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Karla korjanc

Gender and Democracy in Poland

Women in the Solidarity movement: A Review

The film Women in the Solidarity movement explores the topic of the silent fifty-percent:
the women participants and leaders of the Solidarity movement that are poorly recognized or
not mentioned at all in the official history narrative in Poland.
The directors of the film, Marta Dzido and Piotr Sliwowski grounded their film in the book
written by an American author Shana Penn, who was the first person that ever wrote on this
subject. In the film most of the Penns revelations are mentioned (i.e. from her National Secret
article at least) together with a more chronological presentation of the womens participation
in democratization struggles and some new details, such is the quest for Ewa Ossowska.
The film can be divided into three parts: the first part portrays womens inclusion the strikes
and protests in Poland throughout 50s, 60s and 70s. This part is important because it
showcases how women were continually present in the opposition activities but also because
the women from KOR and underground activists of Solidarity mostly had some experience
with the protests in the 70s and saw their activities as the continuation of the struggle. The
most important part of the first part of the film is the story of three women that were actually
one of the main reasons that Solidarity as a movement even came to into existence. These
three women Anna Valentinovicz, Ania Pienkowska and Ewa Ossowska were the cause of
the begging of the strike (Valentinovicz) and the main initiators of the Inter-factory strike that
was the beginning of Solidarity. They are however (with maybe Valentinovicz serving as an
exception to some extent) almost never mentioned in the historical accounts. This is thus the
first important question that film poses: why is Polish history depicted as a men-only show
even when it is obviously not so?
The second part of the film revolves around the Martial law that was imposed in Poland in
1981 and of the consequences that it had on the Solidarity movement. As nearly all of the men
leaders were captured by the authorities, the women had to become leaders of the

underground movement by necessity. In the underground women were leading incredibly


dangerous lives and often had to give up of their family life and of their professional
endeavours completely. They, however, proved to be incredibly well-organized and produced
important items of information and media such are the Solidarity Handbook, Tygodnik
Mazowse and Radio Solidarity. A very interesting aspect comes up when the women talk
about how is possible that they were not captured: Jadwiga Chielowska described how they
were incredibly good in conspiracy. Another facet is brought to light in Penns article, who
also writes a lot about the conspirational exceptionality of the women, but mentions as well
that the government didnt actually perceive them as such a threat as they did the men, which
probably made it a bit easier for them to continue to function (even though in this
circumstances that bit easier was really not a lot).
The work that women did in the underground was later on often undermined as not being as
important as the struggles of the men that were imprisoned, or on the other hand, when these
media outlets actually were praised there was no mention that women were the authors and
initiators. This work was however incredibly important for the preservation of the movement,
for giving hope to people and for internalization of the struggle. It was indeed the only thing
that a non-violent movement could have done in such circumstances.
The last part of the film concerns the Round Table negotiations that marked the end of
Communism in Poland. Round Table is described by the films protagonists as a great success
for Solidarity, which came with a terrible price for the workers (a huge leap in
unemployement). It is here, thus, that the gender issue is examined hand in hand with a strong
social critique of the events in early 90s, most visibly portrayed in the story of Ewa
Ossowska, who had to migrate to Italy in order to find job. The question that the directors
pose is: How come that after all that happened in the 80s, with women steering Solidaritys
actions completely, as an aftermath we have the Round Table discussion with only one
woman present in the representative body? And another one that follows is: Why these
women mostly opted not to participate in politics afterwards?
The answer is actually present throughout the whole film: in the beginning when Jadwiga
Staniszkis is asked about why there were so few women in the Committee of Experts (only
her actually) she says: that is not a question for me. Then to say: Women didnt push to be
at the forefront, they were simply taking care of things. When asked whether she was ever
thinking about giving up and leaving Solidarity after her son and she were imprisoned Ewa
Kubasievicz answered: It was meant to be, my duty, a sort of moral obligation. Janina

Jankowska, who wrote a book of conversations with leaders of Solidarity, when asked about
why she didnt include any women leaders answers with a laugh: But what women were
there to talk to?. One of the best parts of the film is the scene that follows: after a set of
questions and mentions of important female leaders she gets a sort of epiphany: Its like we
agreed to be some kind of service staff, support staff
The explanation of invisibility of important female figures of Solidarity is thus that the
women themselves internalized the prevailing social discourse of them being the supportive
staff for their husbands and families. In the time of crisis the women did what they felt was
necessary, they actually could not imagine acting in a different way. The communist society
that in theory should have had gender equality was in fact quite patriarchal due to
destalinization, as it is described in the Equality through Protection article by Fidelis. In such
a climate the men did not allow or were making it extremely hard for women to get to top
positions and it seems like most of the women eventually accepted this situation and just
wanted to do as much as they could for the cause they felt to be of utmost value, even if they
probably would not get any credit for it afterwards. The women did not describe themselves
as feminists, with the exception of Barbara Labuda who became a politician, which is very
indicative of the state that Poland was in. It is also important to bear in mind that the
opposition movement was closely linked to Catholic Church (in one scene we can see the
meeting of the Inter-factory Committee with a cross hanging in the background), which meant
that both the men and women also associated with the Catholic teachings about gender roles
to some extent.
The film itself did not go very deep in analysing the reasons that together amounted to
womens acceptance of their secondary role, but it did a very important work of getting the
issue into spotlight. This problem remains immensely important today, as the Polish youth
learns from history books that have very little to say about womens important roles, and they
also dont see a lot of women in the public sphere. The women of Solidarity can be kind of
accused to hold a share of the burden since they did not want to talk about their role and
their achievements, but considering the social climate they were in, they only did what was
necessary to preserve their peaceful existence. They saw their task being fulfilled and they did
not need another battle.
The film ends with Ewa Ossowskas existential delving in the Gdansk shipyard. In my
opinion she was given too much time in the film as there were women who did much more for
the movement than she did, but her last words accurately depict todays state of gender

equality in Poland and the road that lies ahead. There will be a time when we will hang that
photo for me is not a completely optimistic message because it lacks agency and it allows
room for manipulation with the time frame in which the goal of gender equality should be
reached. The Polish women seem to still put themselves in a secondary position too often.
What Ossowska should have concluded would be something in the line of: Tomorrow I will
call the responsible authorities and tell them to put up the picture that represents this historical
event accurately..