InfoPoland (12994 bytes)

"Woman Question" Returns to Poland
by Shana Penn
Open Society Institute Fellow and Visiting Scholar, Mills College Women's Leadership Institute

Aldona Kamela-Sowińska, Treasury Minister and her predecessor, Andrzej Chronowski, at the swearing in ceremonies in the Presidential Palace in Warsaw

Public debate and an expanded media presence are a key piece of women's movement-building. In Poland during the summer of 1999, feminists fueled an extraordinary opening up in mainstream society of public debate on gender discrimination, which subsequently generated broader, and, at times, irresponsible reporting on women's issues. The increased coverage began with a lengthy, heated debate in the leading national daily Gazeta Wyborcza on three topics: Were women excluded from Solidarity history? Did a "male revolution" give rise to a "male democracy"? Does Poland need feminism? The discussion ran almost twelve consecutive weekends from mid-June through September 1999. Most of the contributors were feminists, and the sum of their arguments comprised a gender studies mini-course for the newspaper's general readership. Imagine The New York Times "Week in Review" section featuring opinion editorials by U.S. feminists every Sunday over the course of three months.

The provocative discussion and mainstream visibility were unprecedented in Poland, according to several feminists whom I interviewed that summer. The discussion inspired two public forums in Warsaw during the same time period, organized by the Women's Rights Center in July and the Federation of Women and Family Planning in September.

In the twenty months since that pivotal discourse in Gazeta Wyborcza, media coverage of women's issues has diversified: for example, with the autumn 1999 launch of a new feminist quarterly Zadra, by the Krakow women's NGO eFKa; an April 2000 interview with four feminists in Polish Cosmopolitan; a summer 2000 cover story on feminism in the weekly news magazine Polityka; and several new feminist columns in conventional women's magazines.

Observation of the media and feminists' tactics to sustain a public presence is instructive during such a period. What brings the media to women's issues and what will keep them interested? How are feminists using the media to educate the public and inform government policy makers? Are feminists becoming newsworthy actors and respected spokeswomen, and according to whose terms?

It has taken a decade of concerted efforts by women in the academy, the media and the non-profit sector to awaken public interest in a feminism that is not identified with communism. Gender studies programs and feminist press in Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow are the backbone of a multi-generational dialogue, which now penetrates the mainstream press. Professors Maria Janion, Malgorzata Fuszara and Bozena Choluj, who teach at Warsaw University, publish regularly in an array of media, and have set an example for colleagues and students, who are following suit. Feminist journals such as the mid-1990s Pelnym Glosem and the new Zadra, both the brainchilds of eFKa, are primary locations for a deeper exploration of women's issues than the mainstream press will allow.

Other feminist forums include the quarterly OSKA Bulletin, the Bulletin of the Federation of Women and Family Planning, and a new feminist law journal, Prawo I Plec, by the Women's Rights Center, all Warsaw-based. In addition, the NGOs and universities organize seasonal conferences, workshops and informal discussions. Through such ongoing exchanges, both in print and in person, feminists figured out how to challenge the terms of political debate and make themselves heard.

The debates unfold and develop in numerous publications simultaneously, and at times, it seems that the feminist and mainstream press are exchanging ideas, feeding off one another. This sometimes leads to lively, educational discussions on subjects such as International Women's Day and the Beijing +5 Review. And it was a rare coup for both the women's movement and an independent media when millions of Gazeta Wyborcza readers were treated to an exciting exchange between feminist Slawka Walczewska and two SLD ministers, Jolanta Banach and Danuta Winiak on whether the SLD makes false promises to safeguard women's rights in order to secure women's votes.

At other times, the mainstream press picks up on a feminist theme, usually read in Zadra or the OSKA Bulletin (the right-wing newspaper editors also scour their web sites) and uses the material as ammunition for feminist-bashing. For example, Nasz Dziennik reprints excerpts from OSKA's web site and Bulletin as evidence of the NGO's alleged social deviance. In the reputable journal Res Publica Nowa, Bozena Uminska's literary critique of the anti-Semitic and sexist language found in Polish literature provoked a wrathful attack on political correctness in the centrist newspaper Rzeczpospolita, citing gender studies to be the guiltiest offender, and calling for Uminska's dismissal from Warsaw University.

Women writers analyze the mainstream media's "unconscious strategies", in the words of Warsaw lecturer Agnieszka Graff, to control feminist discourse. There may be a marked increase in coverage, however, gender issues are not yet valued for their political content, rarely make the news pages, and instead, are often "ghettoized" in women's magazines, where they share column inches with fashion makeovers and nutritious recipes. True, publishing in Cosmopolitan, Pani and Marie Clarie is one way to reach the ordinary woman, and novelist/playwright Izabela Filipiak, who is openly gay, has received scores of letters from readers of her columns. But feminists also want their interests to be treated as newsworthy. In Gazeta Wyborcza's Wysokie Obcasy ("High Heels"), the wickedly insightful Kinga Dunin publishes a bimonthly column on timely gender issues, comparable to Katha Pollit's writings in The Nation, and ruffles many feathers. Cast as Obcasy's lone, in-house feminist, Dunin's potential for impact is cut short whenever her red-hot subjects are not picked up in the news section. Literary critic Kazimiera Szczuka is skeptical of and sometimes refuses to publish in the mainstream press. She usually prefers Zadra and eFKa's publishing house instead, where she can communicate directly to students, other feminists and sympathizers.

Nonetheless, long-time reproductive rights spokeswoman Wanda Nowicka, who champions the most controversial issue in Poland and is no stranger to the press, maintains that key feminist messages -- such as government policies discriminate against women; and women's rights are human rights -- are gradually influencing public attitudes. This is due, in part, to the expanded media coverage, and also due to the general public's growing dissatisfaction with the parliament's conservative majority. The results of two opinion polls, in July 1999 and April 2000, support Nowicka's assertion. In the latter, 69% polled said that women are discriminated against, their lives more difficult than men's; 78.5% said that women should work and be financially independent; and 64% favor more women in the government and public life.

Between December 2000 and mid-January 2001, feminist issues appeared almost weekly, and in a positive light, in the mainstream media. On the December 10th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a Warsaw demonstration protesting violence against women worldwide was reported in a five-minute broadcast on national television station TV-1. The ultra-conservative newspaper Zycie, during a momentary lapse in its anti-feminist tactics, featured a fairly responsible, in-depth interview with media savvy Beata Kozak, editor of Zadra, which, in its first year of publication, doubled its circulation and extended its reach beyond the "already converted". Polityka, which excerpts the best humor pieces from other publications on its back page, reprinted Agnieszka Graff's analysis of feminist humor, originally published in Zadra. Who at Polityka was reading Zadra, and was Polityka's spotlight on feminist humor a minor public relations victory for Poland's women's movement? Gazeta Wyborcza for the first time invited an NGO organizer, Barbara Limanowska, to analyze a policy issue (in this case, prostitution laws) for its prominent Page Two experts' column. And on a popular Catholic television program, Wanda Nowicka, who directs the Federation of Women and Family Planning, joined a priest, nun and theologian in a panel discussion on gender roles within the Catholic tradition. A few days after the tv show aired, Nasz Dziennik published a protest letter by a Catholic women's organization, which criticized the tv producer's invitation to Nowicka.

So far, women's NGOs and feminist academics have exploited the media as a public education tool. The good news is that some are becoming information sources for the press and are being called upon to comment on draft legislation. However, the bad news, according to Barbara Limanowska, is that their media in-roads have not influenced government policy. New strategies are being planned. In recent months, feminists have been gearing up for the September parliamentary elections with a media and advocacy campaign aimed at getting women to vote, inserting women's issues into party platforms, and including women candidates on party tickets. "Feminism is of common concern among increasing numbers of women and men," wrote Slawka Walczewska in Zadra last year. However, "the women's movement in Poland lacks political representation." She and many others are trying to change all that.

Become an info-poland contributor


Info-Poland a clearinghouse of information about Poland, Polish Universities, Polish Studies, etc.
© 2000 Polish Academic Information Center, University at Buffalo. All rights reserved.
Info-Poland   |    art and culture   |    history   |    universities   |    studies   |    scholars   |    classroom   |    book chapters   |    sitemaps   |    users' comments