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Elzbieta Oleksy

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Elzbieta H. Oleksy, University of Lodz, Poland

This paper was delivered at the WINDS OF CHANGE Conference in Sydney earlier this year.

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Volume 3, November 1998

Plight in Common? Women's Studies in the New Democracies

I will adopt two basic perspectives in this paper. As one of the earliest practitioners of Women's Studies in Poland, I will address various issues pertinent to this practice. I will also resort to my experience of participating in the Regional Seminar on Gender and Culture organized by the Central European University in Budapest. The third of these seminars was designed as four workshops held in Budapest and Warsaw over a full year beginning in June 1998 and ending in June 1999. The leading theme of the first workshop was "Multiple Feminisms" with areas of concentration on reactions to western feminisms (North American and West European), the public/private distinction as constituted differently under state socialism and liberal capitalism, and experience and theory.

Despite obvious cultural differences among the countries of the region, specific realities of the period of forty odd years after the Second World War were shared by the respective nations. It can thus be assumed that the Polish example, on which I will draw in what follows, would be representative of the situation elsewhere in the region.

It seems fair to say that western feminist theory "reached" the region in the late nineteen eighties, which coincided with the so-called Great Change - the transition from a centrally planned economy to a market oriented economy. There is obviously a paradox in this statement, for in that roughly forty year period after the war, women in the region allegedly benefited from full constitutional rights, access to education and means of production, child care facilities, and so on. All recent commentators, however, agree that women were second-class citizens (in public life, on the labor market, and at home) and that this status was deeply rooted in the fraudulent policies of the Communist Party and, in Poland, which is predominantly Catholic, also in the ideology of the church. It is believed that the collapse of the communist system and the systemic changes towards democracy have created a political space for women to struggle for their rights. As this subject has received much attention in the recent years, I won't dwell on it here, and will focus instead on two issues: firstly, the challenges of teaching feminism to Polish students and secondly, the problem of epistemology inherent in the reception of feminism in Poland.

I began teaching feminism in Poland in the mid-eighties in the Department of English, University of Lodz, where I worked at that time. Access to theory was scarce, so I had to rely on what was easily available: a handful of women's texts, which I incorporated in my history of American literature syllabus. The majority of my students were women (the humanities in Poland have predominantly female students), and their response to the course was hesitant and, in some cases, outright hostile. The issues they raised expressed epistemological concerns that could be synthesized as follows:

1. Students questioned the shared perception of feminist theorists that women's social and economic realities are oppressive and that women typically find themselves in unequal power relations with men. The issue most commonly raised was that the Socialist Party had constantly intervened in the private lives and domestic arrangements of the working class, and they found economic and social realities equally oppressive to Polish women and men. They furthermore denied a sense of women's binding commonality and bonding stemming from their shared membership of the gender category of the feminine.

2. They frequently articulated a complex relationship between gender and other aspects of individual identity, for example those of nationality, class, age, and religion. They criticized what appeared to them as the marginality of texts discussed in the course to their specific experiences as women. In other words, they undermined feminism’s basic tenet - "the personal is the political" - as not pertinent to what Liz Stanley calls the "practical lived experience" of Polish women. They furthermore questioned the validity of the argument that a revolutionary transformation of the modes of production automatically changes sexist ideology.

As early as 1981, Carol Ehrlich was fully aware of this controversy. In an article "The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Can It Be Saved?" she posed a series of questions:

Why are there so few women in decision making positions in socialist states? Who does the housework? Why are lesbianism and male homosexuality suppressed? ... Are women equally represented in all professions? Are their incomes equal to men's? How secure is the woman's freedom of choice in matters of sexuality and reproduction? ... Who decides these matters--the woman, or the mostly male leadership. ... In sum, if patriarchy still exists in socialist states, why? (in Donovan, 88).

Ehrlich's question is obviously rhetorical but it shouldn't be dismissed, for the situation she describes had repercussions in Polish women's attitude to feminism. In the years following the Second World War Polish women harbored what Ewa Malinowska calls "illusions of egalitarianism" (in Oleksy, 42). Although the official state propaganda claimed to have emancipated women through education, work, and childcare, in reality it had failed to achieve this goal. Overburdened with domestic and occupational tasks, Polish women came to resent the very notion of "women's rights" as exploitative and ideologically biased. When communism fell, this basic tenet of feminism went with it.

Another issue that has only recently begun to receive critical attention is the public/private distinction that was constituted idiosyncratically under state socialism. In Poland, as elsewhere in the region, the policy forbidding freedom of association and organization resulted in an emphasis on family as the only locus of privacy. This in turn led to the enhancement of the prestige of the family and a deep internalization, on the part of women, of the double burden as something normal and linked to the difference of status between the sexes.

In the polls conducted in the early 1990s, many young women declared willingness to quit work if their husbands could provide for the family. This situation changed when unemployment began affecting women on a grand scale. More women are now aware of discriminatory practices at the work place, and young women are not as eager to enter wedlock as their mother were. Paradoxically, this transpires precisely when the right to work is suppressed.

In the years that followed the Great Change, two parallel movements have been taking place: the first refers to the influx of feminist theory, both original texts and translations, in several major Polish periodicals and the second to the continued questioning of the applicability of western feminism to the situation of Polish women. The source of the last aspect still lies in a general tendency in Poland to assume the links between western feminism and "compromised" Marxist ideology. Gradually, however, students have been turning to feminist theory and women's fiction. Of roughly thirty MA theses I supervised in the years 1991-1994, one third were written on American women's fiction, and half of those on African-American fiction. In a country where education and the media are silent on the issues of race and ethnicity (as well as gender), I found this tendency interesting and calling for analysis.

Like many black feminists in the United States, Polish women came to feminism through a conviction that they were being treated as second-class citizens within the struggle, ironically, for human rights. A recent commentary made by a Polish critic, Maria Janion, echoes bell hooks's often quoted statement about the dilemma of Black women who had to choose between women's movement and a "black movement that primarily served the interests of black male patriarchs" (79). In Janion's words:

The well-known difference of opinion in Poland concerns the issue of what's "serious" and what’s "trivial." In the seventies and eighties, serious was the struggle for independence; trivial was the struggle for women's rights. Political oppression concerned the activists for [Polish] independence, whereas concern about repression of and control over women was their private matter. ... It took me some time to realize that "democracy in Poland is of masculine gender" (326-27—my translation).

The point Janion makes here expresses the well-known frustration of Polish women activists in the Solidarity movement - a movement that relied heavily on women's involvement, but that did not address women's concerns. The Polish Feminist Association was founded in the eighties by Solidarity women whose voice had not been heard by the predominantly male leadership of the Union.

Tradition dies hard, however. A recent issue of the Polish feminist journal Pelnym glosem (In Full Voice) reveals the controversy between, on the one hand, the urge to inscribe the traditional role performed by Polish women within the women's movement and, on the other hand, feminist theory which aims at deconstructing this role. The discussion in the journal reveals several fundamental problems in articulating in what ways Polish women can benefit from western feminism and what is specifically different in our situation and thus calling for a redefinition of feminism in our own terms. The discussion is reminiscent of a controversy in the United States in the mid-eighties over mainstream feminism, the "anything goes" approach, as bell hooks said. One commentator, Monika Wegierek, for instance, contends that Polish feminism is "hidden" and "individualized"; that it presupposes female superiority and celebrates femininity whereas its advocates don't have the consciousness of belonging to a distinctive group. Any woman, according to Wegierek, who aspires to share the status of a middle-class man, deserves to be called a feminist (she does, however, recognize the fact that such a woman may not wish to be called a feminist and may, moreover, exhibit sexist attitudes to both genders). This approach draws on a popular notion that Polish women have always had a very special status because of the specificity of Poland's historical and cultural experience. Wegierek concludes that Polish feminism - "hidden" and "individualized" as it is in her view - "fares well" (6).

I disagree with this statement. Polish feminism, I would argue, is not hidden, but it is (for the time being) elitist. There are a considerable number of scholars who use feminism in their research, but there are too few of us to speak legitimately of any school of Polish feminism or even a theory that would be specifically "Polish". And it doesn't fare well because of three fundamental problems:

1. Lack of funding for feminist research. Although there are now over two hundred women's organizations of various orientations, most of the programs that receive funding are in the area of business. There is a general tendency to avoid the label "feminist" in attempts to attract funding. So, even if feminist theory is part of the program that is being realized, it has to be written out of the project in its initial phase, that is at the level of the application for funding.

2. Absence of degree programs in Women's Studies. All degree programs in Poland are subject to approval by the Central Council of Higher Education. Only one program outside traditional disciplinary structures, in international relations, has recently been approved.

3. A tendency to discredit Women's Studies as antagonizing, elitist, and sentenced to failure; to abandon the term "women" in favor of the term "gender" in the programs that have been created in the last couple of years. It is true that these programs aim at a redefinition of categories of femininity and masculinity in a society that has rarely questioned these categories. The attempt in Poland, as elsewhere, is to add, as Mary Evans says "an aura of 'complexity' to what might otherwise be seen as a narrow or restricted field" (73). These programs attract women and men as students and teachers because they do not pose questions about power but take the form of descriptive accounts of aspects of social life. It is also true that this tendency to study both sexes (or not to study a single sex) is not uniquely Polish; that it has had its precedents in other countries. However, whereas in the West Women's Studies Centers/Departments had fully developed their programs before Gender Studies was established, Women's Studies programs in Poland have not had this benefit. Thus the danger is that with the advent of Gender Studies, women's issues will become marginalized before they ever become part of the academic agenda.


1. The Polish language has grammatical gender and the word "demokracja" (democracy) is feminine.


Donovan, Josephine (1992) Feminist Theory. The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism. New York: Continuum.

Holzner, Brigitte M.(1997) Gender and Social Security in Central and Eastern Europe and the Countries of the Former Soviet Union. A Resource Guide. The Hague: Institute of Social Studies.

Hooks, Bell (1981) Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.

Janion, Maria (1996) Kobiety. Duch innosci (Women. The Spirit of Otherness). Warszawa: Sic!.

Wegierek, Monika (1996) "Poski feminizm--jest czy go nie ma?" ("Polish Feminism. Does It Exist or Not?"), Pelnym glosem (In Full Voice) 4 (Autumn), 3-6.

Evans, Mary (1991) "The Problem of Gender in Women's Studies", in Jane Aaron and Sylvia Walby, eds. Out of the Margins. Women's Studies in the Nineties, London: The Falmer Press.

Oleksy (1995) Elzbieta H., guest ed., Women's Studies International Forum, 18:1 (January- February).

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