The Women Of Solidarność


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Book recommendation
Solidarity's Secret
The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland

The situation of women who joined the Solidarność Independent  Workers’ Unions in 1980 was in many ways similar to that of women in  Poland today. One could even argue that it was better in many respects,  since abortion was legal, jobs were stable and daycare was free of  charge. Women were engaged in the movement; some of them actually  started the strike in the Gdańsk Shipyard, like the crane operator Anna  Walentynowicz, whose dismissal was the direct trigger of the strike on  August 14th 1980, or the tram driver Henryka Krzywonos, whose famous  action in stopping the tram in the center of Gdańsk paralyzed  communications in the city center and led to the spread of information  about the strike and subsequently to supporting protests in other  workplaces. The nurse and political activist Alina Pieńkowska was the  third of the women from the Gdańsk Shipyard, who helped force the  continuation of the strike on August 16th 1980 when Lech Wałęsa and  other men had their moment of doubt. These women became famous in the  whole country, and rightly so. Subsequently they became the object of  several feminist studies trying to understand the later exclusion of  women in Solidarność. In Solidarity’s Secret, Shana Penn focused on the women who published Tygodnik Mazowsze,  the key periodical of the Solidarność underground after the  introduction of martial law by General Jaruzelski on December 13th,  1981, and Ewa Kondratowicz published a series of interviews with women  of the opposition in a study titled “Lipstick on the Banner”.
It might be worth recalling that in 1980 women constituted some 30%  of the manual workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard. They usually operated the  gantry cranes, mainly inside the shipyard buildings. Most of them led a  traditional family life, doing the majority of the housework. Although  most of them subscribed to the newly created Solidarność union, they did  not usually have time to engage in it as much as men did, since they  “had children” (apparently men do not have children, women do —  at  least in Poland) and housework to do. During an artistic project at the  Gdansk Shipyard in 2004, I conducted interviews with ten female shipyard  workers, some of whom had been working there in 1980. Their memories  were bitter, as their hopes for better conditions for workers and women  had clearly been betrayed in the economic transformation of 1989. The  main thesis of David Ost’s book The Defeat of Solidarity,  published in 2005, seems fully legitimate in the context of these  interviews; his thesis is that the Solidarność movement actually  abandoned the workers and turned against them in the building of the new  capitalist society after 1989. In 2004, facing their precarization on  the labor market, these women were sometimes working three shifts in  rough conditions and risking accidents. They were not active in labor  unions, because apart from the burden of excessive paid work at the  shipyard they also had unpaid housework to do. In most cases, their  families were financially dependent on them, yet the traditional gender  work division applied to them as much as it had to their mothers. While  men working in the shipyard always had time to sit down and talk with me  after their work, the situation was different with the women. I could  only talk to them during their short lunch break, in the morning when  they were changing clothes for work, or in the evenings when they got  ready to leave the shipyard. For that reason, the process of conducting  the interviews took some three weeks altogether, and I believe that no  journalist interviewed women in the shipyard either before or after  that, since it was so much easier to make an appointment for a long  conversation with the majority of men working there.
The striking inequality in the division of labor between women and  men persists not just in the working class families, but in households  in Poland regardless of their class. It results from traditional values  strengthened by the Catholic Church and by school education. It is also a  typical effect of the precarization of patriarchal societies: When  state institutions and employers cease to provide care structures and  facilities, it becomes the task of women to take over these duties.  These specifically gender-related aspects of precarity often escape the  attention of theorists of precarity, such as Guy Standing or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, yet they constitute a substantial part of feminist research in this field, particularly in the work of Silvia Federici.
Gender inequality in Poland is also an unfortunate result of a  feminism which did not criticize the neoliberal transformations of the  first twenty years after 1989, producing a narrative on gender equality  which reduced women’s participation in politics to the installation of  the quota system and inviting more women to join political parties.  Ironically, the political party which actually had the highest  percentage of female delegates in the Parliament after 1989 was the  ultra-conservative League of Polish Families (LPR).
The harsh critique of feminism’s involvement in the implementation of  neoliberal politics offered by Nancy Fraser in her article published in  the Guardian in 2013 most appropriately summarizes the complicity of  the vast majority of the Polish feminist movement in the perpetuation of  social and economic inequalities, both in Poland and globally. Her  emphasis on the rejection of egalitarian feminism in favor of an  individualistic entrepreneurial version also sounds very convincing in  the Polish context: “Where feminists once criticized a society that  promoted careerism, they now advise women to ‘lean in’. A movement that  once prioritized social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A  perspective that once valorized ‘care’ and interdependence now  encourages individual advancement and meritocracy.” Interestingly, some  feminists in Poland and other countries of the former Eastern Bloc  reacted to this article in a very critical way, pointing to the supposed  “western-centrism” of Fraser and her possibly uncritical praise of care  labor. I believe that this shameless attempt to hide behind the veil of  the supposedly colonial aspects of Fraser’s article only proves the  inability to take responsibility for the human costs of the neoliberal  transformation. As much as I agree with some feminists of color who  rightly challenge Fraser’s use of the “feminist we”, in the case of  Polish liberal feminism a more appropriate reaction to the article  should consist in a sincere reflection on feminism’s complicity.
In 1980, women’s participation in the Solidarność movement was far  from invisible. Women were present from the start of the strikes in the  shipyard in Gdańsk, they were on strike in Szczecin and Łódź, they “took  over” several highly important activities in Solidarność after its  de-legalization in December 1981, mainly printing and distributing the  underground press, organizing meetings and education, supporting the  thousands of imprisoned activists, documenting the abuses of the  “bezpieka” (secret police), and arranging and redistributing material  help from abroad. The invisibility of these tasks was compounded by the  fact that all of this work was illegal. It was a form of housework, but  directed at the common good; a personal involvement, but in public  matters —  a form of public involvement, which clearly escapes the  classical notions of public sphere, such as the one proposed by  Habermas. It might be seen as a form of counterpublic as defined by  Nancy Fraser or Alexander Kluge, but a hybrid form, not a monolithic  entity.
Carole Pateman suggests that the interconnections between what has  been called the “public sphere” and the “private” are stronger than most  liberal theorists suggest. Thus she not only accepts the feminist  slogan “the personal is political”, but also provides philosophical  legitimation for it. When analyzing the “republic of the brothers” and  the “fraternal social contract” in liberal democracies, Pateman not only  recapitulates the Freudian/Lockean visions of the contemporary  republic, but also joins forces with the feminist psychoanalyst Luce  Irigaray in suggesting that this triumphant institutionalization of  organized boyhood usually takes place on the women’s (sometimes dead)  bodies. While Irigaray shows how the exclusion of women is grounded in  the symbolic erasure of the mother from the origins of state and  society, Pateman concentrates on domestic violence and career  restrictions to explain women’s de facto absence in politics.
Other feminist authors point out that even today, the fact that  affective and care labor occupies women’s time and energy, forcing the  alienation and exploitation of women, constitutes a necessary element of  the system of capitalist production. Domestic labor is not only  exploitative, as Mariarosa Dalla Costa,  Silvia Federici and other feminists have argued. It is also a way of  sharing a life with others as depicted in the work of bell hooks, or  even an element of “love power”, as Anna Jonasdottir has argued in the  last 30 years. The Solidarność movement made at least three explicit  claims to embrace these efforts of women, in the “21 postulates” of the  workers unions in 1980: the demands for women’s retirement at the age of  50, for three years’ paid maternity leave, and enough daycare centers  for all children. However, the Solidarność movement lacked any  comprehension of the structures of gender inequalities, and I believe  this is the reason for the later exclusion of women from its structures,  as well as for the conservative turn of the movement and the political  parties which originated in it. This all led to the neglect of women’s  issues in Polish politics after 1989.
We can reduce Solidarność to a sexist, misogynist entity altogether,  as has often been done, but before doing so we might also want to  examine how the gender difference actually worked there. We might also  want to compare this particular movement with other social movements of  the time in order to understand whether and how it differed from them in  its gender bias. Interestingly, the outcome of this comparison is  surprisingly positive for Solidarność which had its known female leaders  in the working class —  the legendary trio of crane operator Anna  Walentynowicz, nurse Alina Pieńkowska and tram driver Henryka  Krzywonos   —  as well as in the intelligentsia, including counselors  such as Jadwiga Staniszkis, journalists and authors such as Helena  Łuczywo and Joanna Szczęsna, activists such as Barbara Labuda, probably  the only declared feminist in the movement in 1980, and lawyers such as  Zofia Wasil-kowska and Janina Zakrzewska. How many women do we know of  in the working class resistance at the time of Thatcher’s neoliberal  takeovers in the early 1980s in England? How many women were there in  the Free Speech Movement in the USA? In the Anti-Apartheid mobilizations  in South Africa? Or in the French students mobilizations of the 1960s?  Probably not more than in Solidarność —  and I emphasize that not  because I would like to idealize this particular social movement, but  because I think that social and academic perceptions of it should be  corrected.
In the first days of Solidarność, most of the international legal  guarantees of gender equality had not even been prepared. The UN Beijing  Declaration, probably the most famous and all-encompassing document  concerning rights of women and girls, was not even written in 1980; it  was only signed in 1995. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All  Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), had just been adopted in  1979, and the EU Convention on preventing and combating violence against  women and domestic violence would only be signed in 2011, not by all  the EU members, not even by Poland (!). Feminist theory in 1980 already  recognized the influence of domestic labor on the lives of women, as in  the 1976 sociological study of Ann Oakley or in the short texts of the  Italian Marxist feminists Federici and Dalla Costa; the late 1970s also  saw the critical analysis of the appropriation of affective labor by  corporate marketing and sales in Arlie Hochschild’s study from 1979. The  tendency of the time, however, was for women to withdraw from  male-dominated social movements and to form their own.
If Solidarność is to be judged correctly, another comparison should  also be drawn concerning the state apparatus in Poland. Women did not  occupy important positions in the state institutions in 1980. They were  decorative elements of ministerial salons. Female participation in the  Parliament of the “2nd Republic”, the communist state, varied from 4,14 %  in the late 1950s (!) to 25% after the elections in 1980, which could  also be seen as inspired by the political mobilization of women in the  opposition.
The fact that we still know and remember the names of the key women  in the Solidarność movement is, in my opinion, due to the radical  democratization of the public sphere in 1980. This is a moment which  would serve as a great example of the “mésentente” (disagreement)  described by Jacques Rancière. The appearance of the nurse, the female  crane operator and the female tram driver was, as we might say according  to Rancière, a “new division of the sensible”. It was a sign and a  declaration to the entire society that women do engage politically, and  rightly so. The fact that more feminist writing has been devoted to the  (in-)famous slogan on the wall of the Gdańsk Shipyard Kobiety, nie  przeszkadzajcie nam walczyć o Polskę (“Women, do not disturb our fight  for Poland”) than to the women actually involved in Solidarność is a  shameful proof of the lack of recognition for these women rather than an  indication of scientific and historical accuracy in Polish feminist  studies of that period. The performative dimension of this sudden  presence of women cannot be reduced to an “exception” and explained away  as “accidental”. It was a genuine element of the early days of  Solidarność and should be analyzed as an example of the unprecedented  political mobilization of working class women. Soon more women joined  the unions, and —  as Małgorzata Tarasiewicz estimates in an interview  concerning the “Women’s Section” of Solidarność — they constituted some  50% of the movement. Tarasiewicz and other feminist writers and  activists seem to see Solidarność only through the lens of the  activities of the leaders of the movement in the 1990s, when abortion  was made illegal and the traditional role of women in society and gender  inequality were strengthened. It could actually be true that the  unwillingness to grasp the performative political importance of female  leaders in the movement of 1980 derives from a more general reservation  against the working class —  a very unpopular topic in the 1990s in  Poland. The female Solidarność leaders might still be waiting for their  theorists.
The “Women’s Section” of Solidarność was only set up in 1990 and  closed in 1991 by Marian Krzaklewski, Wałęsa’s successor. It was  undoubtedly an expression of the deeply conservative approach that he  and other male members of Solidarność showed in regard to women and  their issues. However, we should perhaps take into account how women  function in contemporary social movements, including worker’s unions,  how their role has changed since 1980 and 1991, and also how the actual  activity of actual women in actual labor unions has contributed to these  changes. Otherwise we risk projecting contemporary norms and practices  back onto movements that are already historic. We might also want to  rethink new forms of invisibility of women in politics and social  agency, far more influenced by economic inequalities and poverty than in  the heyday of Solidarność. Today some women obtain important political  positions. Does this mean that housework is more appreciated, that  gender roles have changed or that we live in a more egalitarian society?  I would not say so.
It seems ironic that the 2014 annual women’s demonstration in Warsaw,  the “Manifa”, was held under the slogan “Equality at home, equality at  work, equality in schools”. Although the repetition in the slogan has  often been criticized, one has to insist on the fact that equality still  has not been attained. Since women in Poland today make up 96% of the  victims of domestic violence and rape, as well as the majority of the  14% of the labor force who are unemployed, while their salaries are  usually 20% lower than those of their masculine co-workers, the demand  for equality seems justified. Women are denied access to abortion and to  contraceptives; sexual education is fully dependent on cultural and  economic capital and is fully privatized. Women’s “invisible” labor  (housework) earns the equivalent of 40% of the gross domestic product  (GDP) according to the Polish Central Statistics Office (GUS); however  women are neither rewarded nor respected for it. The “glass ceiling”,  “sticky floor”, and “moving stairs” phenomena, reducing women’s career  opportunities, are especially widespread in business, academia, and  medicine. The traditional cultural stereotype of “Matka Polka” (the  Polish Mother) also forces the majority of women to comply with a  heteronormative, strongly paternalistic and simply sexist conformity to  the traditional roles of mother, care giver, and sex worker which,  combined with the general precarity in the labor market, makes women  particularly dependent on partners and friends and reduces the urge of  most women to engage politically.
Women’s invisible labor has been the major obstacle to their  political participation and involvement, both now and in the past.  Reducing this labor to a colonized zone where women are deprived of the  value of their work dismisses an important part of the actual value of  this work, which resides precisely in its affective character. It should  neither be reduced to its material results, nor to the supposed  “immateriality” of its affective practice, since affection, as  contemporary studies rightly show, is neither immaterial nor independent  of the social. This labor can, however, contain a strong emancipatory  potential for those who decide to unlearn privilege, who not only claim  but also practice equality. For these, the “love power” of the women of  Solidarność and other female political activists will not just be the  essential symbol of a monumentalized past, but above all a living  example of political agency, strength and solidarity. From the  perspective of the reduction of women’s rights in the neoliberal  transformation and its cutting of social services and support, the  engagement of women in Solidarność might be seen as a version of cruel  optimism, which —  as Lauren Berlant explains in her recent book —  consists in an attachment to the object that was supposed to lead to  happiness, yet has become an obstacle to pursuing it. But on the other  hand we might also claim that this involvement is a lesson we can learn  from —  a lesson about the necessity of establishing egalitarian,  feminist theory and practice in every social movement aiming at  political change.
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