Stop Writing Communist Women Out of History

Liberal feminists often paint the fight for women’s liberation in Eastern Europe as a matter of “catching up with the West.” But presenting feminism as new to the region silences the battles waged by communist women after 1945 — and their victories over conservatives in both the Church and their own parties.

Janina Broniewska ran the Polish women's weekly magazine Kobieta.

In October 2016, thousands of women and men took to the streets of Poland to demonstrate against a proposal to restrict the already limited right to legal abortion. As the so-called #blackprotest swept away the right-wing government’s plans — in the only public protest thus far able to stop the Law and Justice Party’s plans to change the existing law — scholars and activists interpreted these events as momentous for the formation of a modern mass women’s movement in Poland.

The narratives of excitement and new hope formulated in the aftermath of the black protests highlighted the uniqueness of these recent upheavals, without precedent in Polish history. When looking for historical references helping to explain the #blackprotest phenomenon, some feminists did reach out to patriotic and national symbols of resistance. They argued that when used subversively, these, too, could become a useful strategy for gaining visibility and relevance among wider female audiences — a tool for facilitating “connective action.” Yet others, including sociologist Anna Zawadzka, warned against turning to such narratives, insisting that utilizing national symbols might be just another way by which feminisms are appropriated by the very structures of power and oppression that they have tried to destroy.

Largely overlooked in the discussion about what meaning the black protests had for the formation of feminist subjectivities in Poland was the specific history of Poland’s state-socialist period, and the importance that women’s activism in this era had for the history of the struggle for emancipation. Yet research into the legacies of emancipation post-1945 — and its reception since the fall of state socialism in 1989 — casts this problem in a different light.

Exploring the heritage of communism — facing up to both its failures and successes — can allow a break from the cycle of retribution and appropriation that perpetrates feminist theories and practices in the region, representing Eastern European feminisms as forever torn between parochial nationalism and individual rights supposedly promoted by neoliberalism.

Post-1989 Narratives

This routinized — and ritualized — neglect of communism as an element of feminist genealogy dates back to the transformations of 1989. Indeed, over the 1990s, the range of discursive positions and cultural representations available to post-socialist women’s movements was limited. The state-socialist period was often confined to a “totalitarian paradigm,” ruling out the possibility that it could have played any important role in the genealogy of women’s emancipation. In the 1990s, scholars and activists in both the United States and Eastern Europe were instead preoccupied with the question of why there was no feminism in the post-communist countries. The answer to this question, however, depended on a more fundamental argument about the supposed impossibility of feminism after communism: a system, it was claimed, that had halted all civic activism in Eastern Europe, including that fighting for women’s emancipation.

In these years, feminism was represented as something new to Poland — and it was thus necessary to look for a legitimate outside example that emerging women’s movements could follow. This narrative of “convergence” with other, Western examples complemented the discourse about an “absent” feminist movement. But it also meant representing the development of Eastern European feminisms as simply a local variation of global, or rather Western, women’s movements. It rendered the Eastern European transformations as conservative processes, directed mostly at catching up with the West in its march toward emancipation and modernity, in the only acceptable version of feminism: liberal feminism.

The concept of a return — or of catching up with the West — resonated with many people, including some feminists. As Kristen Ghodsee pointed out in 2004, a cultural feminism based on the idea of universal patriarchy was transferred to Eastern Europe by newly founded NGOs after 1989, as a complement to the doctrine of driving the region toward a capitalism-by-design. From the 1990s onward, scholars, researchers, and activists broadly appropriated the experience and the language of second-wave Western feminism as their own. They used Western concepts and genealogies to construct individual and collective feminist subjectivities on various registers — but without ever paying much attention to the local genealogies of the women’s movement, in particular the most recent, communist ones.

This narrative of lack — an absence to be filled by convergence with the West —represented Polish women and parts of Eastern European societies as conservative, unwilling to change, passive, and unable to act: in short, they were counterposed to an active and dynamic West. Polish anthropologist Michał Buchowski has argued that this domestic orientalism was characteristic of the 1990s, in producing the subjectivity of those who had won from the post-1989 transformations. Here, the civilized “us,” able to conform to liberal-individualist values, was accompanied by the production of “others”: the incompetent and anti-intellectual masses unable to join Poland’s march toward the West. This passivity and inability to change were identified with homo sovieticus, the “other” who had been left behind by the transformation.

At the core of this domestic orientalism was the political and scholarly imperative of anti-communism, which became a hallmark of late-twentieth-century Eastern European studies of emancipation in the region and beyond. This helped to legitimize narratives that represented Eastern European societies as uniformly on board with Westernization processes, and to construct the stereotypical image of a region as having failed to enter modernization or as delayed in the process of women’s liberation, as compared to the “Western world.”

Post-1989 feminisms thus passed a severe judgment on their communist foremothers, whose work on behalf of women was portrayed as a mere facade — ideological, superficial, and inauthentic. To this day, any consideration of communist activists as part of the genealogy of Poland’s women’s movement appears only as an aberration. As recently as 2014, Polish feminist scholar and activist Agnieszka Graff argued: “For me this [communist women’s activism in Eastern Europe] is interesting, as a piece of Poland’s history, as a piece of women’s history. But it is absolutely not convincing to me as my own history . . . They are not my foremothers!”

Indeed, for many activists and researchers, the state-socialist emancipation project represented a form of “state patriarchy” in which the dominance of individual man over individual woman was replaced by the state’s dominance over all women. Consequently, the anti-communist narrative claimed that communism and women were necessarily separate and opposed entities. In this view, no “real” feminist could ever have worked for the communist state — and the communist state could never be considered an ally of women’s liberation.

Emancipation, Soviet Style

Whether women in Poland were only passive observers of “gender evolutions” or active participants in the revolutionary changes brought by the communist state is open to debate. The immense diversity of the experiences of women under communism and state socialism is, without a doubt, a warning against the broad generalizations characteristic of post-1989 approaches to the postwar history of women’s emancipation. Yet research based on archival documents and interviews with participants in women’s organizations can at least help us trace the complex trajectories of Polish women’s activism after World War II.

Women involved in building the new system after 1945, such as Izolda Kowalska-Kiryluk, Edwarda Orłowska, Eugenia Pragierowa, or Żanna Kormanowa were devoted communists and socialists — true believers who conceptualized women’s emancipation as a political issue. At the international level, their agendas were coherent with the work of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, established in 1945 with the aim of fighting for peace and economic equality and against racism. At a more local level, communists and socialists in Poland worked within the Women’s Department of the Polish United Workers’ Party from 1946 to 1952, and in the League of Women.

They focused on introducing masses of women to the workforce, while also fighting the reactionary forces of Catholicism and male domination within the communist party (known as the Polish Workers’ Party, and then the Polish United Workers’ Party) itself. To this end, in 1946, Edwarda Orłowska, a pre-war communist and head of the Women’s Department, pressed for efforts to build a mass women’s movement based in an intersectional collaboration between the communist party, women’s organizations, and labor unions. “Our goal is to wrest woman from the influence of the reaction, to create a powerful women’s organization,” she stated, insisting on the need for specific women’s “units with full-time employees,” even at the local level.

Integrating women into the salaried workforce was a priority for postwar women’s activists. Interestingly, already in the aftermath of World War II, efforts to politicize the question of women’s paid work went hand in hand with a discussion about the private-public divide.

In progressive women’s magazines such as Kobieta (a weekly headed by Janina Broniewska), a debate on household chores had two focuses. Each was coherent with earlier visions of the public-private divide outlined by Russian revolutionaries such as Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, and the visions of equality formulated by the progressive movements in the West, like the Congress of American Women.

On the one hand, “women’s work” was considered a public matter. The state was presented here as mainly responsible for creating institutional mechanisms to take the burden of private chores off of women’s shoulders. Irena Gumowska, a head of the Household Institute, wrote in 1948: “Women today must and want to work . . . In Poland after the war we created various forms of socialized collective households. Here the main goal is to create day-cares, canteens, and kindergartens. Then Mother-and-Children Homes, social laundromats, social bakeries and other social services and cooperatives.”

On the other hand, the equal division of labor at home was represented as integral to women’s emancipation. In 1948, Wanda Melcer, a writer and activist, wrote: “We will consider household labor regardless of sex, we assume that everybody works at home, and as a consequence everybody has the same rights and duties. There is nothing in household chores that should be done only by men or a woman, girl or a boy.”


These activists didn’t have everything their own way. Mid-ranking party officials and the Catholic Church were two major forces pushing back against changes proposed by the Women’s Department. In the mid-1940s, the idea of kobieca robota (women’s work) was still foreign to Polish communists “on the ground”: many local party leaders defied the very existence of “women’s instructors” (paid representatives of the Women’s Department in the field). Local party secretaries treated Women’s Department representatives as their assistants, delegating minor office jobs to them, and ignored circulars on “women’s work” issued by the Central Committee.

The Catholic Church was another locus of resistance to the ideas of women’s equality. Although the Women’s Department outwardly appeared to follow the strategy of the silent truce between the state and the Church — claiming that the party did not fight religion — in the privacy of party meetings, the Church was represented as a reactionary force that kept women from the party and needed to be invigilated. Local, rural public schools and the League of Women became the main ground for an ideological war between Women’s Department representatives and the Church — a battle that the communists eventually lost.

The profile of women’s activism changed with the closing down of the Women’s Department of the Polish United Workers’ Party in 1952, and the public denunciation of its work as unsatisfactory and ineffective. The Women’s Department’s efforts were said to be too narrowly focused on politics, while disregarding “practical” women’s problems and family issues. 1956 initiated what historian Barbara Nowak calls a period of “practical activism” — and in the memory of many Polish women, this accounts for the whole history of liberation in the Polish People’s Republic.

The depoliticization of women’s emancipation can be seen as a part of the political thaw following 1956, which rested on the return to traditional family values and nationalism, and thus required a softer version of emancipatory politics. At the turn of the 1950s, the high profile, prewar communists of Jewish origins, like Edwarda Orłowska, were progressively marginalized. This can be connected to the backlash against a certain version of communist emancipation, and seen as a prelude to the nationalist, antisemitic campaign that in 1968 became a trademark of the “Polish road to socialism.”

New measures and institutions introduced after 1956, including the Committee for Household Economics (1957), instead became tools for a “modernization” of everyday life, focused on household responsibilities within the family, and the management of women’s time. Rationality and modern housekeeping were popularized through research and workshops on home budgets, rational diets, and the use of household appliances.

Historian Katarzyna Stańczak-Wiślicz convincingly provides evidence that the progressive depoliticization of women’s emancipation in the 1960s and 1970s was accompanied with efforts to improve the status of working women, as well as a modernization and rationalization of the labor force and individual households. Indeed, Barbara Nowak insists that while the “practical activism” that dominated the last decades of the Polish People’s Republic was apolitical in character, it also performed several important functions, from teaching skills on how to be good working housewives to providing legal advice and psychological support, and the creation of women-only spaces for relaxation and entertainment.

Economic-type measures, and practical challenges related to the balance between household and paid work, became the main preoccupation for women’s organizations. But activists also focused on questions of how economic rights relate to women’s reproductive freedom and their symbolic position in society. Even after the closing of the Women’s Department in 1952, Polish women succeeded in introducing progressive measures in the area of women’s rights, including a right to legal abortion. In 1956, during the heated debate about this new law in the Polish Parliament, women activists and politicians, including Maria Jaszczukowa, Wanda Gościmińska, and Zofia Tomczyk, brought up important arguments on behalf of women’s equality and well-being.

Wanda Gościmińska, a former factory worker, bluntly pointed to economic inequalities as a crucial element of women’s experience when accessing illegal abortion. “In prewar Poland only those [women] who got money could terminate [a pregnancy],” she argued. “But before was there was no work, so to terminate [a pregnancy] was a pipe dream.”

Anthropologists Agnieszka Kościańska and Agata Ignaciuk show that questions regarding personal and sexual morality were also raised after 1956, particularly after the establishment of the Society for Conscious Motherhood in 1957. During the 1950s and 1960s, this state-sponsored organization propagated expert knowledge on birth control through press and literature aimed at the general public. Later on, in the 1970s, Polish sexology developed independently from Western — most importantly US — influences, as a humanistic, holistic, and interdisciplinary approach and orientation toward patients.

A “Sleepwalked Revolution”?

As activists, professionals, revolutionaries, or dissidents, communist and socialist women occupy an ambiguous position in Poland’s modern history. But “revisionist” research into women’s history has used institutional archives, press and media accounts, specialist literature, and the work by some of the feminist scholars mentioned above to suggest that the 1945–1989 period brought about a “gender revolution.” This structural change was a form of revolution that Polish women, to use the term coined by philosopher Andrzej Leder, “sleepwalked through.”

These new studies — whether by historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, or sociologists like myself — point to the fact that postwar emancipation in Eastern Europe was dynamic and uneven, but as a process, it is still often unreflected upon by both mainstream historiography and feminist herstory. Even though the memory of communist emancipation is repressed and denied, it remains part of the history of the fight for equality in Poland.

It is unlikely that we will ever be able to make definitive statements about how much agency women activists enjoyed while working within Poland’s post-1945 state and party structures. Yet recent studies help challenge the idea of women’s powerlessness and passivity under communism. They instead delineate women’s agency in terms of a complex interplay between various actors (such as the state, women’s groups, and researchers). These operated in various geopolitical spaces (e.g., local women’s organizations, the state, and international institutions) through diverse practices, from social policies and research to art. This agency is also visible in the shifting positions of certain activists (for instance Zofia Wasilkowska, a 1950s justice minister who later became a member of Solidarnosc).

Most of the conquests of postwar women’s emancipation in Poland were introduced in the area of women’s work. They relieved the double burden of labor on women and introduced reproductive rights that were supposed to help women manage economic hardships. Women’s organizations played an important role in battles over divorce law, maternity leave, and the labor code, introducing changes such as compulsory alimonies and prolonged maternity leave. Without a doubt, the right to divorce and the mass introduction of women into the labor force made them freer from husbands, partners, and, more broadly, from traditional gender roles.

Contemporary liberal feminists remain uninterested in and unable to recognize these achievements, refusing to praise communist activists as their “foremothers.” Yet this is not because they are more concerned with different kinds of battles. In fact, both the social and cultural context of women’s emancipation in Poland — conditioned by the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church on public politics — and the potential strategies of how to foreground women’s issues (institutionalization and/or pressing for radical social changes) remain relatively similar.

Rather, this blanket rejection of communist-era feminism has its roots in post-1989 anti-communist politics, which played an important role in dividing groups of Poles into “good” and “bad” citizens. Indeed, post-1989 feminism, as a theoretical approach and social movement, did not emerge in an ideological and intellectual vacuum. Rather, its narratives on emancipation and women’s equality mirrored mainstream discourses. The common critique of feminism held that it is foreign to Poland because its politics are nourished by ideas from abroad, including in the past by Soviet-style emancipation. To avoid such a label, some feminists have chosen to publicly announce their commitment to mainstream patriotic narratives of the post-1989 transformation, while denying any relations with the communist past.

The genealogical approach in current studies, aiming to retrieve communism’s legacies for feminist movements, instead points to a diversity of emancipation trajectories. It highlights paths to equality that cross the geopolitical and ideological boundaries created by the Cold War paradigm. This helps us move away from considering “the West” the major reference point for all debates on liberation in Eastern Europe and provides a starting point to build connections with other non-Western contexts. Putting these women’s activism back in its proper place, we can hone in on marginalized historical perspectives — and paths to emancipation that lead beyond the hegemonic framing.