Book and Journal
NEWW is a member of:
Social Watch

Post-Communist Gender Studies Research Group

Małgorzata Tarasiewicz
Founder and Executive Director of NEWW Polska, women organization based In Gdańsk, Poland
     Mariusz Czepczyński
PhD., cultural geographer at the Economic Geography Department, University of Gdańsk, Poland

Post-communist Challenges and Emancipated Discourses.

Society, Politics, and Gender in Poland


Broad spectrum of post-socialist social and political transformations includes deep changes of gender politics and practices. Despite of formal and legal communist equal rights rule, the everyday practice before 1989 proved profound gender discrimination and stratifications. Since the beginning of 1990s women have started the long lasted political and social emancipation process, especially difficult in traditional, rural, conservative and male-dominated society of Poland. State Communism, in some aspects, included gender, had created certain, almost ‘open-air museum-like’ situation, where practices and approaches had often been copied form the 1930s societies. The process of post-totalitarian gender emancipation has been facilitated by numerous discourses, including employment policy, abortion, gay and lesbian rights, women political activity, family planning, birth-giving, sexual harassment, gender organisations and many others.

Political and social transformations after socialism

The concept of socialism refers to a broad array of ideologies and movements which aim to improve society through collective and egalitarian action; and to a socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to control by the community (Szarota 2001, Brzeziński 1960). Socialism can be seen as a kind of extreme humanism. While the main, declared goals of socialism: human development, equal rights (including gender) and equal distribution of resources seldom raise many disputes, the implementation of the most humanistic of the projects is always realised by faulty humans, and brings the bright ideas into the manoeuvres of the real, hard word. There is an important difference in understanding the phenomena of socialism, one can speak about two ‘socialist projects’: one deeply humanistic, referring to all the positive and positivistic aspects of social tradition, as it is mainly seen in the West, and the other one, connected with its practical implementation, was always based on terror, limitation of basic civil rights, and oppression. One of the expression of socialism can be called ‘admirative’, seen as a radical humanism, while the other side of it was aggressive and totalitarian, focused on elimination of class enemies, controlled civic existence in the smallest possible details and transform human individuals into a ‘parts of the collective’ (Nawratek 2005, Czepczyński 2008). The majority of the Central European societies entered state communism in feudal or post-feudal social order. Communism brought certain aspects of equality and human rights, including gender, but at the same time extremely oppressive state overtook all the whole civic system and limited personal and organisational freedoms. In the end, the positive aspects of socialism have been overshadowed by the tyrannical practices of everyday life (Czepczyński 2008).
State socialism in Central Europe was operating to some extent as an anti-socialist and conservative open-air museum. Societies behind the Iron Curtain have never fully experienced the 1968 counter-revolutions and moral transformations. The hierarchical structures of power, disconnection with Western cultures and petit bourgeois mentality of the majority of apparatchiks resulted in very limited incorporation of gender rights and policies, so typical for Western socialist or social-democratic parties. Formally declared gender rights were mostly only verbal declarations, hardly incorporated into the social and political practices. Women mostly played only marginal and ornamental role, as figurative ministries of culture or shadow wives and heroines, but never really important and decision-makers figures. Many difficult gender issues, like homosexuality, were formally non-existent, while others, like abortion were legal and fully accepted (excluding Romania), with very high level of professional activities and inadequate payments for women. Socialism ended with pretty much disoriented societies, officially fully emancipated, but in practice deeply masculinised and male dominated (see True 2003).
Post-communist societies were freed from the principles of egalitarianism and equality, which had been imposed on them by the communist regimes. These changes were a reaction to totalitarian methods of governing, but were also brought about by the general cultural tendencies occurring in the industrial world by the end of the 20th century. After 1989 societies faced vast legal, economic, social, cultural, and gender conversions. Changes have been accelerated by the explosion of free market and flow of capital, globalization of cultures, fast transfer of information, as well as appearance of new actors on the social scene, free media, local governments, very broad spectrum of politicians, as well as non-governmental organizations. Gender has been only a marginal concern in post totalitarian reform processes in Poland (Czepczyński 2008). Post-socialist resolutions of the early 1990s were characterised by a fairly spontaneous understanding of freedom on both personal and institutional levels. After more than 40 years of oppression and restrain the control mechanisms almost disappeared and resulted by many social discourses, including conservative, chauvinist, homophobic, bigot, and traditional movements. The procedure of social liberation met the governmental and civic institutions somewhat unprepared for the new challenges and responsibilities.
The conversion of powers in Central Europe had been very fast and in some way unexpected. Even Solidarity leaders did not expect to gain all the power within few months. The changes had been happening on many different levels. Transformation of post-socialist countries after 1989 can be classified in three main types:
  • Political, as a shift from authoritarian dictatorship towards parliamentarian democracy, based on coherent legal system, where society is an active participant of the governing processes and procedures. Political instability and frequent transformation of political parties left the electorate somehow lost in multiple choices. Regional policies forced de-centralization of power and recreation of local municipalities.
  • Economic, where centrally planned state economy was replaced by private and market oriented, based on free competition of entrepreneurships and liberalization of market rules. Privatization, collapse of old socialist industries and foreign investments changed local economic rules, while unemployment rose as one of the main economic and social problems in most countries of the region.
  • Social, was started by contestation of forced interpretation of the communists’ social ideas. Egalitarian imperative parity was replaced by differentiations and pluralism. Civic and gender rights together with freedom of thoughts boosted the rising aspirations. Freedom of movements caused vast migrations, especially after joining EU, reshaping many local and regional labour markets and societies (see Sorin and Tismaneanu 2000).
Political scene of Poland, the largest of the Central European post-communist countries, can be used as the best exemplification of gender policy developments and transformations of socio-political visions. The vivid gender discourse of the 1990s and the early 2000s has been additionally accelerated by the powerful and mostly conservative catholic hierarchies and the emerging women organizations (see Tarasiewicz 2001). Issues of democracy, rights and justice were both revitalized and radicalized, as social movements used the language of rights to press governments for social reforms. The national and local political and social arenas has been dominated by various archetypes of male leaders and female icons, which, interacting with each other, facilitated the national gender discourse.

Transforming male dominated gender regimes in Poland since 1989

Polish politics have been dominated by men both in the Communist era and after 1989. The new leaders of democratic Poland were no much different from their Communist predecessors as far as patriarchal vision of society is concerned. Soon after the fall of communism they were confronted with rising voices of new women’s groups expecting freedoms and concessions from the new democratic leaders. Looking, however at the emerging new male heads of state or governments like for example Lech Wałęsa, Jarosław Kaczyński or recently Donald Tusk it has been clearly visible that such expectations would not be easily realized. Even though all of these major political leaders had their backgrounds in democratic opposition to the communist regime their understanding of democracy seemed not to include women in division of power or even less in securing women’s interests in general (see Millard 1999, Pacześniak 2006, Siemieńska 1990).
Under communism, women were political tokens and few survived the transition to democracy and a market economy with credibility, unlike some men such as President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Hanna Suchocka, an exception, was a successful Solidarity trade union prime minister for nearly 18 months before she was ousted in early 1993 by a no-confidence vote on the budget put forth by own Solidarity's parliamentary group. Generally, however, Solidarity centrists ignored women, and religious activists within the Solidarity coalition took aim at them, pushing through laws restricting divorce, access to contraception and banning abortion. When ex-communists took power after Suchocka, they appointed few women and did little to fulfil a campaign pledge to legalize abortion in their four years before losing power to another Solidarity coalition. In general, almost all political leaders after 1989 were men3 (see Pacześniak 2006)
Since the early 1990s, educated women from Polish metropolises, well-connected with the Western human rights activists have began their protests. The same moment when all Poles regain their civic rights, the male ruling majority tried to take them back from women. Legal right to abortion was one of the main achievements of contemporary European women. The spontaneous abortion referendum movement gathered 1.3 million signatures, but the restrictive act of law, supported by the Catholic Church has been implemented (Ostałowska 2009). The early 1990s parliament was dominated by men, who took 88 per cent of seats. For the 1993 parliamentary election, only the post-communist left rose the question of gender rights, while for the conservative activist, the ‘well-being of Poland’ was always the most important issue (see Siemieńska 2000). The per cent of men in Polish parliament rose to 91 in 1993 (see Chart 1).
Chart 1. Per cent of women in Lower (Sejm) and Upper (Senat) Chambers of the Polish Parliament since 1989

Source: own elaboration based on Rocznik Statystyczny, 1995, 2007

The feminists related to the liberal Unia Wolności (Union of Liberty) created informal group Women As Well (Kobiety Też), and similarity to the early 20th century suffragists run the education, information, and consciousness raising actions. In the next 1997 election men took 87 per cent of the parliamentary seats. After the minor success the feminists organisations, including OŚKa, Federation for Women and Family Planning, Women’s Rights Canter or eFKa, had been mobilised for further actions. In Warsaw the Pre-Election Women Coalition was established, uniting 50 NGOs. One party – the Labour Union – guaranteed 30 per cents of women on election lists. As a result, 20 per cent of women took seats in Sejm, the lower chamber, and 23 per cent in Senat, the Upper House in 2001. Despite of the relatively high rise in numbers, the success was somehow inequitable and hardly satisfactionary: many of the newly elected women came from the right wing and /or populist parties. Feminists called them “patriarchal menials” (Ostałowska, 2009, 46). That particular group was especially actively protecting traditional male roles during the short 2005-2007 term (see Fuszara 2006). The 20 per cent share of women in the lower chamber of the parliament, as of 2001, remained constant in 2005 and 2007 elections. The same time 23 per cent of women in the upper chamber was followed by gradual decrease during the next elections to 9 per cent in 2007.
“Polish politics”, says the founder of the established in 2007 Women’s Party, the novelist Manuela Gretkowska, “is run by men in suits on behalf of other men in suits.” The party was hardy supported during the 2007 election and gained only 0.28 per cent of votes. The four men that are best known in Polish politics are a former President and a Nobel Prize Winner Lech Wałęsa, current President Lech Kaczyński, current Prime Minister Donald Tusk and a post communist, former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Despite all the political differences one thing seems to connect at least three of them (with the exception of Lech Kaczyński) i.e. a patronizing way of treating women and women’s issues. On the other hand for both Kaczynski and Wałęsa women seem not to be equal players in social and political sphere but rather fragile figures that have traditional, stereotypically feminine roles to fulfil. Kaczyński, coming from a background of intelligence4 seems to understand that a woman can play an important role in pursuing patriotic duties5. This view goes back to the period of Polish partitions in the eighteen-century when an ideal of a woman who sacrificed herself for bringing up children in the spirit of patriotism while men fought for the homeland became highly appreciated and popular. (see Janion, 1996). It is interesting to observe that the wives of these four male politicians are illustrating their husband’s visions of women’s roles. Danuta Wałęsa is a typical housewife who has send a clear signal that a women’s place is at home. Her pious attendance of catholic ceremonies has left no doubts as to her conservative positions on reproductive issues or free-choice. The wife of Donald Tusk is completely absent from public life in the same way as gender issues are absent from his political agenda. Jolanta Kwaśniewska, a wife of the post-communist president was promoting a soap-opera model of a woman. Nice looks, ready to please everyone – the pope or a former gensek6 equally. Maria Kaczyńska seems to be the most “enlightened” one, stating publicly her own political opinions. She was condemned for doing that by one of the most conservative priests in Poland, influential director of an ultra-catholic Radio Maria and Trwam television station, Tadeusz Rydzyk, who called her “a witch who should do an euthanasia to herself”.7
Besides First Ladies who present more or less traditional positions towards women’s roles in a society there are obviously more women who are visible in the public life and in the media who shape to some extend public perception of women and who represent positions that are characteristic for women in Poland:
  • Conservative Catholics such as Anna Sobecka, Alicja Grześkowiak, Urszula Krupa, Jolanta Szczypińska or Hanna Suchocka make the first group. These women have strong ties to the Catholic Church. They stress the primary notion of a woman as a childbearer and protector of the hearth.
  • Leftists, usually with post-communist background make the other extreme characterized by leftist ideas are represented by women coming from the post-communist circles such as Izabella Jaruga-Nowacka, Joanna Senyszyn, Katarzyna Piekarska, Danuta Hübner, Danuta Waniek, Aleksandra Jakubowska, Jolanta Banach. They usually present themselves as feminists or defenders of women’s human rights. Unfortunately their arguments often are disqualified by many as cynical play of interests of the post communist party who had not done much for women when they had power.
  • Extreme and gaudy. One can add to this picture a handful of colourful individuals who can be characterized as populists: Nelly Rokita, a wife of a famous right wing politician who worked as President Kaczyński's adviser on women's issues, while her husband (one of the top politicians of a party opposing Kaczynski), unable to take this act of infidelity, has retired from politics. Other figures include two infamous representatives of “Self-defence” Party: Renata Beger and Danuta Hojarska. They come from a party which combines left-wing populist economic policies with a right-wing religious conservative Catholic agenda. It is famous for many scandals with corruption, stealing and sexual harassment of party employer, Aneta Krawczyk.
  • Professionals who promote an image of an independent and successful woman in the media, academia and/or business are in the last group. Their contribution to a public discussion on women’s rights and feminism is very important although often not visible in a satisfactory manner. Some women of this sort that are most known in Poland are Magdalena Środa, a philosopher and former Plenipotentiary for Equal Opportunities, Kazimiera Szczuka, a literary critic who always introduces herself as a feminist, Henryka Bochniarz, a businesswoman, head of the Polish Employers Confederation Lewiatan , or Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a President of Warsaw.
In march 2009, one of the Polish largest and most prominent weekly magazine Wprost, prepared a ranking of 20 most influential women in national politics8 (see Wójcik and Wójcik, 2009). The candidates were nominated by three ex-prime ministers, the head of the parliament, four chairs of main parliamentary clubs and eight researchers: sociologists and political scientists9 . The list of the most influential women in Poland includes:
  • Anna Stężyńska – head of the Office of Electronic Communication, nominated by the right-wing PiS three years ago, successfully and with determination fights with the monopolistic practices of the French-owned Telekomunikacja Polska
  • Hanna Gronkiewicz–Waltz – the mayor of Warsaw and the deputy head of the Poland’s largest party PO 10
  • Maria Kaczyńska – wife of the right-wing president Lech Kaczyński
  • Danuta Hübner – EU European Commissioner for Regional Policy, former member of the Polish United Workers Party
  • Jadwiga Staniszkis – professor, sociologist and political scientist
  • Aleksandra Natali – Świt – the deputy head of the right wing PiS11
  • Małgorzata Tusk – the wife of the prime minister Donald Tusk
  • Grażyna Gęsika – MP member, representing PiS
  • Henryka Bochniarz – head of the Polish Employers Confederation Lewiatan
  • Joanna Kluzik – Rostkowska – MP member, former minister of labour, representing PiS
The list also includes Katarzyna Hall (PO), the minister of education; Julia Pitera (PO), secretary of state, Barbara Kudrycka (PO), the minister of science and higher education; Ewa Kopacz (PO), the minister of health and Magdalena Środa, left wing philosopher, ethic and feminist (Wójcik and Wójcik 2009).

Organised Gender

In the absence of a women’s movement under communism, a discourse on reproductive choice did not develop until the beginning of the 1990s. It was to a great extend the issue of abortion that was instrumental in the development of a Polish feminist movement. Until 1966, the Women’s League served as an umbrella organization, which included the Koła Gospodyń Wiejskich (Circles of Rural Housewives) and women’s cooperatives. The rural women’s group and cooperatives theoretically functioned under the League, yet they had their own leaders, programs, and meetings. In 1966, when they officially separated from the League, the League became solely an urban organization, although it often has been characterized as the only women’s organization in Poland. Throughout their histories, though, these groups worked cooperatively on numerous issues related to women. After 1989 Women’s League produced an offspring and the Democratic Union of Women was created. It was an attempt to pretend that a new, democratic women’s organization appears in the newly established Polish democracy. In fact both Women’s League and the Democratic Union of Women have been strongly connected and dependant on the post communist parties. Country Housewives Circles have become deeply marginalized and preoccupied with local crafts and heritage. Similar fate met many other post-communist residual organisations, like Women League.
The growing importance and visibility of women’s non-governmental sector do not go along with the state support for gender issues. To the contrary, as well as the issues connected with the situation of women and gender equality, it is rather marginalised by politicians as well as state administration, despite the public debate concerning the redefinition of the role of women in Polish society, which has been lasting and intensifying for some time. There are several obstacles to feminist organizing in Eastern Europe since 1989: A reduced and therefore discredited socialist meaning of emancipation, missing or unknown traditions of an autonomous women's movement, a strong proliferation of conservative and biological gender stereotypes with influences of the church's hierarchy and national myths.
Despite these obstacles we can see in Poland the development of a small social movement since 1989. There are about 100 independent women's organisations; including local groups and branches there are 300 addresses in Poland, there is more than one organisation on every topic, there is a whole range of types of organisations: advocacy organisations, self-help groups, cultural centres, and membership -organisations. During the nineties there has been a considerable increase in informal groups and an "orbit" of sympathizers has formed. Demonstrations e.g. for the International Women's Day are more and more happenings12 instead of boring manifestations. Nevertheless one must not forget that the issues of the organisations hardly came to the core of the Polish political agenda. The nurses' protests in 1999 and 2000 for wage increases may serve as the exception from this rule. The main reasons why women's organisations overcome the obstacles so far include:
  • The "feminist environment" seized political opportunities such as the discussion on abortion or acted proactively for serious reports to the World Women's Conference in Beijing, thereby connecting itself to the international women's movement,
  • They could seize these opportunities because there had been intellectual resources to do so: since the eighties persons in small circles discussed feminism,
  • Scientists got in touch with western women/gender studies abroad and initiated debates on the feminism and the social situation of women in Poland later in the nineties, being relatively self-confident in relation to Western feminists.
As a result we have nine Polish gender studies centres now. Feminists succeeded and succeed in re-interpreting the traditions of a domestic women's movement by research and publications. They even could present a concept of equality as genuinely Polish: "equality without regard to gender". The nurses' protests were disruptive on one side – blockades, strikes – and exploiting national stereotypes on the other side, when they prayed the rosary in the occupied Ministry of Health.
Main gender activities include Manifa – women’s rights and feminist parade organized on the 8th of March, the celebrated during the communist era International Women’s Day and Equality Parade¬ – the main LGBT demonstration and a Polish version of the CSD. Manifa is organized yearly by the March 8th Women Alliance. The demonstrations are organized yearly since 2000, initially only in Warsaw, but in 2008 the manifestations were also put together in Warsaw, Toruń, Szczecin, Łódź, Kraków, Katowice and Gdańsk. Each demonstration has a leading slogan, expressing a main gender issue:
  • 2000 – ‘Democracy without women is half of democracy’. Manifa was a part of International Women’s March
  • 2001 – ‘Do not let close your mouth with anything’, the Pre-election Women Coalition was established then
  • 2002 – ‘My life – my choice’ and ‘3 x yes: to sexual education, contraception, and abortion’. The march was accompanied by happenings: ‘Entering Europe’, ‘Home chronicles’ and ‘The bishops and feminist concrete’.
  • 2003 – ‘Our bodies, our lives, our rights’. The marching were protesting against home abuse, public sexism, women’s umbrageous advertisements, and breaking human rights. The slogan was an allusion to the Polish translation/adaptation of “Our Bodies. Ourselves” which was being prepared for publication in 2003. (see Nasze Ciała, Nasze Życie, 2004)
  • 2004 – ‘Girls, we need actions!’ Manifa was focused on the issues of homophobia, discrimination and exclusion, and Catholic Church intervenes in social and political life.
  • 2005 – ‘We get stronger, stronger together’, co-organized with the Lesbian Treaty and concentrated on economic and sexual discrimination. The contra-manifestation was organized by the nationalist and right wing ‘All-Polish Youth’.
  • 2006 – ‘We fight together! Let us be free! Let’s protects our rights’,
  • 2007 – ‘Grand Women Solidarity March’, co-organized by number organization, including Federation for Women and Family Planning, Pro-Choice Group, Association Pro Femina, All Different - All Equal.
  • 2008 – ‘Watchword facultative, we want to be free’.
  • 2009 - “Another crew – the same lies!”- According to the organisers the aim of that year’s march was to draw attention to the fact that “every ruling coalition had their own ideas on how to worsen the women’s situation, no government ever listened to the people.”
Polish gender organisation scene is fragmented. Competition and shrinking financial resources also increase competition within the sector and make the cooperation between the gender organizations in Poland more complicated and difficult.

Families, abortion, and birth

Women’s groups emerging after 1989 were confronted either with a cynical lack of interest on the side of new leaders who were busy with playing with much more lucrative interests or ideological denial from politicians dependent on newly arising traditionalism and fundamentalism. The first issue that brought about a lot of media disputes, street manifestations and parliamentary discussions was the issue of abortion. Another one was the worsening situation of women at the labour market.
In Poland, during the 1990s, the highest unemployment rate had been observed among the youngest age groups. In the age group 18-24 years unemployment has been about two times higher than the average. The reason for this kind of unemployment had been a lack of occupational experience amongst young people and their skills not meeting the employment requirements. In 2002, youth unemployment reached 43.6% of total. Also gender became a factor clearly deciding about differences in unemployment rates. At the end of the 1990s, female unemployment rates in relation to male unemployment rates were higher by about 40%. ( see Lill, 2001) The political climate has dominated by traditional values. With the growth of unemployment there have appeared government plans to send women home from their jobs in order to improve the situation on the labour market. Moreover, women saw staying at home as new and progressive. The main point of reference for Poland was the pre-war period, which has served like a model of the social organization of an independent Polish nation. It has been viewed with nostalgia and among other things it has provided the image of what a family should be like and what the feminine role is. Polish pre-war society, dominated by Catholic ideals, definitely couldn’t be a model for a completely different post-totalitarian country aspiring to a free market economy. (see Tarasiewicz 1991).
After the fall of Communism, abortion debate started in Poland. Roman Catholic Church and right-wing politicians pressured the government to introduce a ban abortion except in cases where abortion was the only way to save the life of a woman. Left-wing politicians and feminist women NGOs were opposed to this, and defended the legislation which was in force since 1956. Today the abortion law in Poland (called "Law on Family Planning, Protection of the Human Fetus and Conditions for Legal Abortion") was enacted as a compromise in January 1993. In 1997, parliament enacted a modification to the abortion bill which made it possible to terminate pregnancy in cases of emotional or social distress, but this law was deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. In December 1997 the legal status of abortion in Poland was restored to that in 1993.13
Nevertheless women seek the termination of unwanted pregnancy at all costs, even if that means breaking the law and risking their health or even life. The anti-abortion law is not observed and business of illegal abortions develops in so called "abortion underground". Many women make use of "abortion tourism". Beyond any doubt, however, the Anti-Abortion bill dramatically diminished access to abortions in public hospitals. Hence the number of abortions in official statistics has superficially decreased. It does not mean of course that abortions are not performed outside of the public health system. A woman in a need of an abortion can receive the treatment relatively easily but she has to pay a fee. One of the effects of the Anti-Abortion bill has been the increase in the price of abortion.
Unfortunately main victims of the restrictive law are poor women who cannot afford abortion in private facilities or are not able to travel abroad to have an abortion in Czech Republic or Great Britain. Often poor women decide to give birth to unwanted children, whom they are not able to support. Some of these women decide to abandon their children. In 2007, 194 legal abortions were carried out in Poland, according to a governmental report. According to non-governmental organizations at least several dozen thousand illegal abortions are carried out annually. The Federation for Women and Family Planning estimates that there might be over 200,000 illegal abortions. (see Nowicka, 2000).
On the 20th of March of 2008 the European Court of Human Rights announced its decision on the Polish woman who were denied an access to abortion although the pregnancy posed a serious threat to her health. The court decided that Poland has violated Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Poland is urged to pay compensation to the women. The winning applicant – Alicja Tysiąc – is a mother of three children, who has been suffering from very serious vision impairment and degeneration of the retina from the early childhood. Another pregnancy was very risky for her poor health condition, but she was denied her right to undergo legal abortion14. The labour of the third child resulted for Alicja Tysiąc in further deterioration of her eyesight and classification of the first degree disability. Tysiąc supported by the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning and Centre for Reproductive Rights decided to execute her rights in the European Court of Human Rights that recognized her claim. (see Pocheć, 2008)
By the end of 2008 and in the beginning of 2009 the issue of fertility treatment has been hotly debated in Poland. Polish Catholic Church published an open letter in which bishops called in vitro fertilization a form of abortion. "Even the strongest desire to have children cannot justify the expense of dozens of other innocent lives," it argued. In a reaction to the public debate involving the people, the government and the Church, the government established a special committee to examine the issue. The works of the Committee resulted in a proposal of a new law called Gowin’s Act – from the name of its author, MP from the ruling Civic Platform, Jaroslaw Gowin. The Law awaked a strong opposition on the side of many people. The new Law is observing the teachings of the Catholic Church and because of that limiting the possibility of creating more embryos than necessary for a single insemination. It means that when a woman attempts an in vitro pregnancy she would have to go several times through the same procedure of inducing ovulation. (The successful inseminations constitute only 7-8% after a single procedure.) Another shocking provision of the new act is the requirement that only a married couple can be granted a free in vitro treatment. (see Marshall, 2008)
At the same time, the Minister of Health, Ewa Kopacz announced the plans to stop covering anaesthetization during childbirth. Her argument was that there were not enough anaesthesiologists in the Polish hospitals; therefore providing anaesthetization for free was not possible. (see Wilkowska-Landowska, 2008)
The influence of the catholic church has been detrimental to many issues of vital importance to women. At the same time elderly women, so called Mohair berets15 constitute a major part of listeners of the ultra-conservative catholic radio station, called Radio Maryja who are blind followers of the Radio's director Tadeusz Rydzyk. This group of people is often regarded as an important factor in politics in Poland, often contributing to the conservative victories over the liberal and the social democratic parties and candidates.
There are two main types of catholic attitudes towards genders issues in Poland16. The dominant and most open type of church is called, by a philosopher and former priest, Tadeusz Bartoś as ‘folklorist devoutness’. The ‘folklorist devoutness’ is represented by number of bishops and institutions, including infamous ultra-conservative ‘Radio Maria’, and number of universities, like Cardinal Wyszyński University in Warsaw. The ‘Dictionary of Marriage and Family’, published by this catholic association, defines feminism as ‘a movement logistically incoherent and inconsequent. While pressing the absolute equality between men and women, feminism ignores the natural psycho-biological disparities between both sexes and related to those different social roles undertaken by humans (liberal feminism). (…) Similarly illogical is a postulate of reconstruction of social order only based on women’s point of view, which would be male discrimination (radical feminism). Correspondingly simplifying reality is the demand, founded on slogans of freedom and equality, on rights to abortion (moderate feminism)’ (Słownik Małżeństwa i Rodziny, 2008). That approach to gender issues represents majority of Polish Catholic church hierarchy and some significant part of the Catholics. The other type of Catholicism, based mainly on intellectual disputes, personal responsibility, understanding, forgiving and charity, is much less present in public discourse.
Today in Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, divorces can be obtained only in regional courts; the ban on abortion is the toughest in Europe, though underground abortions flourish, for a price. The legality of abortion for forty years under communism was based on an instrumentalist and needs-based materialist approach to a prevalent social problem affecting poor women and not in recognition of Polish women’s autonomy and right to sexual and reproductive self-determination. Because legal abortion was ‘handed’ to and did not have to be fought for by women, this made it easy for Catholic fundamentalist groups to contest this right in later years.
Even though lately there have been attempts at an introduction of equal share of household responsibilities and childcare the latest trends in social policy reflect rather a patriarchal model of society. The patriarchal trends have been justified on traditionalist, demographic and emotional grounds. Traditionalistic arguments, based on a return to women's predestination, have been developed and promoted by the extreme right-wing political parties and supported by growing fundamentalist movement. Demographic arguments recall the decrease of birth rate and threat the extinction of the nation. Finally, bringing women home has been interpreted as freeing them from "forced" labour under communism. (see Nowicka, 1998)

Domestic violence and harassments

Domestic violence against women continues to be a serious problem in Poland. In 2006, 36,534 people reported domestic violence, an increase from 2005. Authorities prosecuted 20,809 cases of domestic violence, resulting in 8,938 convictions on domestic violence charges. There are 4,066 persons incarcerated for crimes of domestic violence. Under the law a person convicted of domestic violence may be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. Most convictions, however, resulted in suspended sentences. Women NGOs believed the number of women affected by domestic abuse was underreported. Violence against women remained a hidden issue, not spoken about publically. This is true particularly in small towns and villages.
In July 2005 the Law on Counteracting Domestic Violence entered into force. Rape, also spousal rape, is illegal and can be punished by up to 12 years imprisonment. During the first 11 months of 2006, 2,036 cases of rape were reported. However, women often were unwilling to report rape because of the associated social stigma. NGOs estimated that the actual number of rapes was 10 times higher than reported.
Sexual harassment is prohibited by law under gender discrimination provisions of the Labour Code and the Criminal Code. Under the criminal code persons convicted of sexual harassment involving sex may be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Sexual harassment is defined in the Labour Code as a form of discrimination in the workplace and as a behaviour that violates the dignity of an employee. It may include physical, verbal, and non-verbal acts. Under the Labour Code, employees who have been discriminated against have the right to demand financial compensation from employers. The NGO Centre for Women's Rights believed that sexual harassment was a serious and underreported problem. Many victims either did not report abuse out of shame or fear of losing their job. Sometimes they withdrew their claims in the course of investigations. Social awareness of the problem continued to increase, however, as more cases of sexual harassment were reported by the media. (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Poland, 2007.)
In 2008 a 45-year-old man was arrested in Poland in a story reminiscent of that of Josef Fritzl, accused of fathering two children by his adolescent daughter. Under a social pressure in order to please the public legislation started to be pushed through the Polish parliament to introduce compulsory measures that would neutralize all sex criminals who pose a risk to others. The method involves giving convicted paedophiles drugs which take away their sexual urges. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was supporting the new legislation being angered by the news on the “Polish Fritzl”. At the same time human rights groups have condemned the plans. However the prime minister has received overwhelming public support for his decision and his popularity grew immensly in opinion polls. Defending his decision, Mr Tusk said: "I don't think you can call such individuals – such creatures – human beings. I don't think you can talk about human rights in such a case."Justice Minister Zbigniew Ćwiąkalski said that the government had to protect the safety of the public. He said: "Everyone talks about the safety of criminals, but what about the rights of the victims? Where is the safety and health of our children? We have the right to use measures that will protect the public". (see Bailey, 2008)

Gay & lesbian discourse

Despite the fact, that homosexuality was not illegal in Communist Poland, the government used traditionally negative attitudes toward homosexuality as a way of blackmailing homosexuals and the police felt free to harass gay men and lesbians. This activity culminated in the 1985-87 ‘Operation Hyacinth’, when more then 11,000 records were established. In January 1987 Warsaw Homosexual Movement was established, as a first LGBT organisation in Poland, although the government refused it’s the legal registration (Kurpios 2002). Homosexuality was cancelled from the list of illnesses in 1991. Contemporary there are not any legal acts, directly discriminating homosexuals. Since 2003 Polish Labour Code forbids discrimination due to sexual orientation. The 1997 constitution bans discrimination ‘on any grounds’, although the Roman Catholic hierarchy prevented specific protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In addition, the constitution limits marriage to heterosexuals. Opinion polls consistently show that 70 to 80 per cent of Poles despise homosexuals. The ‘Campaign against Homophobia’ has featured controversial posters to challenge viewers' assumptions. Although the foundation for a gay and lesbian community has been laid and the legal framework is favourable to gay life, the Roman Catholic Church encourages public anti-gay attitudes so the lives of individual gay men and lesbians continue to be difficult (Stanley, 2005).
Since 1989, a public gay movement has developed. Warsaw is the centre of Polish gay life with bars and baths, in addition to the cruising areas mentioned earlier. Kraków, Gdańsk, Poznań, and Wrocław also have gay commercial infrastructures, as well as gay organizations. Lamba, a gay umbrella organisation, was legally registered in 1990. The abolition of censorship saw a wave of gay periodicals, such as Inaczej (Poznań), but this quick efflorescence has now been reduced to the commercially successful and sex positive Nowy Men (New Men). The first Gay Pride Parade took place in Warsaw in 1995. In 1996, the Lesbian Information and Counselling Centre was established (Stanley 2005).
Despite the official legal declarations, the practice of everyday life shows some recognition of same sex partnerships. In 2004 Warsaw Public Transport Board recognized concubinages, including same sex ones, conceding the rights for free travel for employees and their partners within the Warsaw public transport system (Uprawnienia do ulg… 2008). In 2007 Municipal Welfare Centre in Chorzów, southern Poland, legitimized the rights for social welfare for a homosexual couple (Goślińska 2007).
The main event for sexual minorities in Poland have been connected with the yearly parades, called Equality or Tolerance Parades, organized in May and June, as a Polish equivalent of Christopher Street Day by the International Gay and Lesbian Association for Culture in Poland, and since 2005 by Equality Foundation. Initiated in 2001, the parade was organized peacefully in 2002 and 2003, as march against sexual minority discrimination.
In 2004 Warsaw together with other Polish metropolitan municipalities, including Kraków, blocked gay pride parades, citing various reasons, like the likelihood of counter-demonstrations, the interference with religious or national holidays, or the lack of permits. Despite this, about 2,500 gay rights campaigners have marched on June 11, 2005, in Warsaw, defying a ban by the city's mayor. The marchers carried rainbow flags and banners with slogans including ‘A gay is not a paedophile’ and ‘Law and justice for all’. There were isolated clashes as opponents threw eggs and shouted insults. About 10 people were arrested. Mayor Lech Kaczynski, favourite to win October's presidential vote, had banned the parade for a second year running. The marchers were joined by a number of politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka and two German MPs from the Green Party, Claudia Roth and Volkar Beck. ‘Mayor Kaczynski, democracy also means freedom of assembly and expression for gays and lesbians’, Ms Roth told the crowd. The organisers of the parade said they wanted to highlight the problems faced by homosexuals in mainly Roman Catholic Poland. ‘Homosexuals in Poland are still treated as deviants, paedophiles’, one of the marchers, 31-year-old lawyer Paulina Pilch, told AP news agency. ‘Such demonstrations are needed so people get to know us better and get used to us’. Mr Kaczynski has said that allowing an official Gay Pride event in Warsaw would promote a ‘homosexual lifestyle’. He banned the parade on the grounds that the application by the parade organisers had not been properly filed (Gay marchers ignore…. 2005).
Similar problems were repeated in the city of Poznań in 2005. The 2004 Equality March was organized as part of a days-long festival devoted to promoting tolerance, as a part of the UNESCO International Tolerance Day. In 2005, a few days before the march, local authorities with Mayor Ryszard Grobelny, banned Saturday's march, on the grounds it posed a ‘danger to life, health and property’. Hundreds of campaigners defied a city wide ban on their 'Equality March' although police had blocked their planned parade route. Sixty-eight activists about a dozen aggressive counter-demonstrators were arrested (McCoy 2004). In December 2005 Provincial Administrative Court in Poznań ruled that the Mayor’s ban was illegal, and the Mayor broke and national and European law, while the accused activists were redeemed. In 2006, when the former Mayor of Warsaw – Lech Kaczyński – became the President of Poland, new local government of Warsaw and Poznań did not oppose the parades, but the right wing and neo-fascists organizations abused and tried to stop the marchers. The mottos of 2006 included ‘Polish families love Polish gay’ and ‘Homophobia kills’, while in 2007 – ‘One should love one's neighbour’ and ‘Live, love, be’ in 2008.
Political parties, defined as left, central-left or liberal, like Democratic Left Union (SLD), Labour Union (UP), Social-Democracy of Poland (SdPl) or Democratic Party (PD) declare, in different degree, support of the gay and lesbian rights, while the conservative parties, including Law and Justice (PiS), Civic Platform (PO) or League of Polish Families (LPR) are against of only recognition of LGBT rights.
The protection of rights of freedom of speech and assembly for gays and lesbians in Poland has come under greater international scrutiny because of the mismanagement of peaceful demonstrations throughout Poland in 2005. An overview and context of the political, economic, and social transformation of Poland in the 1990s shows a flourish of activity among gays and lesbians as the economic and political spheres open. Although society has opened dramatically and tolerance has grown recently, the concept of protecting minority rights for gays and lesbians in Poland continues to be weak in public opinion, laws, and the top sources of opinion. Two main LGBT organizations in Poland are Lambda and Campaign against Homophobia (Kampania Przeciw Homofobii). The second one is close to the post communist political party. Their mission is building a positive identity among lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals and creating social acceptance for them. Lambda was established in 1997. They are a national organization, but most of our activities are based in the Warsaw area. Campaign Against Homophobia aims to promote legal and social equality for people outside the heteronorm. It was founded in 2001 and since it has grown to the biggest NGO of this kind in Poland. It has local branches in Kraków, Wrocław, Łódź, TriCity17, Toruń and Silesia region. KPH and Lambda, which very often cooperate18 are together are the largest organisations of this kind in Poland. KPH says in its mission that aims to contribute to establishing a tolerant society, in which gay, lesbian, transgender and other minorities feel comfortable in.


The impact of gender on post-state socialist developments and of the way these phenomena construct gendered identities and politics includes new discourses about domesticity, consumption and fashion, sexuality, the abortion and in vitro debates, gay and lesbian rights, nationalism, and the relationship of transnational feminist discourses to people in the region. The implications of political and legal developments, looking at how, within contrasting national contexts, women's movements engaged the language of rights and the practice of democracy with varying degrees of success. While they show how democracy and legal reform have the potential for achieving greater gender equality, they also highlight the significant limits and difficulties of rights-based work. What seems most significant, however, and lying at the roots of all gender discrimination are the prevailing stereotypes concerning women and men roles. These stereotypes are cynically played on by politicians aiming at winning the support of the church or those who simply want to comply with the populist expectations of voters coming from rural areas and/or pensioners who often follow the teachings of the church. For example when there was a rising unemployment it was beneficial for the politicians to support the view that women should stay at home or when the issue of Poland joining the EU was at stake in order to gain the support of the church abortion rights were surrounded.
According to Kurczewski (2007), since 1989 we have been facing rather emancipation then transformation. Something has been revealed, manifested, liberated, took new life and form. One of the first emancipated groups was semi-legal entrepreneurs, followed by many others: Catholics, ethnic minorities, women, gay and lesbians and many others. The political and economic emancipation was accompanied by social, cultural and, for many of us most important, personal (Czepczyński 2008). Gender emancipation and equal rights discourse have been facilitated with several obstacles and difficulties since 1989, many of them deeply rooted in the national traumas, complexes, traditions and believes. The cultural change or some other equivalent of the Western 1968 contestation revolution has been slowly going on in Poland, contesting gender discrimination and abuse and progressively transforming traditionally structured Polish society towards modern, based on authentic equality, shared rights and responsibilities society19.

3 with the exception of one prime minister and two deputy prime ministers

4 contrary to a working class background of Wałęsa

5 as in Poland during the 18th century partitions or the wars, especially WW2

6 General Secretary of a Communist Party, in Poland of the Polish Workers’ United Party (PZPR), which ruled the nation in 1948-1989.

7 Excerpts from Tadeusz Rydzyk lecture, Wprost weekly, 27 August, 2007

8The special report was prepared in the “occasion” of the 8th of March, the International Women Day, nationally celebrated in Poland.

9 Only one of the 18 chosen “experts” was female.

10 Platforma Obywatelska – Civic Platform, the liberal party

11 Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – Law and Justice, right-wing and populist party

12 Called Manifas. (Manifa - an anti-establishment word for a street rally/demonstration/protest march.) In 2009 was the tenth anniversary of the first Manifa in Warsaw.

13 History of Abortion in Poland. Wikipedia, 2009.

14 It is acceptable in Poland under following circumstances: when the pregnancy results from a crime and when the pregnancy threatens women’s health and rights.

15 Mohair berets is a common term used in present-day Poland as a name depicting a major section of listeners of the ultra-Catholic Radio Maryja. The epithet arose from the head covering – berets, made out of wool or mohair and often worn by elderly women in Poland.

16 Other religions, like orthodox or protestant do not play an active role in public discourse, while the orthodox churches are usually even more conservative then the catholic one.

17 Poland’s third largest agglomeration consisting of Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot

18 For example within specially formed foundations that organise events like Warsaw Pride and Festival Culture for Tolerance in Kraków.

19 At least the authors hope and believe so.


Bailey. C. (2008). Poland to enforce chemical castration of paedophiles. Telegraph, 2008-10-02.
Brzezinski, Z. K. (1960). The Soviet Bloc. Unity and Conflict. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press)
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Poland, (2007). U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour.
Czepczyński, M. (2008). Cultural Landscape of Post-socialist Cities. Representation of Powers and Needs (Adlershot: Ashgate)
The Effects of the Anti-Abortion Law in Force Poland since March -16-1993, Report No 2, (1996). Federation of Women and Family Planning,
Fuszara, M. (2006). Kobiety w polityce.
Gay marchers ignore ban in Warsaw, (2005). BBC News, 2005-06-11
Goślińska, M. (2007). Pan utrzyma pana. Gazeta Wyborcza, 2007-07-17,,82709,4321059.html
Janion, M. (1996). Kobiety i duch inności. (Warsaw: Sic!)
Krajowy System Monitorowania Równego traktowania Kobiet i Mężczyzn. Raport Ekspercki, (2006) Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, Warszawa.
Kurczewski, J. (2007). Młodzi chcą galopować Polityka, 4, Jan 27, 30-31.
Kurpios, P. (2002). Poszukiwani, poszukiwane. Geje i lesbijki a rzeczywistość PRL
Lill, B. (2001, Updated by Iana Pietarinen in May 2003). Labour Market in Poland. Canter for Markets in Transition, HSEBA, October 2001
Marshall, J. (2008). Poland in vitro discussion continues. The Krakow Post, 8, Feb 2008.
Millard, F. (1999). Polish Politics and Society (Routledge)
McCoy, D. (2005). Fines, Arrests Looming for Polish Gay Pride Supporters,,
Nawratek, K. (2005). Ideologie w przestrzeni. Próby demistyfikacji (Kraków: universitas)
Nowicka, W. (1998). (ed.) An independent report submitted to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Federation for Women and Family Planning.
Nowicka, W. (2000). (ed.) The Anti-abortion Law in Poland. The Functioning, Social Effects, Attitudes and Behaviours. The Report.
Ostałowska, L. (2008). Więcej koleżanek, mniej kolesiów! Gazeta Wyborcza Wysokie Obcasy, 500, 44-54
Pacześniak, A. (2006). Kobieca twarz polskiej polityki. (in:) Kobiety w społeczeństwie. Trudne drogi wychodzenia z polskiego zaścianka, Stowarzyszenie Kobiet Aktywnych i Twórczych, Wrocław.
Pocheć, M. (2008). Tysiąc's Case Won at the European Court of Human Rights.
Puzewicz, J., Tarasiewicz, M. ( eds.) Nasze Ciała, Nasze Życie. NEWW- Polska, Gdańsk, 2003
Rocznik Statystyczny, (1995), (2007). GUS, Warszawa
Rydzyk, T. (2007). Płyta z pełnym zapisem wykładu o. Tadeusza Rydzyka. (CD with a recording of Tadeusz Rydzyk lecture, „Wprost”, August 27, 2007.
Siemieńska, R. (1990). Płeć, zawód, polityka. Udział kobiet w życiu publicznym w Polsce, Instytut Socjologii Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego.
Siemieńska, R. (2000). Nie mogą, nie chcą, czy nie potrafią? Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, Warszawa
Słownik Małżeństwa i Rodziny, (2005).
Sorin, A. and Tismaneanu, V. (eds.) (2000). Between Past and Future: The Revolution of 1989 and Their Aftermath (Budapest: Central European University Press).
Stanley, J. D., (2005). Poland [in:] glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Szarota, T. (ed.) (2001). Komunizm. Ideologia, system, ludzie (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Neriton / Instytut Historii PAN)
Tarasiewicz, M. (1991). (in:) Feminist Review no 39. Shifting Territories, Feminism and Europe. Essex University.
Tarasiewicz, M. (2001). (in:) Lives and Voices. Sources in European Women’s History. DiCaprio, L. and Wiesner Merry E. (eds.). (Houghton Mifflin), Boston.
True, J. (2003). Gender, Globalization, and Postsocialism. The Czech Republic after Communism (New York: Columbia Univeristy Press)
Uprawnienia do ulg za przewozy środkami lokalnego transportu zbiorowego w m. st. Warszawie, (2008).
Wikipedia, (January 2009).
Wilkowska-Landowska, A. (December 2008). Charter A Win for Polish Women Giving Birth. RH Reality Check, Eastern Europe.
Wójcik, M. and Wójcik, T. (2009). 20 najbardziej wpływowych kobiet polskiej polityki. Wprost, 10, 6-11