Concilium Civitas Almanac 2020/2021 – Professor Nina Witoszek „Pathology of Altruism or Post-Feminism? Shedding New Light on Women and Revolution” –

Pathology of Altruism or Post-Feminism?

Shedding New Light on Women and Revolution

Nina Witoszek

In a documentary film Solidarity According to Women by Marta Dzido and Piotr Śliwowski (2014), a young female director wanders around the spectral remains of Gdańsk shipyard. She wants to challenge the collective amnesia and recover the faces and voices of women who were part of the legendary Solidarity revolution (1980–81).  In one of the last scenes, she interviews Janina Paradowska, an influential political journalist and one of the former leaders of Solidarność(Solidarity). When asked why, in her earlier work on the movement, Paradowska had interviewed exclusively male leaders, the journalist replies that there were no women in the movement who had any vision or astrategy. But then, on reflection, she corrects herself: she could have talked to Alina Pienkowska. Or Anna Walentynowicz. Or Joanna Gwiazda. ‘They were strong and determined – perhaps even more determined than the men.’  The conversation takes an intriguing turn when the young film director presses:

MD: Surely the women did a ton of work! They published [the underground weekly] Tygodnik Mazowsze

JP: Yes, without women there wouldn’t have been any underground at all! They did their job but were not chosen as Solidarity’s representatives.

MD: But why?

JP: Exactly. Because this is how it was.

MD: Because didn’t they want it themselves?

JP: No, they weren’t invited. Generally, their role was to do their job … and men had the power.

MD: And nobody was surprised back then?

JP: No. Actually things have changed dramatically since then. We owe a lot to


(Dzido and Śliwowski 2014)

Paradowska laughs heartily, first bemused by this discovery. But then, her face becomes serious. She speaks slowly, more to herself than to the interviewer. ‘Yes, it’s like we agreed to be some kind of a service staff, support staff, logistics staff … It doesn’t make sense. You are right. It doesn’t make sense …’

               Paradowska’s suspended ‘eureka’ moment is telling. The camera records how one of the sharpest female brains in the post-authoritarian country realizes that she was not so sharp after all. Not only did she overlook one of the key actors in the anti-authoritarian revolution; she herself was one of them, accepting her role as secondary to men. It did not make sense indeed. Or did it?

               The film Solidarity According to Women shows how the role of small groups of ‘humanist outliers’ in the revolution of dignity[1] was impossible without one pivotal, and yet eclipsed, taskforce. In the Polish case, this taskforce consisted of brave, disciplined and highly creative individuals without whom the revolution might have faltered. They did not write philosophical treatises or inflamed letters from prison. They did not negotiate with the authorities. For a long time they were obscured from public view. But it is due to their work that the publication channels were firmly established and functioned smoothly both at the time when the garrulous male stars (of the opposition) were bathing in the international spotlight, and especially in those periods when they sat behind bars. Between 1976 and 1990 it was largely the female ‘subaltern revolutionaries’ who made Solidarność happen. They ran the communication network, but they made no fuss about performing less elevating donkey work: making coffee and food for men, finding safe places for dissidents on the run, collecting money, scheduling operations and working as couriers. As Anna Herbich has shown, some of them lost their jobs, got arrested, had their children confiscated or were left without any means of subsistence (Herbich 2016). Why did they never step out and demand recognition for their work and talent? And what have been the consequences of their all too discrete anti-authoritarianism? Did it yield more or less dignity to women in the years that followed?   

            The 21st century has spawned several studies on the resourcefulness, bravado and extraordinary humility of the women who co-created Solidarność. Both Ewa Kondratowicz’s volume, Szminka na sztandarze (Lipstick on a flag, 2001) and Shana Penn’s more systematic analysis, Solidarity’s Secret: The Women who Defeated Communism (2005) have revealed women as ‘the unsung heroines’ of the Polish revolution of dignity that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989. The facts speak for themselves: the Information Bulletin of theWorkers’ Defense Committee (KOR) was run by women – Anna Dodziuk, Joanna Szczęsna, Zofia Romaszewska and Anka Kowalska. The life force of the workers’ newspaper, Robotnik, was Helena Łuczywo, who also created the Solidarność Press Agency. The most influential, opinion-making weekly published between 1981 and 1989, Tygodnik Mazowsze (Mazowsze Weekly), was the feat of six women who described themselves as the Ladies’ Operational Group (Damska  grupa operacyjna).[2] Interestingly, Tygodnik provided not only the platform for the dissident writings of Solidarność heroes, such as Zbigniew Bujak, Władysław Frasyniuk, Maciej Poleski and Jacek Kuroń, it made an invaluable contribution to popularizing economic thought and visions of democratic institutions in future Poland – visions that the female editors found worth advocating.  In addition, women were in charge of Wszechnicas (workers’ universities) and led courses at Gdańsk Shipyard. In the words of one, ‘We told [the workers] about the trade unions in the West, what a workers’ movement is, what its traditions are, what rights are, what freedom is. What censorship is, what the tools of state repressions are. We simply taught them how to live in a free country’ (Labuda in Kondratowicz 2001: 159). As a side note: this informal enlightenment of the masses sums up all the points of a democratic education, which is as topical in the 21st century as it was in the 1980s. 

               But the Solidarność  women did not talk only to workers. Often more articulate in foreign languages than the male stars, they gave interviews to the foreign press on behalf of Kuroń, Bujak and Lech Wałęsa. There are three extraordinary women in particular – Anna Walentynowicz, Alina Pienkowska and Ewa Ossowska – who were like three wheels of fortune in the epic transformation that started in 1980.  Anna Walentynowicz – a widely respected welder and trade unionist – was the very reason for the strikes at Gdańsk Shipyard. After she was fired for her advocacy of independent trade unions, the Gdańsk workers went on strike to demand her reinstatement. And it was as a result of Walentynowicz, Pienkowska and Ossowska’s moral impulse that, at the fateful moment on the third day of the strike, the idea of a broad solidarity was hammered into Lech Wałęsa’s and workers’ minds. It was the day when the authorities finally agreed to meet the Gdańsk workers’ demands, and the men could go home, satisfied. But the three women were forward-thinking, ahead of their colleagues. They saw that outside the shipyard’s gate, there were hundreds of anxious workers from striking factories all over Poland. They had come to Gdańsk to show their solidarity with Lech Wałęsa. Now that the Gdańsk strike was called off, they faced an uncertain future back home. Initially, Wałęsa was not aware of the ‘time slot’ that fate had bestowed on him; nor did he see the need for reciprocal solidarity with outside strikers. But Pienkowska, Ossowka and Walentynowicz did.  Resolutely, they closed the shipyard gates and stopped the Gdańsk workers from leaving. Then they succeeded in persuading Wałęsa to continue the strike until the national demands for the ground-breaking registration of independent trade unions throughout the country were met. In effect, ‘It’s Walentynowicz and Pienkowska who saved the strike’ (Kubasiewicz Houée in Kondratowicz 2001: 196).

              This pregnant episode featuring key women protagonists has been erased from the official narrative of Solidarność. Marta Dzido’s film shows how the legend of Solidarity – or whatever has been left of it – has been reduced to the following story: Lech Wałęsa jumps over the shipyard’s fence. A crowd of workers lifts him on their shoulders and he, like some rock star, raises his hand in a V-sign. And then everybody shouts ‘Solidarność! Solidarność!’

              Wałęsa becomes a superhero. The revolutionary semiotics is male. What adds insult to injury is that an exhibition held in Gdańsk in 2009 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movement featured no female protagonists. Can we talk about an ingrained, and ever so nasty, male chauvinism behind this sin of omission?

            Intriguingly, the case studies and interviews cited by Polish and international studies provide ample evidence to the effect that most women who were part of the anti-authoritarian opposition did not think that they were underestimated or treated unfairly. On the contrary, they emphasized the value of male friendship and men’s cordiality, especially in the first phase of Solidarność. Some insisted that their public invisibility was their own choice. They did not care for fame. Neither did they feel discriminated against. They felt happy to be witnesses to and participants in an epic moment in their country’s history (Dodziuk in Kondratowicz 2001: 33–4).  

In the trailer for Dzido’s film we hear a polyphony of women’s voices: ‘We were young, pretty girls; we smoked lots of cigarettes; it was a fantastic time. We sat at night tapping away on typewriters. We felt empowerment and had a sense of community … It was dangerous, but every moment was full of friendship.’ Joanna Duda Gwiazda explains: ‘We really didn’t divide people into simple servants and those who are destined to do higher things. We had a deep conviction that we were all partners.’ Many women of Solidarity felt ‘honoured to be part of a splendid company – the best intellectual company in Europe, if not in the world’. (Dodziuk in Kondratowicz 2001: 27)  They ascribed their humility to plain realism:

I have a cynical consciousness that in order to climb to the pantheon you need to be either a Stalin or a Dalai Lama. As for me, if I really choose to care for something, I’m at my best in a small circle of people around me … Besides, even if I had vomited my entrails, history would have paid hardly any attention to me (Dodziuk in Kondratowicz 2001:  26–7).

Other interviewed women stress that their invisibility was strategic: it guaranteed the continuity of work on forging a parallel society and the survival of the conspiracy after martial law was imposed in December 1981. The secret police did not expect women to be the masterminds of the opposition, and so when men were arrested, the oppositional work could continue uninterrupted. 

               These comments leave many questions unanswered. Is it – as has been occasionally claimed – that by not telling their own story (women) sentenced themselves to non-existence? For all its inclusive spirit, was Solidarność a largely macho enterprise, where the female dissidents would never admit to being suppressed by the alpha males because this would, in effect, mean an admission of self-deception, a flawed existence and living in denial? And how has the Solidarność revolution affected women’s status in post-authoritarian Poland?  

               Feminist studies shed only partial light on Polish women’s insouciance about fame and recognition. Shana Penn dwells on Poland’s patriarchal culture, Catholic ideas of womanhood, men’s narcissism and the negative connotations ascribed to the Western concept of feminism (Penn 2006). Anne Reading (1992) is at pains to demonstrate how ‘[S]exism saturates Polish culture historically, linguistically, socially and in literature, under state socialism, and in Solidarity’. Just as Poland was once partitioned, so women are partitioned and annexed by the workplace, by children, by men (Reading 1992: 5).

                Without entirely discounting these findings, let me propose a more nuanced, historical-evolutionary approach that casts light on issues blocked from feminist research. Can we get a more accurate picture of the seeming idiocy of female life under, and after, communism?

Forging the humanist ethos

In his Rodowody niepokornych (Indomitable pedigrees) – a classic of oppositional humanism in Poland – Bohdan Cywiński (1971) talks about the emergence of a unique humanist Bildung in 19th-century Poland, one whose bearers were mostly women. At the secret ‘flying university’ and ‘ladies’ university’ established in Warsaw in the 1880s by Jadwiga Dawidowa and Helena Radlińska, young girls living in Russian-occupied Poland were offered 11 hours a week of secret education in logic, theories of cognition, psychology, ethics, history of philosophy, law, political economy, aesthetics, sociology and chemistry. These courses were not some lightweight extra-curricular add-ons. The teachers were recruited from the most enlightened elites – people with great brains and spirits who considered underground education to be part of their patriotic duty. Many female pupils exchanged ancient prayer books for economic and political narratives in the course of this alternative education – stories that led them less to the altar and more to the catacombs of social resistance. Their civic mission became second nature: a counterpoint to Jane Austin’s languishing domestic species. Maria Skłodowska – internationally known as Marie Curie – was a graduate of these courses, and her intellectual level on arrival in France in 1891 was found sufficient to get her enrolled at the Department of Chemistry at the Sorbonne.

               It would not be too much to say that before the dawn of communism, Poland flaunted a well-educated female intelligentsia that functioned not just as the unofficial inventor of the nation as an imagined community, but as the bearer of the ‘Europeanness’ of Poland as well.  As educators – both in the school system and at home – women formed a clandestine republic of storytellers: stories that were banned in the then Russian or Prussian schools. The occupying powers’ educational agenda was to ‘de-Polonize’ the nation and suppress the teaching of national history and language. Men resisted and died publicly in a series of spectacular and failed uprisings against the oppressors in 1794, 1830–31, 1846, 1848 and 1863–5. But the protest against the Prussian, Russian and Austrian partitioners assumed also a more discursive and privatized form: it took place at home, in churches and in small theatres. These were places where women functioned as mentors and masterminds of cultural dissent. By functioning both as guardians and disseminators of the alternative version of Polish history and the ideas of social care and cooperation, they forged a unique epistemic  regime of ‘underground knowledge’.

               The women of Solidarność continued this altruist-educational tradition. Admittedly, they were less the legions of the Catholic Black Madonna – the Queen of Poland, and even less the proponents of Matka Polka (Mother Pole), with her exemplary patriotism, selflessness, pedagogical acumen and responsibility for the future of the nation. Their lives testify to their exuberant success in escaping from the martyrological code of the suffering Niobe of Greek mythology. Their self-image points to engaged citizens who drew joy and a sense of meaning from teaching others about Poland as a European country.  

               When seen through this lens, the traditional role of educated women in Poland from the 19th century to 1989 went beyond being passive victims of the male patriarchy of the Catholic Church, as Penn’s and Readings’ deconstructions suggest. Many women internalized their role as ‘clandestine agents of public-mindedness’ in a country that was both de-Polonized and demoralized by a succession of alien authoritarian powers. My own mother, a teacher in former communist Poland, was one such agent. The obligatory menu of our Sunday dinners included not just the banned names and topics of the national past and present. There were also difficult – often resisted – lessons in the art of compassion extended to the Russians and the Ukrainians, whose fate – in our mother’s eyes – was surely worse that our predicament in the ‘merriest barracks in the socialist camp’. We were even taught about ‘decent Germans’: something that official communist education would hardly allow for.

               This civic Bildung (ethos) – transmitted by countless altruist-minded mothers like mine[3] – ensured the continuous existence of a community of compassion and the unbroken membership in an imaginary ‘European home’. Far from perceiving their status as pixels in the revolution, they considered their role as that of civilizing agents, guides and advisors. It would not have occurred to them to expect recognition or kudos for their work.  My own mother insisted that ‘one is not paid or rewarded for being a patriot’. She argued that her duty was to ‘keep the Shakespearian jester alive in Poland at the time when she and her people were living in the heart of darkness’.   

            Do we, then, have here a case of ‘virtue unrewarded’, or what Machiavelli called the ‘pathology of altruism’? David Sloan Wilson, the pioneer of prosociality-focused evolutionary biology, argues it is impossible to disprove psychological egoism or altruism because we have no way of reading human minds and no access to the subconscious motivations of others. However, he believes that what matters most are not the thoughts or feelings motivating people, but the actions that benefit others and increase the resilience and survival of a group (Wilson 2016). In the Polish case, the educated women who took part in the anti-authoritarian movement ‘inherited’ the culturally replicated trait of selfless action for the benefit of the group. Their code of ‘living for the other’ was being fulfilled and self-realized through taking on the role of givers. And it is largely thanks to women’s selflessness that the struggle against authoritarian oppression went on and culminated in the rise of anti-authoritarian Solidarność. To deny their agency, or distract from their achievements by obsessing about gender discrimination, would be misguided.

The fact that the women did not seek recognition for their work is due to many factors. But one is strongly tied to both the conciliatory and imaginative aspect of altruism. As friends, sisters, mothers and wives of the anti-authoritarian frontliners, the women knew the intimate details of the lives of the men who took risks: the everyday humiliations of prison life, the beatings, interrogations, living in a time warp, being broken both physically and mentally, and losing hope.  As one of them put it:

Communist Poland was not Latin America. Even when we were identified as ‘anti-state elements’ during the martial law in 1982, we were hardly ever physically abused. So if we didn’t scream for attention after the collapse of communism, it is largely because we had imagination. For us, to accuse national heroes of narcissism or chauvinism was out of place.  We speak about men whose lives were mostly about beatings, arrests and scrubbing the prison toilets – to accuse them of excessive self-importance would be both awkward and selfish (Surażska 2004).[4]    

This imaginative humility was combined with a collaborative work ethos. According to some observers, Polish women who worked in the opposition cultivated a compromise-seeking rather than a confrontational modus operandi (Borusewicz in Kondratowicz 2001: 58). The readers of the underground weekly, Tygodnik Mazowsze, published between 1981 and 1989, were struck by its tolerance and almost Buddhist openness and impartiality. As one of the editors put it: ‘We were fighting for a less militarized human being, one that would counteract the totalitarian creature always dressed in uniform’ (Tarasiewicz in Kondratowicz: 117). 

               Perhaps the dialogic character of the 1980 and 1989 revolutions was as much due to the influence of a Kuroń or a Gandhi as the work of the ‘feminine mode of resistance’: one that pursued strategies inspired less by bipartisan feminists, such as Nancy Fraser, and more by a compassionate Florence Nightingale or a politically savvy Madame de Pompadour. Whatever the answer, at the heart of KOR and the first Solidarność was the wisdom of a ‘smart, caring creativity’; a wisdom that yielded what Jeffrey Goldfarb called a mixture of ‘civility and subversion’ (Goldfarb 1998). The result of women’s work was thus not just a communicative breakthrough in the authoritarian state, but also the exemplary management of social upheaval with almost no casualties.

               To sum up: most women of Solidarność perceived themselves as mentors rather than victims of patriarchy – imaginative co-workers and co-creators of the anti-authoritarian resistance. But they were ill-prepared to embrace feminist partisanship. While the socialist legacy of top-down gender equality and a broad access to education made them potentially equal partners of men, their thymos – the Aristotelian term for the human drive for recognition – has remained largely work in progress well into the second decade of the 21st century. 

Anti-feminist femininity

If the prosocial orientation of the female anti-authoritarian activists can be understood by citing their particular cultural-historical experience, their general and stubborn anti-feminist stance – ranging from mild scepticism to downright aversion – is a puzzle to Western observers. Again, the anti-feminist bias can be partly traced back to the dominance of the patriarchal and Catholic worldview and a seemingly low level of gender consciousness. Feminism’s largely leftist orientation has not helped either: in a society that was a victim of real, existing socialism, feminists have been stigmatized as the relics of the ‘atheist, totalitarian regime’. Still another story tells us about the eternally postponed cause – the common task of survival and moving forward was stronger than the articulation of a gender conflict. The struggle for women’s rights was treated as secondary first to the struggle for independence, then to the agenda of catching up with Europe, then joining the EU, then NATO – until women woke up in a country ruled by an overwhelmingly anti-abortion and ‘anti-gender’ parliament in the 21st century.

            The ravages of women’s (self)marginalization have been telling: among the 21 signatories of the Round Table Agreement in 1989, there was only one woman: Grażyna Staniszewska. The post-1989 crisis was water to the mill, or – to use a more apt metaphor – myrrh in the incense, burnt by the alliance between the Holy and Apostolic Churches and the party of the motley camp of the ‘True Poles’. In 21st-century Poland – a country with one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe – it is easier to win a parliamentary debate on drastic cuts in public spending than to pass pro-abortion legislation. Young women, especially, have been disadvantaged by the largely male-centred monologue that dominates politics, the economy and social life. In March 1992, Anna Popowicz was fired from her position as head of the first cabinet office on women, youth and family for questioning discriminatory policies arising from the alliance of Solidarity and the Church (e.g. Pakszys and Mazurczak 1994: 147).

Let me propose yet another take. Rather than framing the women’s seemingly lost revolution in terms of Freudian or Lacanian neuroses, I wish to draw attention to three often underestimated but significant reasons for the lack of enthusiasm for feminism – not just in Poland, but in many authoritarian or post-authoritarian countries, such as Iran and Tunisia. The first reason is pedestrian but nevertheless pertinent: the working middle-class women in these countries have had no time for feminism.  We are talking about the ‘infrastructural time’ that one needs to make things work in an unpredictable world. In authoritarian contexts, sexuality has been a secondary issue compared to the time needed to combine a job with looking after a family, providing food and ensuring stability – in short, creating a cosmos out of chaos. ‘Feminists were burning their bras while we couldn’t buy them’, was the often-heard sarcasm that captured the gap between the East and West in the early 1990s.  Caught in the treadmill of tasks at their workplace and the jungle of family duties, women have had little or no energy left to theorize about Das Unbehagen in der Frauliche Kultur (women’s culture and its discontents) .

            A pivotal reason for the lack of feminist resurgence in the post-authoritarian context is what can be called the law of cultural ricorso (return to the past): a cultural backlash that follows too rapid a transformation. As a matter of fact, women’s predicament is a good illustration of how culture can override political and economic goals. An accelerated project of modernization invites the ‘old habits of the heart’ to strike back, often with renewed force. Such habits and values are a community’s moorings; they provide certainties and a moral compass in a liquid, alienating modernity. More often than not, they lead to the victory of conservative, value-charged narratives and catch secular opposition by surprise. Nothing illustrates this backlash as poignantly as the cry of one Tunisian feminist after the fall of the dictator Ben Ali: ‘Now we have the freedom to wear the veil!’ (Khalil, 2014: 190).

               In the Polish case, the culture of the pre-authoritarian ancien régime – going back to the 1930s – was marked by strong nationalist sentiment fused with a Catholic ethos. Both embraced a predominantly patriarchal culture, where superficial chivalry and a veneration of women was mixed with their tacit or open subjugation. It is easy to underestimate the energy of this entrenched cultural habitus – especially if it has been suppressed by a rather thin veneer of socialist secularism. The transition to democracy has thus been marked by an ongoing clash of two communities: one reclaiming the old allegiances, the other embracing new freedoms and institutions. In the resulting ‘mini-clash of civilizations’,  post-communist feminism finds itself in a Catch 22 predicament: in the public consciousness – including most women themselves – it is either associated with past communist impositions, or with the alien Western culture of anti-Catholic promiscuity and demolition of family values.            

               But there is one more reason for the stigma imposed on feminism in post-authoritarian countries, one which has to do with Western feminism’s failure to understand or help their anti-authoritarian sisters.  To cite from personal experience: in 1981, after finishing my studies, I was recruited as a translator by one of the small, independent journals that were mushrooming at the time of Solidarność. Since we were ambitious and snobbish – and anxious about being ‘different’ from other dissident presses – we decided to translate one of the classic feminist texts into Polish. That is how a fragment of Julia Kristeva’s seminal study on women in China (in English) landed on my desk (Kristeva 1977). On the surface, Kristeva’s essay looked exciting, but I soon realized that it was both an intellectual and existential challenge. I struggled with the conceptual apparatus – heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan – and with the dense and convoluted argument that was riddled with invocations of ‘an Oriental other’ and references to ‘a specifically cross-cultural, rather than cross-gendered, identification to challenge the Freudian and Lacanian paradigms of Western female subjectivity’. I barely understood what Kristeva meant by this and how it was to help us – or indeed the Chinese women – to press on with, let alone improve, our anti-authoritarian resistance. But I ploughed through it, full of angst over my failing intellectual faculties. When I delivered the final, battered translation, the reaction of the editorial committee was one of bewildered amusement. The conclusion was that either I had to be replaced by a better translator or Bulgarian–French feminism was about a decadent sect of spaced-out females that indulged in mumbo jumbo. Whether or not the true reason for the abandonment of the feminist agenda by our journal was my mental feebleness or Kristeva’s inscrutability, I decided that it was mildly ridiculous to risk years in prison for the translation of pretentious, jargon-driven writing which suffocated our imagination rather than offering empowerment and inspiration. 

               Later though, after having combed through feminist literature, I discovered less academic ideas in the work of Germaine Greer, Kate Millet and Camille Paglia. But I still could not shake off the impression that they were not speaking to or partnering with us: young and moderately intelligent Eastern European women who took risks while trying to speak truth to power. It is as if, for all their conceptual refinement and theoretical sophistication, Western feminists were living in a different galaxy, a clean and ordered one, while we lesser beings were bogged down in the dirt of the post-communist quagmire. 

               While I appreciated that Western feminist literature was involved in the project of addressing historic gender injustice, its academic version went beyond the pressing concerns of our place and time. In the 1980s Western feminism had little room for any sisterhood with the citizens of the authoritarian countries not singing in the anti-American or anti-Western chorus, or not being able to decipher the asphyxiating Lacanian chant. ‘They are too far ahead of us,’ said my editor, and gave up publishing Kristeva. But maybe they were behind us?

‘Keep your Rosaries off our Ovaries’, or how to reclaim the revolution

It is only in the 21st century that Polish feminism started participating more actively in the Polish transformation. In 2014, one of Poland’s leading feminists, Agnieszka Graff, summed up the relationship between feminism and the master narrative of the Polish revolution in 1989. ‘One could say,’ she wrote ‘that Polish feminism of the ’90s read the famous essay by Shana Penn … and took it so much to heart that it forged a coherent story about the [underground] women in Poland.’ The story was based on the conviction that ‘Polish female heroes did tremendous work; the work that has been forgotten in the official version of history …. The revolution of 1989 betrayed women, allowing the Catholic Church to play a decisive role in key issues concerning women’ (Graff 2014).

According to Graff, Polish women have been depersonalized and infantilized by three powerful forces: conservative politicians, the Catholic hierarchy and the neoliberal tabloid culture, where the ideal has been being feminine, affluent and successful. In 2014 Dariusz Oko, a priest and professor at the John Paul University in Kraków, pronounced in an article by Jędrzejczyk in the conservative daily Nasz Dziennik: ‘So-called genderism [is the] spiritual child of Marxism … The programme of the promotion of this ideology in Poland has been accepted without public consultation and bears the stamp of totalitarianism’ (Jędrzejczyk  2014).[5]

            This is how women’s causes have become appropriated by thick-headed men wearing ties or cassocks.

According to Graff, ‘There is a sense that the women’s movement, rejecting the current shape of collective memory, is a natural heir to the democratic opposition, more precisely – KOR’s wing’ (Graff 2014). Her statement confirms that the status of Polish feminists in 2014 (when she penned these lines) vaguely resembled the predicament of small groups of humanist outcasts in their own society.  As late as 2018 this situation continued. The question is: how to forge a cooperative front between the feminists, women at large, independent media, civil society and opposition parties? Making feminism into a national programme requires repeating the feat of KOR: forging a vision that will not just be tweeted but made feasible by new, young and charismatic protagonists. 


The Polish case of ‘retarded feminism’ – or self-imposed anti-feminism – is not unique. Countless women from post-authoritarian and previously patriarchal cultures struggle with some of the dilemmas described above. Not only are they marginalized; they have been deprived of the language to communicate what they think and feel. They are the victims of what a Norwegian psychologist, Berit Ås, calls ‘five master suppression techniques’ that allow men to stabilize women’s powerlessness: ‘making invisible; ridiculing; withholding information; damned if you do and damned if you don’t; heaping blame and putting to shame’ (Ås 1945).

There are a variety of initiatives counteracting the inertia of the male-defined world that reduces women’s bellies to property belonging to the whole tribe. One ongoing project is the Women’s Congress (established in Warsaw in 2009) which, while reclaiming the memory of women’s anti-authoritarian resistance, attempts to restore a sense of the social solidarity that has collapsed in neo-authoritarian Poland.  One of the liberating aspects of the congress is its open, humanist nature that guards against its derailment into parochial conferencing: the 7th Women’s Congress in Warsaw gathered 8,000 men and women who debated not just strategies for animating women’s solidarity, but also ecological challenges and the organization of assistance for Syrian war refugees. As one of its participants put it, ‘we are here not just to recover the memory of the past but to start building the memory of the future’.

Wisława Szymborska’s post-gender humanism

The revolution of dignity takes ever new forms. To mention but one example – unlike other civic upheavals in human history, the movement in 21st-century Iran is largely driven by women protagonists who have become the international face of dissent and human rights: Parvin Ardalan, Shadi Sadr, Shirin Ebadi, Mansoureh Shojaee, Nasrin Sotoudeh and Shiva Nazar Ahari. These women seem to have replaced the old male Eastern European dissidents – the Havels, the Michniks, the Sakharovs – and added a novel dimension and energy to pressing emancipative projects.  

While there is a definite masculine bias that women in these societies have inherited from the stories about the revolutionary past, there are also archipelagos of higher wisdom that go beyond the blueprint of Western partisan feminism. Such wisdom is joined with a precursory attitude and viewpoint that goes beyond gender. They are the avant-garde of the humanist outliers of the 21st century.

I refer to human beings who, though female, transcend the categories and formulas that talk about the fight for the recognition of female values in politics and society. The self-perception of these pioneering individuals is less determined by the juxtaposition of woman against man; it is, first and foremost, the perception of themselves as human beings who do not yield to the division by sex and gender. Brotherhood or sisterhood are archaic categories; what matters is the liberation and emancipation of all mankind based on compassion. The point of departure is an enlarged, deep humanism which is both transnational and post-gender. It either speaks to the future – or it assumes that the world of men cannot be taken very seriously (!). This does not mean that it underestimates men; the women I talk about are fully aware of the heroic deeds of men that should be admired and honoured. But they have evolved an almost Buddhist detachment in their way of seeing and reacting to male earthly achievements and failures. For these women, the fight against gender stereotypes is not as important as, say, lessening the pain of the human predicament, or acts of everyday heroism, such as looking after a relative with dementia.

The stance I am trying to describe is perhaps best captured by the poetry of Wisława Szymborska, a Nobel prize winner in literature, who, curiously enough, has largely escaped the attention of feminist scholars.[6] As Bożena Karwowska has remarked in her insightful essay, Szymborska’s poetry defies those critics who believe that in poetry, the female voice is dominated by the male imagination and symbolic order (Karwowska 2013). She does not stand for anything that the Polish literary tradition associates with male or female poetry; she does not fit into the existing order of the patriarchal world, and her poetic persona has nothing in common with a femme fatale or a platonic mistress, or with a victim of male predatory drives, or, indeed, with the patriotic Matka Polka. Neither does she fight the existing tradition of gender discourse; she seems not to notice its existence. She passes over it.  As has been observed, ‘Sometimes Szymborska’s poetry seems to come from a future time where the struggle for the woman’s place [in the world], in other words, the place for the human being, both male and female, is no longer necessary’ (Baranowska 1996: 17).

Many of Szymborska’s poems allude to an evolutionary process that has yielded a miracle: a homo sapiens:

I didn’t get a choice either

but I can’t complain

I could have been someone

much less separate.

Someone from an anthill, shoal, or buzzing swarm

(‘Among the Multitudes’, 1998: 267)

Just as she inspects herself as an evolutionary accident, Szymborska looks at the other sex with an ironic, studious eye:

This adult male. This person on earth.

Ten billion nerve cells. Ten pints of blood

pumped by ten ounces of heart.

This object took three billion years to emerge.

(‘A Film from the Sixties’, 1998: 94)

In describing the male, she mixes irony with ‘good-natured pity’.

With that ring in his nose, with that toga, that sweater

He’s no end of fun, for all you say.

Poor little beggar.

A human, if ever we saw one.

(‘No End of Fun’, 1998: 107)

In short, at the heart of Szymborska’s world, there is a Shakespearian ‘poor, bare, forked animal’ – a man and woman who are both heroic and grotesque in their struggle for dignity and recognition. Szymborska’s is the voice of a woman who feels – as an individual but also culturally – equal to men, and consequently, does not need to fight for anything or yield to anyone. Her poetry evokes a human being who knows that even if history belongs to heroes, ‘After every war / someone has to tidy up’ (‘The End and the Beginning’, 1993).

            Perhaps it is in post-gender poetry like Szymborska’s that the next stage of the revolution of dignity – and the anti-authoritarian struggle – is prefigured?  


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[1] The concept of ‘revolution of dignity’ – inspired by the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuścinski – refers to  emancipative movements using the catchwords of ‘dignity’, ‘respect’ and ‘individual rights’. See Witoszek (2018: 1–10).

[2] The group consisted of Helena Łuczywo, Anna Dodziuk, Joanna Szczęsna, Irena Lasota, Anna Bikont and Elżbieta Rogulska.

[3] Personal communication with Agnieszka Romaszewska, Warsaw, October 2004.

[4] Personal communication, Warsaw, January 2005.

[5]  See also Gruszka (2013).

[6] In a book on feminist literary perspectives published in 2000, Szymborska’s name figures only in a footnote (Borkowska and Sikorska 2000).