They were organisers of underground education, diplomats, terrorists and soldiers disguised in men’s uniforms. During the era Poland was partitioned, these forgotten heroines fought a double war: for their country’s independence and their own empancipation.
In the 19th century, Polish iconography and imagination was dominated by the figure of Matka Polka, the so-called Mother-Pole who cared for future solidier sons, while their fathers were away fighting battles. Although such a cliche was actually a form of appreciation, it also deprived women of playing an active part within the sphere of public life.
The novelist Maria Dąbrowska pointed out that a social drama was played out according to this stereotypical role-division between the sexes, 'the woman, a symbol of settled life' and 'the husband, a wanderer and grubber of new paths', who 'met as [though they were] people of separate worlds (…)'. The writer posed a rhetorical question: 'But is there not a world of women-fighters and women-wanderers?' And such a world did exist, indeed. It was certainly noticed by the partitioning authorities, who were very much afraid of Polish women.
During the era of the January Uprising in the 1860s, the Russian essayist Nikolai Vasylyevitch Berg commented 'The Polish woman is an eternal, implacable and incurable conspirator'. Immediately after the November Uprising of 1830, in his correspondence with Ivan Pashkievich (who he had put in charge of Poland), Tsar Nicholas I wrote explictly:
I fear women! That devilish nation always acted through them (…).
Polish women’s battle for independence and maintaining national identity took on various forms: from organising underground education, through cultural diplomacy abroad, to conspiratorial combat.
Simultaneously to these activities, a movement for the emancipation of women was developing in Poland. Its participants were all active in the aforementioned fields. Women’s organisations were often accused of taking up matters as 'trivial' as equality, at a time when the entire nation was enslaved. One of these derogatory statements was: 'It’s a waste of time to fight for women’s rights, of time required for national combat'. Activist painter Maria Dulębianka responsed with the rhetorical question: 'Does a woman stand apart from her nation?'
But in order to avoid such accusations, women’s organisations often emphasised their patriotism and engagement with the Polish cause. With time, some feminists began to make Polish independence their priority, assuming that gender equality would come with a free Poland. In her 1935 book Nasze Bojownice (editor’s translation: Our Women Fighters), Cecylia Walewska stated:
And a clear trail was carved behind them, not only that of the fight for equality, but also that of the most holy of battles, the one most dear to our hearts, the battle for the soul of the Polish nation, prone to the greedy partitioners’ claws. The story of our fighters’ struggle is a story of rhythm, power, tension, and the most socially-engaged kind of work. It is a story of work carried out by individuals, for whom universal affairs took over the entire space of their personal ambitions and desires. The idea of liberating women was bound up with liberating the nation, with the fire of the most deeply lived patriotism, with the greatest sacrifice in the name of the motherland, and with constant efforts at illuminating [the nation through the] underground [education] so strictly, that frequently, if not most of the time, the main slogans served as a protective shield for other slogans, which were forbidden.
So who were among the Polish heroines of the era? We take a look at a few key women as well as the various strategies they took to fight against a partitioned Poland.
The mighty Modjeska & other women representatives
For a society deprived of its own state, a nation due to be 'crossed out of the nations’ register', any recognition of a person linked to Poland abroad, any sign whatsoever of friendliness towards Poles was something incredibly important. For this very reason, women representatives of Polish culture played a significant role on the international arena.
Although she hardly ever left the small town of Grodno, Eliza Orzeszkowa nonetheless contributed to the international recognition of Poland, by writing a chapter of the colllective British publication On Women in Europe, in which she described the situation of women in Poland. The novelist Maria Szeliga (today, already a forgotten figure), was a Polish resident of Paris, where she stood up against the Russification and Germanisation of Poland in numerous international circles of women, and among pacifist movements too. She also worked towards popularising knowledge about the children’s strike in Września. The aforementioned Maria Konopnicka and Maria Dulębianka also organised similar protest actions.
The soprano singer Józefina Reszke conquered European operas, while donating her income to support patriotic activity in Poland. Helena Modrzejewska was a leader in this regard. In one of her letters, she wrote:
They took away our freedom, but they cannot take away our talents. (…) We gain fame abroad without asking for their permission.
The mere fact that a Polish actress had made a huge career on both British and American stages was enough of a source of pride for Poles. But Modrzejewska didn’t stop there. Her presentation during the World Congress of Women in Chicago in 1893 was a particularly significant event. Modrzejewska was meant to substitute another, absent speaker, and present the situation of women’s organisations in Poland. But already in her introductory note, she explained:
Everything is done in secret, and that’s the reason why I cannot give you an account of what my fellow women citizens have been doing. I must employ very general terms only, because I fear that any mention of actual names could result in very serious consequences.
Records have it that the finale of Modrzejewska’s speech was regularly interrupted by storms of applause. After this presentation, she was hailed as 'ambassador of the three partitions', and a translation of her speech circled around the three Polish districts. Modrzejewska’s activity didn’t pass unnoticed by the occupying authorities. First, she was banned from performing during a charity ball for Polish political prisoners in Kalisz. Soon afterwards, she was also forbidden for life from entering Russian territory. Her performances in Warsaw and St. Petersburg were called off. In an article entitled Modrzejewska i Carska Tyrania (Modrzejewska and the Tsar’s Tyrrany), published by The Dramatic Mirror, she was ironic:
How funny it is! The great Russian empire is afraid of Modjeska! I am beginning to think I am very powerful!
In interviews for the press, she spoke about the tragedies and persecution endured by Poles under the partitions. In one interview for an American newspaper, she said:
We’re lucky to be outside of Russian Poland now, because otherwise my husband would probably be in Syberia (…) and I would be teaching the alphabet to little children.
One of the battle areas for national identity most dominated by women was that of underground education carried out in Polish. It was aimed primarily at the underprivileged with the least chances of access to education: women and countryfolk.
In 1879, Józefa Bojanowska founded an illegal organisation in Warsaw called the Scientific Women Readers’ Club (one of the first initiatives of its kind). There was a growing demand for more higher education. The first women students enrolled at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in 1896 (following a campaign by Kraków-based suffragists), while this happened even later at Warsaw University in 1915.
Following the initiative of Jadwiga Szczawińska-Dawidowa, a secret university for women was organised in Warsaw in 1882. It was dubbed The Flying University, its name a result of the frequently changing location of the lectures. Future celebrities of the science world attended the courses of this university, including Maria Curie-Skłodowska and the anthropologist Maria Czaplicka, as well as many women who would later become crucial figures of underground education and the emancipatory movement: Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmidt, Stefania Sempołowska, Maria Wysłouchowa and Zofia Daszyńska-Golińska. The level of teaching was high, and some of the most prominent scientists of the era engaged themselves in shaping the Flying University institution. After six years of studies, graduates of the FU received their 'underground' diplomas.
Education activists in rural areas supported democratic and patriotic values. They fought for equal opportunities and tried to deepen the local peasants’ bonds with Polish culture. One of the most active organisations was the Kobiece Koło Oświaty Ludowej (Women’s Circle of Folk Education), for which the goals were formulated as follows:
- Bringing national and social awareness to people through the means of the spoken word, as part of the underground, and wherever possible, official educational courses for youths and adults
- Supplying textbooks, in order to ensure that the largest possible number of peasants learn to read, and thus, gain a possible understanding of life
- Enlightening the people by providing them with appropriate books for further development of readership and gaining knowledge
- Founding supply stores and alcohol-free inns, in order to help countryfolk and facilitate our contact with them
The countryfolk activists founded libraries in rural areas, and created various teaching materials of their own. Faustyna Morzycka, an inspiration for the titular Strongwoman of Stefan Żeromski’s 1895 novel, created her own simplified versions of books by Kraszewski, Orzeszkowa and Prus with the original authors’ consent. Helena Radlińska, the future creator of social paedagogy, wrote short popular books, such as Who Was Mickiewicz.
According to a 1901 report by a Russian committee for the investigation of readership levels in the Congress Kingdom of Poland:
The influence of underground education reached 33% of the country’s population and it was precisely thanks to this secret education that most peasants owe their ability to read and write.
Another important battleground of women activists was their struggle to support prisoners and deportees. According to Stefania Sempołowska:
There is no other nation in the world for which the prison played as large a part as it did for Poles. For one and a half centuries, every living thing that ever existed in Poland and strived towards freedom would have spent either a shorter or longer period of time in jail. For a long time, the prison cells were both the cradle and the grave of the ideals of independence and democracy. Our post-partition fate rendered prisoner an honourable title.
'Carefully educated girls throwing bombs'
These same women who organised underground education also took on more radical means of directly targeting the opressive regime. Many teachers were to be found among the leaders of Ludwik Waryński’s Proletariat. They were Aleksandra Jentysówna and Filipina Płaskowicka (who also founded the very first Koło Gospodyń Wiejskich (Farmers’ Wives Association), and Maria Bohuszewiczówna, who became the party’s leader after a series of arrests. Similiarly, during the period of the PPS Polish Socialist Party, women members also took part in armed combat.
The aforementioned Faustyna Morzycka participated in an assassination attack on Russia's General Uthoff (the attack was a failure, with accidental casualties, and as a result, the heavily-depressed Morzycka committed suicide). The 1906 assault on General Skalon, the Russian governor of Warsaw, was carried out almost solely by women: Wanda Krahelska, Zofia Owczarkówna and Albertyna Helbertówna.
According to historian Andrzej Szwarc, the most feminised profession in the Tsar’s Russia was that of revolutionary. In the Congress Kingdom of Poland, these proportions were smaller than in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but the numbers were nonetheless significant. The militant organisation of the PPS party consisted of some 478 women. They took part in assassination attacks and so-called eksy (expropriatory actions aimed at taking over various assets of the regime), as well as smuggling both weapons and clandestine press.
These smugglers were called dromaderki. According to Aleksandra Piłsudska, contemporary fashion was an ally, especially the large coats and capes:
With time, we became so skilled that we’d travel around unsuspected with up to 49 pounds of weapons or papers on us.
In her memoirs, Piłsudska recalls the anecdotal experience of a friend of hers. This woman used to hide her conspiratory activity from her mother. When her secret was accidentally revealed, her mother said to her:
'Well, finally you’re doing something truly useful. I never liked these stupid socialist secret prints. That’s an argument we used back in 1863.' And tenderly, she stroked a revolver.
'And the maidens will come with us to fight the Moskals'
This combat experience common between mother and daughter shouldn’t come as a surprise. Polish women had been active in the fight for independence since the November Uprising in 1830. Initially, they took on tasks considered to be in agreement with their sex, according to the standards of the time. They organised charity actions, smuggled banned literature, and, at the time of active battle, they tended to the wounded. But women began working outside of this box ever since the People’s Spring broke out around Europe in 1848. Bibianna Moraczewska, for example, who was connected to the Enthusiasts’ movement (a small, organised faction of Polish female writers), took an active part in organising an uprising in the Wielkopolska region.
During a time of fierce repressions against democratic manifestations, in the wake of the January Uprising, the women of Warsaw created a conspiratorial network of associations. The foundation were so-called Piątki (literally meaning Fives), which were units of five women members. They provided help and support for arrested Poles and their families. Although their functioning was not formalised, they quickly developped into a network spanning across the borders of the partitions. In the Congress Kingdom of Poland and in the Poznań region, their activity remained secret, while in Austria-controlled Galicia it was semi-official, functioning under the name of Komitet Niewiast Polskich (the Polish Maidens’ Commitee). After the uprising erupted, many of them joined in the fighting.
Anna Henryka Pustowojtówna, assistant to General Marian Langiewicz, soon became a symbol of the January Uprising – much like Emilia Plater was an icon of the November Uprising thirty-three years earlier. The mythologisation of the two heroines was strengthened by literature. Emilia Plater is commemorated in Adam Mickiewicz’s Death of the Lieutenant, while Pustowojtówna is featured in the play The Dictator by Jerzy Żuławski.
Other women also took up arms at the time, many of whom are not remembered or recognised today. In a book written to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the uprising, indeed in the title itself, Maria Bruchnalska called them the 'silent heroines'. According to Bruchnalska, they were usually considered 'highly eccentric personalities which spoiled the ordinariness of the world'.
At the beginning of the January Uprising, Poland was shaken by the brutal murder of a pregnant woman called Maria Piotrowiczowa, killed by Cossacks after she and her small troops refused to surrender in a battle near Dobra. Following this tragedy, the leadership of the uprising announced that women would not be allowed to take part in direct combat. This, however, did not stop the willing, who cut their hair and dressed as men. A similar scenario repeated itself during the First World War.
In 1912, women’s sections were created in the Polish Rifle Squads paramilitary organisation. When war broke out, Marshal Piłsudski, commander of the Polish forces, decided that women will not take an active part in military combat. Instead, they were engaged in espionage, mail delivery, sanitary and provisional formations. To date, however, records of at least 10 women have been confirmed who fought in Piłsudski’s Legions under pseudonyms and in masculine disguise – such as the infantry soldier Zofia Plewińska (AKA Leszek Pomianowski) and the gunner Wanda Gertz (AKA Kazik Żuchowicz). Women from the auxiliary branches remained in the shadow. In the book Wierna Służba: Uczestniczki Walk o Niepodległość 1910-1915 (Faithful Service: The Women Participants in the Battle for Independence 1910-1915), Anna Minkowska describes her perspective:
The position of women during the time of war was strange! Men were very much desired, every new member of the legions was welcomed and received as a brother. But women were addressed dismissively, and with suspicion – it was always said there were too many of them, no one seemed to really believe they were able to work, while indeed, there was so much work to be done. (…) And we also seemed to humbly believe that even the smallest solider out on the front represents a higher value than the most courageous of women outside of battle. Perhaps the desire for self-sacrifice stemmed from this, as well as that of overcoming oneself. Perhpas this was the source of belief that the hardest toil will always bring very little, because it was always armed work which was apparently needed the most – everything else was but a shade, a mere addition to what was most essential.
The Liga Kobiet Pogotowia Wojennego (Women’s War Alert League) provided huge support for the Legions. Maria Dąbrowska, who participated in its founding meeting in 1913, noted in her diaries that the organisation 'brings women honour', since 'in spite of its femininity, the Women’s League wasn’t talkative and careless and must have been the only secret organisation not to fall apart or get discovered under the Russians'. In 1916, it was a massive organisation which functioned in spite of political divisions, and consisted of some 12,000 members.
The engagement of women in the war became a significant bargain card in granting them electoral rights in 1918 (as many politicians of the era were sceptical). The founder of the league, Izabella Moszczeńska admitted this when she said 'although the activity of the Women’s War Alert League was not dictated by any feminist calculations, but was rather the result of pure patriotism (…), it was clear that it could become a very strong lever for the cause of women’s equality within the Polish state'.
When Poland was reborn as the so-called Second Polish Republic in 1918, some of the aforementioned figures made a political career, becoming deputies or senators, like the activist Irena Kosmowska. They founded various civil associations, and organised education within an independent state. Some, like Wanda Gertz, made a career in the army. On the other hand, these veteran women still had to confront the glass ceiling in their access to any state honours. The journalist Melchior Wańkowicz pointed this out bitterly in his preface and afterword to Ignacy Ziemiński’s book Praca Kobiet w P.O.W. Wschód (Women’s Work in the Wschód Polish Military Organisation):
When an independent Poland come into existence, long queues of citizens lined up to join it, with their own records of losses, of merits, of having done this and that, of not having been in the way, of having spoken, of having stayed quiet, of simply being and existing, of having fought, and of having helped, and of having seen how others fought, or having heard about the fighting. Let us recall then, at a time when even the smallest pretence was recorded, where were the women?
They were absent from the pressure of various demands addressed to a young state. They crouched around the few ponds and dams that the builders of the state began to raise, busy like bees. And I won’t even mention those who followed the path of further sacrifice: Lviv, Silesia, Vilnius, the year 1920, the espionage. They massively took over certain posts, because of the intertia left behind by war, because they advanced work and because they had more modest demands. They evoked masculine hisses of envy and fear of competition, from assessors and clerks. They had been pushed below the eighth degree of public service, where they were tolerated. (…)
And further on:
Boys grew to be men and took over various posts. Poland paid them back with work opportunities, with the possibility of developing their skills, and opportunities to create. (…) And if we tell ourselves that the greatest career that a former woman intelligence agent could make was having a husband with a responsible position, who also happened to grant her love, who granted his wife a share of his own glory she could bask in, and who sometimes simply allowed himself to be discreetly towed by a woman, then let’s admit to ourselves that very little has changed.
Author: Patryk Zakrzewski, August 2017; trans Paulina Schlosser, November 2017.
Sources: Działaczki Społeczne, Feministki, Obywatelki… Samoorganizowanie się Kobiet na Ziemiach Polskich do 1918 Roku (na tle porównawczym), Warsaw 2008; Kobieta i Świat Polityki, Warsaw 1994; Rok 1863: Narodziny Nowej Polski, Warsaw 2016; Joanna Dufrat – Kobiety w Kręgu Lewicy Niepodległościowej, Toruń 2001; Dorota Sajewska – Nekroperformans, Warsaw 2016