Invisible labour and political participation: Women in the Solidarność movement and in today's politics in Poland

Triumphant leaders of Solidarity at Nowy Targ, October 19, 1981. Anna Walentynow
Triumphant leaders of Solidarity at Nowy Targ, October 19, 1981. Anna Walentynowicz standing up.

A feminist critique by Ewa Majewska of the old Solidarność and today's Polish politics. Originally published by and gratefully reproduced from the Baltic Worlds journal.

Submitted by wojtek on July 10, 2015

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. (…) These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.

- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

The concept of invisibility always strikes me as deeply paradoxical, since most invisible things we know of have deep, materialized and often painful effects on the lives of humans. Their materialized, embodied consequences lead far beyond the basic issue of their existence. In her Invisible Heart, Nancy Folbre puts it as follows:

The invisible hand represents the forces of supply and demand in competitive markets. The invisible heart represents family values of love, obligation and reciprocity. (…) The only way to balance them successfully is to find fair ways of rewarding those who care for other people.

In this short text I would like to discuss the (in)visibility of women in 1980 and in Polish politics today, suggesting a feminist perspective which will not focus solely on exclusions, but also recognize participation. The context of invisible labor allows us to see the duality, or even perhaps the dialectics, of the participation and exclusion of women in the political field.

The situation of women who joined the Solidarność Independent Workers’ Unions in 1980 was in many ways similar to that of women in Poland today. One could even argue that it was better in many respects, since abortion was legal, jobs were stable and daycare was free of charge. Women were engaged in the movement; some of them actually started the strike in the Gdańsk Shipyard, like the crane operator Anna Walentynowicz, whose dismissal was the direct trigger of the strike on August 14th 1980, or the tram driver Henryka Krzywonos, whose famous action in stopping the tram in the center of Gdańsk paralyzed communications in the city center and led to the spread of information about the strike and subsequently to supporting protests in other workplaces. The nurse and political activist Alina Pieńkowska was the third of the women from the Gdańsk Shipyard, who helped force the continuation of the strike on August 16th 1980 when Lech Wałęsa and other men had their moment of doubt. These women became famous in the whole country, and rightly so. Subsequently they became the object of several feminist studies trying to understand the later exclusion of women in Solidarność. In Solidarity’s Secret, Shana Penn focused on the women who published Tygodnik Mazowsze, the key periodical of the Solidarność underground after the introduction of martial law by General Jaruzelski on December 13th, 1981, and Ewa Kondratowicz published a series of interviews with women of the opposition in a study titled “Lipstick on the Banner”.

It might be worth recalling that in 1980 women constituted some 30% of the manual workers at the Gdańsk Shipyard. They usually operated the gantry cranes, mainly inside the shipyard buildings. Most of them led a traditional family life, doing the majority of the housework. Although most of them subscribed to the newly created Solidarność union, they did not usually have time to engage in it as much as men did, since they “had children” (apparently men do not have children, women do — at least in Poland) and housework to do. During an artistic project at the Gdansk Shipyard in 2004, I conducted interviews with ten female shipyard workers, some of whom had been working there in 1980. Their memories were bitter, as their hopes for better conditions for workers and women had clearly been betrayed in the economic transformation of 1989. The main thesis of David Ost’s book The Defeat of Solidarity, published in 2005, seems fully legitimate in the context of these interviews; his thesis is that the Solidarność movement actually abandoned the workers and turned against them in the building of the new capitalist society after 1989. In 2004, facing their precarization on the labor market, these women were sometimes working three shifts in rough conditions and risking accidents. They were not active in labor unions, because apart from the burden of excessive paid work at the shipyard they also had unpaid housework to do. In most cases, their families were financially dependent on them, yet the traditional gender work division applied to them as much as it had to their mothers. While men working in the shipyard always had time to sit down and talk with me after their work, the situation was different with the women. I could only talk to them during their short lunch break, in the morning when they were changing clothes for work, or in the evenings when they got ready to leave the shipyard. For that reason, the process of conducting the interviews took some three weeks altogether, and I believe that no journalist interviewed women in the shipyard either before or after that, since it was so much easier to make an appointment for a long conversation with the majority of men working there.

The striking inequality in the division of labor between women and men persists not just in the working class families, but in households in Poland regardless of their class. It results from traditional values strengthened by the Catholic Church and by school education. It is also a typical effect of the precarization of patriarchal societies: When state institutions and employers cease to provide care structures and facilities, it becomes the task of women to take over these duties. These specifically gender-related aspects of precarity often escape the attention of theorists of precarity, such as Guy Standing or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, yet they constitute a substantial part of feminist research in this field, particularly in the work of Silvia Federici.

Gender inequality in Poland is also an unfortunate result of a feminism which did not criticize the neoliberal transformations of the first twenty years after 1989, producing a narrative on gender equality which reduced women’s participation in politics to the installation of the quota system and inviting more women to join political parties. Ironically, the political party which actually had the highest percentage of female delegates in the Parliament after 1989 was the ultra-conservative League of Polish Families (LPR).

The harsh critique of feminism’s involvement in the implementation of neoliberal politics offered by Nancy Fraser in her article published in the Guardian in 2013 most appropriately summarizes the complicity of the vast majority of the Polish feminist movement in the perpetuation of social and economic inequalities, both in Poland and globally. Her emphasis on the rejection of egalitarian feminism in favor of an individualistic entrepreneurial version also sounds very convincing in the Polish context: “Where feminists once criticized a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to ‘lean in’. A movement that once prioritized social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorized ‘care’ and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy.” Interestingly, some feminists in Poland and other countries of the former Eastern Bloc reacted to this article in a very critical way, pointing to the supposed “western-centrism” of Fraser and her possibly uncritical praise of care labor. I believe that this shameless attempt to hide behind the veil of the supposedly colonial aspects of Fraser’s article only proves the inability to take responsibility for the human costs of the neoliberal transformation. As much as I agree with some feminists of color who rightly challenge Fraser’s use of the “feminist we”, in the case of Polish liberal feminism a more appropriate reaction to the article should consist in a sincere reflection on feminism’s complicity.

In 1980, women’s participation in the Solidarność movement was far from invisible. Women were present from the start of the strikes in the shipyard in Gdańsk, they were on strike in Szczecin and Łódź, they “took over” several highly important activities in Solidarność after its de-legalization in December 1981, mainly printing and distributing the underground press, organizing meetings and education, supporting the thousands of imprisoned activists, documenting the abuses of the “bezpieka” (secret police), and arranging and redistributing material help from abroad. The invisibility of these tasks was compounded by the fact that all of this work was illegal. It was a form of housework, but directed at the common good; a personal involvement, but in public matters — a form of public involvement, which clearly escapes the classical notions of public sphere, such as the one proposed by Habermas. It might be seen as a form of counterpublic as defined by Nancy Fraser or Alexander Kluge, but a hybrid form, not a monolithic entity.

Carole Pateman suggests that the interconnections between what has been called the “public sphere” and the “private” are stronger than most liberal theorists suggest. Thus she not only accepts the feminist slogan “the personal is political”, but also provides philosophical legitimation for it. When analyzing the “republic of the brothers” and the “fraternal social contract” in liberal democracies, Pateman not only recapitulates the Freudian/Lockean visions of the contemporary republic, but also joins forces with the feminist psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray in suggesting that this triumphant institutionalization of organized boyhood usually takes place on the women’s (sometimes dead) bodies. While Irigaray shows how the exclusion of women is grounded in the symbolic erasure of the mother from the origins of state and society, Pateman concentrates on domestic violence and career restrictions to explain women’s de facto absence in politics.

Other feminist authors point out that even today, the fact that affective and care labor occupies women’s time and energy, forcing the alienation and exploitation of women, constitutes a necessary element of the system of capitalist production. Domestic labor is not only exploitative, as Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici and other feminists have argued. It is also a way of sharing a life with others as depicted in the work of bell hooks, or even an element of “love power”, as Anna Jonasdottir has argued in the last 30 years. The Solidarność movement made at least three explicit claims to embrace these efforts of women, in the “21 postulates” of the workers unions in 1980: the demands for women’s retirement at the age of 50, for three years’ paid maternity leave, and enough daycare centers for all children. However, the Solidarność movement lacked any comprehension of the structures of gender inequalities, and I believe this is the reason for the later exclusion of women from its structures, as well as for the conservative turn of the movement and the political parties which originated in it. This all led to the neglect of women’s issues in Polish politics after 1989.

We can reduce Solidarność to a sexist, misogynist entity altogether, as has often been done, but before doing so we might also want to examine how the gender difference actually worked there. We might also want to compare this particular movement with other social movements of the time in order to understand whether and how it differed from them in its gender bias. Interestingly, the outcome of this comparison is surprisingly positive for Solidarność which had its known female leaders in the working class — the legendary trio of crane operator Anna Walentynowicz, nurse Alina Pieńkowska and tram driver Henryka Krzywonos   — as well as in the intelligentsia, including counselors such as Jadwiga Staniszkis, journalists and authors such as Helena Łuczywo and Joanna Szczęsna, activists such as Barbara Labuda, probably the only declared feminist in the movement in 1980, and lawyers such as Zofia Wasil-kowska and Janina Zakrzewska. How many women do we know of in the working class resistance at the time of Thatcher’s neoliberal takeovers in the early 1980s in England? How many women were there in the Free Speech Movement in the USA? In the Anti-Apartheid mobilizations in South Africa? Or in the French students mobilizations of the 1960s? Probably not more than in Solidarność — and I emphasize that not because I would like to idealize this particular social movement, but because I think that social and academic perceptions of it should be corrected.

In the first days of Solidarność, most of the international legal guarantees of gender equality had not even been prepared. The UN Beijing Declaration, probably the most famous and all-encompassing document concerning rights of women and girls, was not even written in 1980; it was only signed in 1995. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), had just been adopted in 1979, and the EU Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence would only be signed in 2011, not by all the EU members, not even by Poland (!). Feminist theory in 1980 already recognized the influence of domestic labor on the lives of women, as in the 1976 sociological study of Ann Oakley or in the short texts of the Italian Marxist feminists Federici and Dalla Costa; the late 1970s also saw the critical analysis of the appropriation of affective labor by corporate marketing and sales in Arlie Hochschild’s study from 1979. The tendency of the time, however, was for women to withdraw from male-dominated social movements and to form their own.

If Solidarność is to be judged correctly, another comparison should also be drawn concerning the state apparatus in Poland. Women did not occupy important positions in the state institutions in 1980. They were decorative elements of ministerial salons. Female participation in the Parliament of the “2nd Republic”, the communist state, varied from 4,14 % in the late 1950s (!) to 25% after the elections in 1980, which could also be seen as inspired by the political mobilization of women in the opposition.

The fact that we still know and remember the names of the key women in the Solidarność movement is, in my opinion, due to the radical democratization of the public sphere in 1980. This is a moment which would serve as a great example of the “mésentente” (disagreement) described by Jacques Rancière. The appearance of the nurse, the female crane operator and the female tram driver was, as we might say according to Rancière, a “new division of the sensible”. It was a sign and a declaration to the entire society that women do engage politically, and rightly so. The fact that more feminist writing has been devoted to the (in-)famous slogan on the wall of the Gdańsk Shipyard Kobiety, nie przeszkadzajcie nam walczyć o Polskę (“Women, do not disturb our fight for Poland”) than to the women actually involved in Solidarność is a shameful proof of the lack of recognition for these women rather than an indication of scientific and historical accuracy in Polish feminist studies of that period. The performative dimension of this sudden presence of women cannot be reduced to an “exception” and explained away as “accidental”. It was a genuine element of the early days of Solidarność and should be analyzed as an example of the unprecedented political mobilization of working class women. Soon more women joined the unions, and — as Małgorzata Tarasiewicz estimates in an interview concerning the “Women’s Section” of Solidarność — they constituted some 50% of the movement. Tarasiewicz and other feminist writers and activists seem to see Solidarność only through the lens of the activities of the leaders of the movement in the 1990s, when abortion was made illegal and the traditional role of women in society and gender inequality were strengthened. It could actually be true that the unwillingness to grasp the performative political importance of female leaders in the movement of 1980 derives from a more general reservation against the working class — a very unpopular topic in the 1990s in Poland. The female Solidarność leaders might still be waiting for their theorists.

The “Women’s Section” of Solidarność was only set up in 1990 and closed in 1991 by Marian Krzaklewski, Wałęsa’s successor. It was undoubtedly an expression of the deeply conservative approach that he and other male members of Solidarność showed in regard to women and their issues. However, we should perhaps take into account how women function in contemporary social movements, including worker’s unions, how their role has changed since 1980 and 1991, and also how the actual activity of actual women in actual labor unions has contributed to these changes. Otherwise we risk projecting contemporary norms and practices back onto movements that are already historic. We might also want to rethink new forms of invisibility of women in politics and social agency, far more influenced by economic inequalities and poverty than in the heyday of Solidarność. Today some women obtain important political positions. Does this mean that housework is more appreciated, that gender roles have changed or that we live in a more egalitarian society? I would not say so.

It seems ironic that the 2014 annual women’s demonstration in Warsaw, the “Manifa”, was held under the slogan “Equality at home, equality at work, equality in schools”. Although the repetition in the slogan has often been criticized, one has to insist on the fact that equality still has not been attained. Since women in Poland today make up 96% of the victims of domestic violence and rape, as well as the majority of the 14% of the labor force who are unemployed, while their salaries are usually 20% lower than those of their masculine co-workers, the demand for equality seems justified. Women are denied access to abortion and to contraceptives; sexual education is fully dependent on cultural and economic capital and is fully privatized. Women’s “invisible” labor (housework) earns the equivalent of 40% of the gross domestic product (GDP) according to the Polish Central Statistics Office (GUS); however women are neither rewarded nor respected for it. The “glass ceiling”, “sticky floor”, and “moving stairs” phenomena, reducing women’s career opportunities, are especially widespread in business, academia, and medicine. The traditional cultural stereotype of “Matka Polka” (the Polish Mother) also forces the majority of women to comply with a heteronormative, strongly paternalistic and simply sexist conformity to the traditional roles of mother, care giver, and sex worker which, combined with the general precarity in the labor market, makes women particularly dependent on partners and friends and reduces the urge of most women to engage politically.

Women’s invisible labor has been the major obstacle to their political participation and involvement, both now and in the past. Reducing this labor to a colonized zone where women are deprived of the value of their work dismisses an important part of the actual value of this work, which resides precisely in its affective character. It should neither be reduced to its material results, nor to the supposed “immateriality” of its affective practice, since affection, as contemporary studies rightly show, is neither immaterial nor independent of the social. This labor can, however, contain a strong emancipatory potential for those who decide to unlearn privilege, who not only claim but also practice equality. For these, the “love power” of the women of Solidarność and other female political activists will not just be the essential symbol of a monumentalized past, but above all a living example of political agency, strength and solidarity. From the perspective of the reduction of women’s rights in the neoliberal transformation and its cutting of social services and support, the engagement of women in Solidarność might be seen as a version of cruel optimism, which — as Lauren Berlant explains in her recent book — consists in an attachment to the object that was supposed to lead to happiness, yet has become an obstacle to pursuing it. But on the other hand we might also claim that this involvement is a lesson we can learn from — a lesson about the necessity of establishing egalitarian, feminist theory and practice in every social movement aiming at political change.