Tracing the trailblazing lives of Poland’s first feminist activists

This is our Poland

“Women believe blindly, love, devote themselves to others, raise children, amuse themselves… hence they live up to everything the world demands of them. Yet the world looks at them awry and responds to them now and then with reproaches or admonitions:

‘Things are not well with you!’

The more knowing, intelligent, or unhappy women look inside themselves or at the world around them and repeat:

‘Things are not well with us!’”

Part vehemence and part anguish, the emphatic start of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s 1873 novel Marta, the tale of a female protagonist’s desperate attempts to support herself after her husband’s death, may be over 100 years old, but it remains an apt metaphor for the state of women’s rights in Poland today. Amid curbs to abortion access and contraception, efforts to withdraw from international conventions preventing domestic violence, frequent poverty, and still-entrenched sexist stereotypes, things do not appear to be going well for women in present-day Poland. Ongoing repression has served as a rallying cry in recent years, with thousands of women taking to the streets or organising online protests and demonstrations, to resist government crackdowns.

Actress Helena Modjeska in 1893
Actress Helena Modjeska in 1893
Jadwiga Szczawińska-Dawidowa and her sister, Wanda, 1888
Jadwiga Szczawińska-Dawidowa and her sister, Wanda, 1888
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While Orzeszkowa would probably recognise many of the struggles facing Polish women today, she would also recognise such solidarity. In fact, for Polish women alive around the time of Orzeszkowa’s novel, the fight for women’s rights was equally active. Several influential early Polish feminists campaigned for women’s education, the right to vote, access to abortion, and supported sexual minorities long before these issues were widely known or accepted in society. And as a result, they had a significant and pioneering impact on Polish life and culture at the time. But whilst, in some cases, major progress was made for women’s rights in the late 19th and early 20th century, in other cases, the major dilemmas of 100 years ago are still playing out in today’s Poland. In fact, even though early women’s rights campaigners shaped Poland, the history of feminism and solidarity has generally been overlooked. With gender studies programmes coming under heavy fire from conservative campaigners in recent years, it looks like a trend that is set to continue.

The history of Polish feminism often starts with the prolific Klementyna Hoffmanowa (1798-1845), a novelist, children’s literature writer, teacher, and friend of Fryderyk Chopin, who — very unconventionally for her time — made a living from writing, as well as encouraging employment and education for women. With her emphasis on the need for female independence, Hoffmanowa took on a vital role within the Polish community, and even after she had she settled in France following the November Uprising - a Polish national revolt against the Russian empire in 1830 - she remained a prominent figure in women’s and wider cultural associations.

Nurses in 1932. Image: Witczak-Witaczyński Narcyz

But whilst trailblazing, Hoffmanowa can, perhaps, only be loosely classed as a feminist: she still promoted conservative ideas, including traditional gender divisions. Her students, however, were more progressive. Particularly notable was the George Sand-esque, cigar-smoking, anti-Russian revolutionary Narcyza Żmichowska (1819-1876), who founded the Enthusiasts – the first Polish feminists group – promoting women’s education, economic reliance, and self-fulfilment. They reached followers through their magazine Pierwiosnek, the first Polish collective publication created exclusively by women.

Educational opportunities were still scarce, however. Warsaw University, for example, did not admit women, and there was no unified teaching system in place. A high number of Polish women, including Żmichowska, were forced to travel abroad to seek an education instead. This would particularly cause problems when women were left widowed, as many where during 19th century uprisings against outside forces occupying Poland: the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Russian Empire. But without adequate education, job opportunities were difficult to secure, with many women only able to work as governesses.

Actress Hanka Ordonówna. Image: Witczak-Witaczyński Narcyz
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The situation changed in the 1880s, when the informal “Flying University” was established in Warsaw to provide clandestine education for young Poles, especially women. Founded by Jadwiga Szczawińska-Dawidowa and her husband Jan Władysław Dawid, and with leading academics on board, the “Flying University” provided informal lessons in a variety of locations across the city to evade the Russian authorities. More than 5000 Poles, male and female, attended courses at the university, including Maria Skłodowska-Curie.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, numerous Polish women’s organisations were combining the fight for women’s rights and education with efforts to regain independence. In partitioned Poland, women worked underground, taking an active role in resisting Russian repression by taking part in assassination attempts and smuggling weapons and documents, often under their clothing. Outside Poland itself, other women — such as leading Shakespearean actress, Helena Modrzejewska — spoke publicly about the conditions suffered by Polish women and the fight for Polish independence.

But it was the First World War which catalysed more extensive change. Many Polish women took an active role in the war effort, despite some scepticism as to their capabilities. Women were heavily involved with espionage, whilst women’s leagues also initiated funding efforts and propaganda campaigns. Others cared for the wounded, or disseminated underground press releases. Some even actively fought, adopting male pseudonyms and donning disguises.

Ulica Długa in Gsansk, 1906
Ulica Długa in Gsansk, 1906
Mme. Helena Modjeska, home in California, library of congress 1902
Mme. Helena Modjeska, home in California, library of congress 1902
Zula Pogorzelska in the film Sto Metrów Miłości, 1932
Zula Pogorzelska in the film Sto Metrów Miłości, 1932
Zula Pogorzelska in film Zabawka, 1933
Zula Pogorzelska in film Zabawka, 1933

Amid growing female camaraderie and widespread awareness of the essential role women had played in Poland’s resistance, Polish women were granted the right to vote mere weeks after the end of the war. As Poland became newly independent once more, it became one of the first countries in Europe to support women’s suffrage, cementing equality in law.

The following year, the first women were elected to the lower house of Poland’s parliament (the Sejm): Gabriela Balicka, Jadwiga Dziubińska, Irena Kosmowska, Maria Moczydłowska, Zofia Moraczewska, Anna Piasecka, Zofia Sokolnicka, and Franciszka Wilczkowiakowa. Between them, they represented a wide array of political perspectives.

Educational institutions began to accept female students, widening access to different professions: the state police allowed women recruits from 1925, while the first female judge in Poland, Wanda Grabińska, was appointed in 1929.

But despite some progress during the interwar period, age-old prejudices remained rife, and there was still a backlash against some women’s rights. Notably – and astonishingly reminiscent of today’s Poland – the 1920s and 1930s saw a clash over sexual rights, including contraception, rights for sexual minorities, and access to abortion.

Actress Helena Modjeska as Marie Antoinette
Poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. Image Courtesy of the Polish National Digital Archives
Biologist Wiktorja S. Dembowski, 1927. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives
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Central to the pro-abortion campaign was Irena Krzywicka, a writer and champion of women’s rights and sexual freedom. Her high-profile, extra-marital relationship with critic and cabaret writer Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński attracted scandal, but the pair also worked together to promote women’s access to abortion in the press, eventually establishing the first clinic in Poland to provide advice on contraception and sex. In 1932, a change to Polish law allowed abortion in cases where the mother’s life was at risk, or if the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act.

Krzywicka and Boy-Żeleński’s actions were also part of wider changes across interwar Polish society and culture. Leading female writers penned articles on sexual freedoms in literary and women’s magazines, including the indefatigable Zofia Nałkowska, whose novels were groundbreakingly modernist in their psychological and introspective profundity. Other women authors pushed boundaries elsewhere, including Maria Kuncewiczowa, author of the first Polish radio novel.

With their cabaret links, Krzywicka and Boy-Żeleński helped revolutionise and liberate the role of women in popular culture, although this faced some criticism from older, pre-war suffragists, who criticised their apparent consumerism and promiscuity. On glittering cabaret and theatre stages, troupes of women danced and performed their way to national heroine status; by day sharing quips with men in literary cafés, and by night embodying the interwar “New Woman” as flapper, vamp, and seductress. One leading female figure was dancer, singer, and film star Hanka Ordonówna, whose immaculate voice and resolute work ethic earned her a place in Polish musical history. Then there was Zula Pogorzelska, effervescent cabaret star and champion of the charleston in Poland. Behind the scenes, too, women were taking on more active roles: the Polish-Russian Fanny Gordon became one of the few women composers of the period, while Nina Niovilla was dubbed the “mother of Polish cinematography”.

Polish Girl Scouts, 1932. Image: Witczak-Witaczyński Narcyz

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But while a large number of women were (and continue to be) involved with campaigning for better rights and social freedoms in Poland, their legacies remain largely unknown in today’s Poland. “This is a topic which is completely ignored in the school teaching of history,” says Joanna Gzyra-Iskandar, from the Women’s Rights Centre. “The history of women’s movements in Poland is becoming better known thanks to women researchers, artists, activists, and social organisations, so it’s happening thanks to grassroots, not state, systematic activities.”

The first gender studies programme was set up in Poland in the mid-1990s at the University of Warsaw. Subsequent scholarly work aimed to research the history of women’s rights, deconstruct traditional gender roles — including the myth of the self-sacrificing Polish mother figure —and reject mainly male-centred perspectives in wider cultural fields.

However, with a backlash against so-called gender ideology in Poland in recent years, gender studies programmes are now under threat. In September last year, a government minister even called for a ban on teaching gender studies. Across Central Eastern Europe, gender studies programmes have also been criticised: the Hungarian government — often seen as an ally of the Polish government — banned gender studies in 2018.

Ultimately, Gzyra-Iskandar believes that curbs to women’s rights in contemporary Poland — and limited progress, especially in terms of sexual freedoms — proves that the fight to achieve equality still continues today.

“[The fight for women’s rights] will be a success when such perceptions of social relations will reflect in the law and general public awareness,” she says.

And if, in Poland, “things are still not well with us”, then there is urgent work to be done.

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