The beautiful Polish woman is legendary. Heinrich Heine praised her as an "angel on earth," an "Aphrodite of the Vistula." Yet in 1993, a popular Polish TV presenter, Malorzata Szelewicka, was fired from the Wiadomosci news program because "she is too young and too beautiful," interfering with "concentration." This discrimination reveals Poland's tensions over women's position in society, even as Polish women struggle to redefine their assigned roles at work and at home.
Organising for Rights Since the 19th Century
The first women's organisation in Poland, founded in 1830, aimed to increase women's public activities, economic autonomy and educational opportunities. During that century women's rights were greater in Poland than elsewhere in Europe, with emancipated women intellectuals and artists improving the situation for women. They created women's congresses in 1899, 1900 and 1905. In 1907, they founded the Polish Society for the Equal Rights of Women. Polish women were among the first in Europe to legally vote, in 1918. The claims advanced by women in 19th and 20th centuries remain an undercurrent for Polish women today.
Myth of the "Polish Mother"
After the 19th century's struggle for national independence, the Polish woman became a symbol of patriotic strength and self-sacrifice, with primary obligations towards family, nation and homeland. This "Polish Mother" myth, so important to nation building, has remained central to notions of Polish femininity. According to this commonly held belief, Polish women should defer to their husbands and children, whatever the personal cost. This myth is the foundation for restrictive notions of Polish femininity.
Cult of the Virgin Mary
Poland is largely Roman Catholic, with 94 per cent of the population professing that faith. Since 1656, the Virgin Mary has been considered the "Queen of Poland," even during the independence struggles and the socialist period. The Virgin Mary symbolises what men want a woman to possess --- she is saintly, virginal and eternally devoted. Therefore she represents ideal feminine qualities, obligating Polish women to live up to this model of virtue, whose power is in her sacrifice and commitment.
Traditional Feminine Self-Sacrifice
One-fourth of all Polish women marry while pregnant, and 60 per cent wed between the ages of 20 and 24, after a short courtship, according to a 2001 article in the "International Encyclopedia of Sexuality." Echoing the "Polish Mother" and "Virgin Mary" myths, traditional roles for Polish women are implemented from childhood, through Church teachings and "domestic skills" classes. A woman's focus should supposedly rest on the well-being of her family. In addition to household chores and child-rearing, a Polish woman should subordinate to her husband, according to custom.
Since 70 per cent of Poles believe that women can only achieve fulfilment as mothers, it is no surprise that Polish women encounter huge societal structural obstacles. Academic admissions discriminate against them, refusing to legitimise women professionally. Social reforms accompanying the rise of Roman Catholic fundamentalism have encouraged women to abandon their aspirations, reinforcing women's stereotypical roles as "guardians of the hearth." Domestic violence is estimated as widespread, yet silenced by the common Polish belief in "dulszczyzna," the shame of disclosing private family problems, according to a 2004 article in the "Feminist Review."
Working the "Second Shift"
Despite their educational and structural limitations, many Polish women have become better educated than men, with the majority working outside the home. Their resilience demonstrates strength and pragmatism. However, even after a long day earning wages, women are still expected to perform a "second shift" of housework and other domestic duties, as their customary obligation. Traditionally, Polish husbands are not likely to help clean the house, cook for the family or tend to the children.
Since 1989, women's political participation has decreased in the parliaments of all central European countries. However, Polish women still prefer voting for women candidates. More than half of Polish women want more women in all offices of government, perhaps to counteract the influences of the ultraconservative parliamentary majority and the Catholic Church, according to a Summer 2004 article in "Signs." Polish women still hope to increase women's participation in public life, one of the concerns of the Polish women's organisation in 1830.
Paradoxical Models of Femininity
In Poland today, progressive European ideals of femininity clash with Catholic notions of ideal womanhood. Since the 1990s, religion has had an increasing influence on politics and society, including the banning of abortion in 1993. The resulting prohibitions favour conservative roles for women within the patriarchal family model. After the passing of restrictive legislation denying women contraception, abortions and sex education, more Polish women's organisations have emerged, to counteract the conservatism within institutionalised religion and national identity. These organisations continue the traditions begun by women in early nineteenth-century Poland.