From Women's Rights to Feminist Politics: The Developing Struggle for Women's Liberation in Poland

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FROM WOMEN'S RIGHTS TO FEMINIST POLITICS: THE DEVELOPING STRUGGLE FOR WOMEN'S LIBERATION IN POLAND

These are times of great promise and great danger for women in Poland, For decades, the second class status of women--in public lif, on the labor market, and at home--was an unchallengeable fact of life, firmly rooted in the hypocritical policies of the bureaucratized ruling communists and in the ideology of the powerful Catholic church. Now, the collapse of one-party rule and a nascent democratic process have created political space for women to begin struggling to change their situation. A newly formed national feminist organization is taking the lead in advocating women's rights and challenging the institutions of male dominance that circumscribe every aspect of women's lives. Women within the trade union Solidarnosc are beginning to draw attention to the special problems of working women and to develop structures that can address them.

But at the same time, women are facing a far-reaching assault on their legal rights and living standards that threatens to set them back decades. As the new government of Solidarnosc-allied intellectuals and politicians rushes to privatize the ailing economy, women are becoming the majority of the new unemployed and have already lost their right to protected long-term parental leave. Legislation to outlaw abortion has been introduced in the Sejm (the Polish Parliament) for the second year in a row. Women are even less represented in government than before, while Playboy-style calendars are displayed in most stores and offices.

Never has it been more critical for women to unite to defend their rights. While the potential for such organization exists, there are many obstacles which must first be overcome.

A History of Subordination

The situation of women in Poland is complex and contradictory. Basic legal rights and social benefits, which in the West were won only after protracted struggle, were provided by the ruling Polish United Workers Party (PUWP) after the Second World War. The Polish constitution guarantees the equality of the sexes. Abortion was legalized in 1956, on certain specified grounds, and has evolved to permit abortion virtually on demand. A system of childcare support was developed which included, for mothers, the right to three months' paid maternity leave and leave to care for sick children (35 days per year per child) and, for either parent, the right to up to three years of parental leave, with an allowance of 40 percent of the former salary paid during the first 18 months. Pornography was legally banned. New opportunities were made available to women who wished to attend university and to study or work in traditionally male-dominated fields.

But, in reality, little changed for most women. The patriarchy was perpetuated in public life through the party bureaucracy and in private life through the weight of tradition, reinforced by the Catholic church. The PUWP's commitment to equality existed only on paper. There were no women in top party posts and only a token few in government and management in industry. (Only a quota ensured that 20 percent of party members were women.) Women entered the work force in record numbers to help rebuild war-devastated Poland, and currently constitute 46 percent of the workforce. (Between 70 and 80 percent of women 20 to 30 and 45 to 50 years old engage in paid labor.) But they have been kept segregated in the lowest paying, and often most monotonous and unsafe, jobs, concentrated in the textile, food, and pottery industries, the clothing trade, and education and health services. Thus, the average woman earns only 65 percent of the average man's wages.

At the same time, women have always been expected to assume full responsibility for children and the home. Recent statistical surveys show that women are exclusively responsible for cooking in 94 percent of all households, for washing and ironing in over 90 percent, for mending clothes in 97 percent, and for dishwashing and other housework in 85 percent of all households. …