must give birth!
Budzińska-Tylicka, whose work linked medical practices with feminist and socialist activities, contributed to the founding of the first Polish Conscious Maternity Clinic, geared towards women from lower social classes. There was an inscription above the front door saying “We do not interrupt pregnancy here – we prevent it.” But newspapers across the political spectrum disregarded their intentions and instead wrote at length about how these kinds of clinics were inspired by foreign elements and would lead to the country’s depopulation.
Apart from their concern for women, the campaign for conscious parenthood was also motivated by the eugenics theories that were popular at the time. In literature, the poem Prawo Nieurodzonych (“Rights of the Unborn”) by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska best summed it up:
(…) We do not want grim subterrains,
A father’s curses, a raised axe.
Lullabies made from slaughterhouses and screams!
Two of the other founders of the above-mentioned clinic were Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński and his long-time partner Irena Krzywicka. Considered one of the biggest scandalisers of the interwar period, Krzywicka proclaimed ''the twilight of male civilisation'' was nigh and took up taboo issues such as rights for sexual minorities and polyamory. She battled against abortion being forced underground, and demanded guarantees that women receive three days off work during menstruation. Moreover, she had an open relationship with her husband, Jerzy Krzywicki, and did not conceal having an affair with Żeleński, only confirming the opinion of people who declared her as morally corrupt.
Ultimately, the women discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg among hundreds of forgotten women that challenged stereotypes. They are all worth remembering because the past is not only “history” but also “herstory”.
Written by Patryk Zakrzewski, translated by ND, edited by AZ, August 2015
- Nasze bojownice, Cecylia Walewska, Warsaw 1935
- Szlaki kobiet. Przewodniczka po Polsce emancypantek, edited by Ewa Furgał, Kraków 2015