Women in Poland



In Poland, traditional ideas about the role of women in Polish society have been shaped for centuries, which have resulted in the image of women that is the combination of European cultural heritage and the Polish experience. The most popular image of a woman in Poland is that of the Polish Mother (‘Matka-Polka’) who sacrifices herself for her children since she is convinced that it is the most valuable social function of a woman. However, the model of a woman has evolved over the years and has come a long way from the archetype of the princess who was protected by the knight to the independent woman who makes her own choices about herself and the surrounding reality. In the first part of the text, the image of a woman that has been created over the years is presented since it is valuable for understanding the attitudes of today’s women and the stereotypes they face. In the second part, the models shaped by the culture are confronted with the modern heroines and their lives. We will also look at similarities between Polish and Indian images of the role of women in society and how they influenced the changes in these images, which took place in the 20th century.

One of the most spectacular portraits of a woman in European culture is the one inherited from the Middle Ages – the image of an innocent and beautiful girl waiting for her man who went to fight in a war or is involved in the affairs of the state as a knight. The attributes of the girl were praised in poetry and legends, which made this image very popular. The romantic image recurred in the next epochs and although the actors who evolved along with the changes changed, stories of a woman waiting for her beloved man are present today. The image presented a woman as beautiful, innocent and faithful. Today, one could say that it was passivity that characterized the woman at the time – her happiness or unhappiness depended on the man. She did not enter the outside world; it was the man who came from the world. The world was dangerous for her; thus, she preferred to devote herself to the private life, being surrounded by her family. The only alternative for women in the Middle Ages was a life of a nun, which also assumed seclusion. The woman could either be an ascetic or a beautiful virgin and later, a wife. Such a conviction was present for a long period of time. Despite instances of women’s emancipation in the 19th century (women managed manors and other assets when their husbands were away, they had an indirect impact on political decisions), their position was dependent upon the position of their husbands and their families and their activity intensified only during difficult times when men stayed away from home for a long period of time due to wars.

The 19th century and the time when the country did not exist influenced the image of the role of women in Polish society. Men were involved in conspiracy or forced to leave the country. Simultaneously, these were women who had to preserve national identity, thus, bear Polish children (preferably, sons who could fight for freedom) and raise them in the spirit of love for their homeland. The woman of these difficult times was often called the Polish Mother (‘Matka Polka’). The image was vivid in Poland also in the 20th century since it bound the role of women to the challenges imposed by the outside world. Wars, occupancy and national tragedies helped reinforce the stereotypical image. Despite the focus on the strength and determination of the Polish Mother, it is worth noting that its role is still only associated with the home - waiting for her husband (or mourning his loss) and raising children. The woman in this worldview does not affect the reality that surrounds her and her virtue is not to fight for change, but for the survival and preservation of certain ideals.

In the 19th and 20th century, women began to push the limits and led to a change in the traditional view of women in which they were assigned the roles that bound them to their home and family. Previously, the world was divided into two parts: the private, connected with the home, and the public, connected with politics, work life, social and cultural life. The latter was traditionally the domain of men. Just like in India, in Poland, the fact that women entered the public sphere was a real revolution. Initially, spokeswomen for the change constituted a small group, but their example inspired other women to take action. With time, they led to the abandonment of the conservative way of thinking that would impose certain social roles on women and evaluate them through the prism of adaptation to social expectations.

The primary traditional role for a woman was that of a mother. Our heroines allow us to study attitudes of modern women towards parenthood. Indira Gandhi as well as Ahilya Rangnekar were mothers – their political careers caused, however, that they are rarely perceived as such. A traditional mother was Danuta Wałęsa, who devoted her life to her children so that her husband could be involved in the public sphere.  In contrast, Henryka Krzywonos was an active politician and a foster mother of 12 children. Hanka Ordonówna did not have her own children either and the fact that she helped children during the war did not suit her image of a cabaret singer. All of them chose different ways of living, which demonstrates that there is no one model of a real woman or one way to fulfill oneself as a woman. Undoubtedly, all of them contributed the change in the stereotypical way of thinking about the role of women.

The traditional seclusion of women in the home and family contributed to the emergence of a negative attitude towards them having a job. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, having a job was humiliating for a woman, usually a necessity because of woman’s low social position and poverty. However, working women showed that work was connected with financial independence and simultaneously, with a greater ability to make one’s own decisions. With time, more jobs became suitable for women.  In both countries, not that long time ago there were jobs that were assigned to women only, e.g. a teacher or a nurse, but since women started having various jobs, a profession stopped being associated with sex. Henryka Krzywonos, for instance, had a job that was very unusual for women in Poland – she was a tram driver, a job that she chose because it was better paid than her previous post of a clerk.

Women entered the socio-economic life, they started working and obtained the right to possess and inherit private property. They also became involved in the civil and political life.  Despite their new rights and relative equality between women and men after Poland became independent in 1918, in the 1920’s and 1930’s the stereotypical image of women was only slightly improved. The fact that women had the right to vote did not mean that they became more involved in politics. In 1938, women constituted only 0.5 % of all members of Parliament. In the 20th century in Poland, there was no Indira Gandhi, who could hold such an important post in the state. However, both in India and Poland the fact that women became engaged in politics was not confined to exercising state power. Women became involved in the public sphere, watched the authorities, and raised standards of democracy. The best example here is Ahilya Rangnekar, who fought for workers’ rights, and more importantly, for working women’s rights and women’s rights in general. She was a woman in a world that was dominated by men, where women, especially working women, were invisible. She resembles Henryka Krzywonos, who stood next to striking shipyard workers. After 1989, Henryka Krzywonos has no longer been involved in politics. However, she has actively defended women’s rights since she claims that solidarity is an important virtue in a daily struggle. The fact that both heroines participated in shaping democracy and the image of the role of women is important since both of them proved that in democracy, power is not confined to posts, but it is also about influencing authorities to work for the common good. They brought new quality in politics treating it as a tool to meet the needs and challenges of their societies, and not just a power struggle.

It is worth mentioning that women both in India and Poland have often pointed at problems that were not noticed by men or treated as irrelevant. Women have become very involved in fighting against social and economic problems such as poverty, social seclusion and the right to dignity. The latter problem was the domain of Mother Teresa and still is the domain of sister Małgorzata Chmielewska. It could be stated that this sphere of life is associated with the traditional role of women as carers. However, it is worth noting that on the one hand, today’s women are focused on organizing assistance, joint action, at the same time going out of their homes and families and having a creative impact on the surrounding social reality. On the other hand, they are also aware of their social and economic rights and are ready to urge the authorities to respect their social rights, which they can influence themselves.

Both in India and in Poland, women were traditionally assigned the roles of wives and mothers. They are characterized as modest, patient, composed, resourceful. Even the latest research demonstrates that women are more often evaluated on the basis of their personality and virtues that are culturally assigned to their sex than on the basis of their efficiency. However, in the 20th century women had a significant impact on this stereotypical way of thinking – they proved that there are neither features nor tasks that can be assign to women only.

Moreover, the 20th century allowed women to enter the public sphere. They stopped being confined only to the home, simultaneously, blurring the boundaries between what is private and what is public. When women entered the public sphere, the things that happened in the home or family were no longer dealt with behind the closed door. As an example may serve here Danuta Wałęsa’s autobiography, which is not only a book, but a widely discussed event in Poland. Danuta Wałęsa tells her own history of Poland observed through the prism of the home and the roles that were assigned to her as a woman. The autobiography has allowed to end the taboo as to what can be said in public. Wałęsa has demonstrated that the private and public worlds are interwoven and if history is described only by men, it is not fully represented. At the same time, Wałęsa’s book reminds the works of Mahasweta Devi, who has depicted women’s struggle with the roles that were imposed on them by society many times.

Women in the 20th century broke with a passive attitude that made them adjust to the reality and began to be active in politics and social life.




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