05 Oct Polish women were emancipated before it came into fashion.
The partitions made it difficult for women to get into prominent political roles since the systems present in all three occupying countries did not recognise the rights of the “weaker sex”. On the other hand – the many wars and uprisings meant great losses in men. As a result, many women rose to the occasion and took over the management of estates and farms. It happened on many occasions that Polish women took to tasks typically undertaken by men, such as taking part in armed battles, conspiracy, and intelligence. They played a leading part in societies, organisations, and made their mark in literature and arts.
After 1870 the notion of equality for men and women, present in Western culture, made its way to the lands of the former Republic of Poland. It was a peculiar mark of the times when men assumed the roles of advocates for women’s rights. In 1870 Przeglad Naukowy [Science Digest] published a text by Adam Wislicki entitled “The Independence of a Woman”. The article stipulated equal rights for women and men in education and professional occupations. The same newspaper published a text by Aleksander Swietochowski who presented the literary works of Klementyna Hoffmanowa of the Tanscy family in a very negative light claiming that “her novels were turning women into slaves”.
Another opinion-forming magazine of the time, Niwa, published works by authors demanding equal education for women and the possibility to start professional careers. Edward Pradzynski was amongst those whose voices were heard as the loudest in the ongoing discussion. In his work “O prawach kobiety” [On Women’s Rights] published in 1873 he advocated for full equality between men and women in all aspects of daily life.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century the issue of women rights became visible in the academic circles of the University of Lviv – the most prestigious Polish university at the time. Leon Bilinski, a respected scientist and a scholar, gave a series of lectures entitled “The Economic Stand on the Work of Women”. The Professor argued that women should be economically and intellectually equal to men and that the doors of universities should open to them. His postulates were fulfilled in 1897 when the first women students entered the walls of alma mater. It is worth mentioning that Maria Sklodowska-Curie was the first woman to be allowed to give lectures at the Sorbonne University in Paris. This real breakthrough took place in 1906.
Women’s rights were practically implemented in the underground conspiracy for independence, which was strongly connected to the Polish Socialist Party. Fearless women messengers smuggled underground magazines, weapons, ammunition, and explosives across partitions borders. It frequently happened so that they took an active part in the assassinations of loathed tsar officials and agents. Aleksandra Szczerbinska, who later became Jozef Pilsudski’s wife, was one of such fearless fighters. Pilsudski on many occasions experienced the dedication of “femme fighters” to be no lesser than that of their male companions. It is not surprising, therefore, that Polish women were granted full voting rights as soon as 28th of November 1918 – just after the regaining independence, by the power of a decree of the interim Head of State – Pilsudski himself.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that women took an active part as soldiers equal to men in battles for independence starting from November 1, 1918 (the defence of Lviv). Approximately 400 women fought in the Voluntary Legion of Women in Lviv [Ochotnicza Liga Kobiet, OLK]. Towards the end of 1918 a total of 66 women soldiers laid down their lives defending the city of Lviv. During the Polish and Soviet war, the number of women keen to fight in the formation grew to 2,500 soldiers under the command of Wanda Gertz. OLK was sent to fight in the Vilnius Region. Women of OLK were trained to serve in most divisions with the exclusion of tank and air divisions. It was one of the world’s first fully women army formations with its own non-commissioned officers and regular officers. Women were known for their exceptional efficiency in the Polish Military Organisation intelligence in the Kresy region. Many women volunteers took care of the wounded in sanitary divisions and field hospitals. Many of them stood by their patients until the end and were raped and murdered by Ukrainian and Bolshevik troops who had no respect for the international conventions on protection of the wounded and medical personnel. The Voluntary Legion of Women was dissolved in 1921. Nevertheless, the idea of granting equal rights for women remained present throughout the country.
In 1922 a new association was formed – Women Military Training Association [Komitet Społeczny Przysposobienia Kobiet, KSPK]. During the first summer camp a plan of activities for KSPK was established and training was provided to women who were to become the first instructors within the Association. Within the space of a few years, regional branches of Women Military Training Association were operational across Poland. The instructors were trained during specialist courses organised at military schools, which was a testament to their high level of education.
In the last years of the 1930s, with the shadow of war lurking, compulsory training was given to all pupils of women’s high schools. They were shown how to defend oneself in the face of air and gas attacks, as well as how to provide help to the wounded and work in paramedical and rescue units. In 1938 the Seym passed legislation on the mandatory military service allowing women to join the air-defence divisions, guard squads, and signal corps. By the power of that legislation thousands of Women Military Training Association alumni took part in the Second World War as soldiers of the Polish Army. They actively participated in the September Campaign and in the Resistance during the occupation.
In 1925 the National Police force formed special units for women. The first 30 policewomen went through training and began their service wearing navy-blue uniforms. In order to guarantee the full flexibility of women officers, only unmarried or widowed women were accepted. They were to be between 25 and 45 years of age, at least 164 cm tall, of good health and… with short hair. They were not allowed to marry within 10 years of joining the police force. It soon was visible to all that policewomen were better at building rapport with minor criminals and victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Policewomen supported charities for victims of human trafficking and those forced to work as prostitutes. In 1935 a separate Department for Women Officers and Privates was formed and entrusted to Assistant Police Commissioner – Stanislawa Paleolog. She organised a special training course for women privates. Those who successfully completed the course were posted as constables in preventive or investigation units. A Women’s Police Force was present in Warsaw, Cracow, Lviv, and Lodz. Policewomen were also delegated to Gdynia, Poznan, Kalisz, Lublin, and Stanislawow. Approximately 300 women police officers completed their training at the Police Academy [Szkola Oficerow Policji Panstwowej] until the breakout of war. During occupation, in the National Security Corps [Panstwowy Korpus Bezpieczenstwa] Stanislawa Paleolog devoted herself to preparing future policewomen ready to serve in the future in liberated Poland.
The rise of women sports was also a great manifestation of women’s emancipation in the Second Republic of Poland. Polish champions won international championships and Olympic medals. The most famous sportswomen were:
Halina Konopacka (full name: Leonarda Kazimiera Konopacka-Matuszewska-Szczerbinska) (1900-1989) – an athlete and a discus thrower. She was the first Polish woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Stanislawa Walasiewicz (1911-1980) – an athlete representing Poland in running and distance jumping. Olympic champion. World record setter.
Jadwiga Wajsowna (1912 – 1990) – an athlete, Olympic medallist.
Maria Jadwiga Kwasniewska-Maleszewska (1913 – 2007) – a javelin thrower and basketball player. An Olympic medallist.
Helena Marusarzowna (1918 – 1941) – skier, won seven Polish champion titles. During the war she was a courier in the Tatra region, actively involved in conspiracy. Murdered by the Germans.
Radical, left-winged and anticlerical feminism was also present in the lands of the Second Republic of Poland. It was inspired by the Bolshevik propagandist – Aleksandra Kollataj. Polish representatives of this movement, Irena Krzywicka and Maria Morozowicz-Szczepkowska, demanded “liberation of women from their emotional dependence on men” in which they saw a way to achieve true freedom. Irena Krzywicka and famous translator and literary critic – Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski – with whom she collaborated, were advocating for general sex education, legalisation of divorce, abortion, and absolute equality between the sexes. Krzywicka was an active writer in the opinion-forming magazine “Wiadomosci Literackie [Literary News]”. Boy-Zelenski was the author of many texts (such as Brewerie 1926, Dziewice konsystorskie [Consistorial Virgins] 1929, Pieklo kobiet [Women’s Hell] 1930, Zmysly, zmysly [Senses, senses] 1932, Nasi okupanci [Our Occupiers] 1932) which openly condemned the Roman Catholic Church for interfering in the sexual lives of Poles. Both Krzywicka and Boy-Zelenski lived by what they preached remaining in so-called “open relationships” despite their earlier marriages.
The Second World War caused Poland to fall yet again, however the German and Soviet occupiers satisfied several demands of the radical feminist movement in Poland, such as by allowing for legal abortion and acting to destroy the Catholic Church. They also made men and women totally equal in the face of their extermination practices, which could be seen as a devilish joke on the totalitarian ideology of equality between the sexes.