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Paulina Milewska: What will be feminism now?

Shana Penn: In the era of coronavirus? It is more important than ever because feminism seeks to safeguard the rights of all citizens, respecting their gender, race, ethnicity, economic class. During a pandemic, the most vulnerable, the invisible must receive medical care and financial assistance.

As a feminist, I study the disparities and inequalities caused by the pandemic. Which groups are most vulnerable? The elderly, especially in nursing homes; their caregivers; people with disabilities. Those living below the poverty line, such as the homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. African Americans in the US. Throughout the world, men have comprised 60% of all coronavirus deaths thus far, and the experts do not yet know why this is the case.

During the pandemic, women are particularly affected. Even when both partners work, if they also have families, children are mainly taken care of by mothers during the lockdown.

We are observing the various ways in which governments are politicizing the pandemic for political gain. For example, why didn’t Poland immediately postpone the presidential election? It is not possible for all citizens to vote when in lockdown, nor is it possible to conduct a nationwide vote by mail. The postal service workers were rightfully incensed. If every other facet of life has been put on hold, so, too, the election. The most recent incident that sounded a feminist call to action was the legislative push to criminalize abortion. That failed a few years ago when hundreds of thousands of citizens protested in public in the nationwide Czarny Protest, a feminist-led demonstration. People protested again in March although they couldn’t gather en masse. The EU also protested, and the legislation was back-burnered.

In your book "Secret of Solidarity" you wrote that it was women who commanded the Polish underground between 1981 and 1989. In 1990 you co-founded and became the first director of an international organization supporting women in our region - Network of East-West Women (NEWW). What sparked your interest in Central and Eastern Europe?

I am a child of the Cold War, I was born in 1955. My grandparents immigrated to the USA from Kaunas in 1912. As a child, I remember that they and their friends closed windows in the kitchen every time they talked about politics. Those were the days of McCarthyism, when East European immigrants were especially cautious, so as not to be accused of being communists.

At the university I took courses on Eastern Europe and women's history. Then I worked in the human rights sector, so I started thinking about this part of the world again.

In 1991, the Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic, Gloria Steinem of Ms. Magazine, recently deceased New School Professor Ann Snitow, Joanna Regulska from Rutgers University and others, established the Network of East-West Women. I was invited to the founding conference in Dubrovnik in the summer 1991. We asked ourselves then: how can we use the international network to support women's rights?

A few months later I showed Ann Snitow excerpts from my interview with Barbara Labuda, the first person to say openly: "You're asking about women's activism in Solidarity, so I'll tell you the truth, but who will let it be published? It was women who organized the underground. Everybody knows that, but nobody talks about it. It's our secret."

I became the head of NEWW without realizing how complicated it would be to set up a start-up non-profit organization, organize its international structures, raise funds, which I had never done before, and work with the inequalities between East and West.

In your book you write a lot about the feminist awakening of women. And what is your story?

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I have Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian Jewish roots. My parents believed in the American dream. I have two older brothers and, as I grew up, I realized the difference in treatment between the two genders. I had to make my brothers' beds and help in the kitchen. Only then could I go out into the yard and play.

Shana PennShana Penn Fot. Archiwum rodzinne

In the late 1960s, when I became an adult, the second wave of the feminist movement began. It was exciting to see thousands of women marching for equality. At the age of 12, my friends and I realized that we have to face the world. That feeling gave us sisterhood.

In high school, the awareness of the difference in treatment between men and women became even clearer. I was angry that it was the boys who were privileged in the school system, they were the able and clever ones. It was 1968.

And they were the ones who could speak in class.

Yes, and I was already talkative then. (Laughs) I was also an ambitious student.

My school was liberal. They taught sex education. We had classes on environmental protection, team sports, mathematics and physics were emphasized.

We were taught how to be proud of being a woman and that we deserve a good education and a bright future. Interestingly, pregnant girls attended our school. Lesbians were treated with respect. When I organized an environmental festival to which I invited, among others, organizations supporting zero population growth, legal abortion, and the availability of contraception, the school supported my initiative.

My application to college included an essay entitled "Why I am a feminist". On campus I found other feminists and people from other minorities, such as Afro-Americans, Hispanics and Jews. I read a lot and lived in a feminist collective. We called ourselves the Lavender Panthers.

Great name.

Yes! I wrote my thesis about Emma Goldman, a feminist, a Jew, and an anarchist. I won an award for it. It was an incredibly edifying experience. I wanted to become a writer and write about women's rights.

Shana Penn, druga od lewej, podczas wizyty u działaczek NEWW, Bratysława, 1992 r.Shana Penn, druga od lewej, podczas wizyty u działaczek NEWW, Bratysława, 1992 r. Fot. Archiwum rodzinne

So you were looking for topics such as the involvement of women in the underground in Poland. What was the first step towards feminist awakening in our country?

I suppose the first step at that time, from the late 1970s to the 1980s, was the awareness that both the communist system and Solidarity were patriarchal. Feminism began to gain in popularity, partly through contact with Western feminists who visited Poland and partly by Polish women from academic circles, such as Renata Siemieńska and Anna Titkow, who conducted research, ran workshops, reading groups or film screenings. The Polish Feminist Association, established in 1988, was one of the first registered non-profit organizations after communism.

Immediately after the victory in 1989, feminists faced an unanticipated affront – legislation was introduced to prohibit abortion. Although a million signatures of male and female citizens were collected on the 1993 referendum on reproductive rights, the Sejm passed an extremely restrictive abortion law, which was shocking for many citizens, not just feminists. Feminists continued to mobilise in the 1990s, organising advocacy campaigns for women's rights, teaching gender courses, publishing, and making use of international instruments at the UN and the EU. They continue to protest against the discrimination of women and to educate the public about gender equality.

Maybe there was just no time to think about women's rights in the 1980s. After all, we still had to fight for democracy.

Solidarity aspired to bring democracy to Poland, but it was not democratic in itself. Half of its 10 million members were women; this was proportional to their share of the workforce, but only 9% were represented in the leadership structures.

Solidarity was rooted in traditional views such as public life is male dominated, and private life is women’s domain. Gender issues were not considered, and even ridiculed and silenced by the Solidarity activists themselves.

In the early 1990s, some of my Polish interpreters told me directly that they were not feminists and did not believe in my project. Despite this, they still worked with me.

Anka Grupińska, one of my book’s interviewees who also helped me as an interpreter when I began my research, teased me about feminism. Despite this, she was extremely interested in the stories I recorded with her assistance. We interviewed Krystyna Janda and Krystyna Zachwatowicz-Wajda, among others. After one of the meetings Anka said: "You see, Shana, you don't have to be a feminist to be an interesting woman." I told her I agreed, but it takes feminist sensitivity to see that women are interesting.

Shana Penn z Anką GrupińskąShana Penn z Anką Grupińską Fot. Archiwum rodzinne

And what did she say to that? 

"I suppose I'm a feminist."

You managed to convince her. You said many times that women organized the underground. Who were they and what exactly did they do?

I didn’t try to convince her. I tried to understand the motivations for women’s activism in Polish and women's history. For example: which cultural and religious norms allowed Polish women to take on an important role without threatening the power of men? How did the communist gender norms influence the activities of women in Solidarity? Which women considered themselves leaders, which did not, and what did leadership mean?

I am proud that first the 1995 article in “Pełnym Glosem” and then my book, published in 2003 and later updated and reprinted in 2014, helped to influence how women and men in Poland think about the dynamics of gender relations and about women as important leaders.

In 1981 Solidarity was a young and vibrant movement. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of Poland decided to stifle it. Martial law was imposed on 13 December 1981, and in the first week ten thousand activists were arrested - nine thousand men and one thousand women. A leadership void was effected, which was filled by women. "It was simple," Zofia Bydlińska told me, "the movement had to be rescued. We knew what to do, so we did it."

Simple, but not necessarily easy?

It was neither simple nor easy to meet in hiding during curfew, during communication and transportation shutdowns, and under constant threat of being infiltrated, arrested and imprisoned. However, a group of seven women in Warsaw immediately gathered in secret and planned how to save the crippled movement. Their aim was to spread reliable information among the population, to hide leaders who had not been arrested, to show that not everything was lost, and that Solidarity could not be defeated. By January 1982, they managed to organize a secret network, bringing together trade unionists and volunteers, moving typewriters and printing presses to attics, and in effect producing an illegal newspaper. For 7.5 years, this group published what became the most important underground newspaper, the voice of Solidarity, called "Tygodnik Mazowsze".

All this was organized by Helena Łuczywo, Joanna Szczęsna, Ewa Kulik, Anna Dodziuk, Anna Bikont, Małgorzata Pawlicka and Zofia Bydlińska. They considered themselves professional oppositionists. Families and friends helped care for their children when the women went underground. They were determined, fearless, tireless. "When women get angry, they get things done!" as Ewa Kulik used to say.

Then martial law was a key moment for women.

Women can take charge when men are absent, when they go to war, are banished to Siberia or imprisoned. This is socially acceptable as long as a leadership role of women responds to unusual circumstances, to crises. It is only to be incidental; once the situation calms down, men resume power. Nevertheless, the strong position of women in the underground remains an important phenomenon.

These women became de facto leaders. Sometimes unusual events enable women and men to push the boundaries of acceptable gender behaviour. Martial law was such a moment. Due to a complete disruption of social norms, women and men seemed to change roles. The male activists had to stay in their hiding places, while the women could move freely in public and command the underground. Interdependencies were stronger than ever before in the history of the opposition. Both women and men discussed the special circumstances and the loyal bonds they developed. Gradually women’s political importance has been recognized by some Solidarity men and women, but it is not widely recognized in the population.

So Solidarity should be an important point for Polish feminists?

Turning around the question that Anka Grupińska asked me years ago: "Does a woman who has political power need to be a feminist in order to interest feminists or be recorded in feminist history?" Not at all. But it is important to understand the actors and the context in which they lived . Today feminists do not need heroes or role models as some had needed in 1999. Today they are strong in mind and heart, they focus on effective strategies, coalitions, and winning.

Deeper examinations of Solidarity’s strategies and coalitions, of what it won and where it fell short, will be studied long after its participants have died.  Solidarity is an unprecedented achievement. It was born out of the greatest strike in world history. It established the only mass-based independent trade union and the most effective independent media in the entire Soviet bloc.

In no other anti-communist opposition movement did women play such an important role. They built and kept alive the underground throughout the 1980s, i.e. most of the time of the Solidarity movement’s existence.  If we reject the importance of the role of women, our understanding of Solidarity will be incomplete. The standard narrative focuses on the 1980 strikes, the declaration of martial law, and the victory in 1989. However, the most critical years for the movement were the years between 1982 and 1989. These were not heroic years. "It was rather a boring time," as Helena Łuczywo once said. Activities were the same every day. The preparation of the newspaper mainly required routine tasks. No one knew if communism would collapse. "It looked as if it would last forever, though maybe with some small compromises," said Joanna Szczęsna.

Between 1982 and 1989, women managed to mobilize thousands of male activists and female activists, led by a moral commitment to a vision of a non-violent, self-limiting revolution as proposed by Solidarity. Their persistent involvement in this evolutionary social change ensured that Solidarity existed throughout the 1980s.

Without these women there would have been no 1989.

Although much has changed since 1989, our current government is fighting feminists and trying to deny women's rights. A similar trend can be seen in the USA or other countries in our part of Europe. Why is this narrative so attractive?

A decade ago, anti-gender campaigns spread across Europe and the United States. As the extreme, populist right-wing has grown in strength around the world, the anti-gender trend is also strong, oftentimes a catalyst. Autocrats have gained power in different parts of the world. In Poland and the USA, right-wing mobilisation was partly a response to the liberal changes that had taken place in both countries. After 8 years of a black president in the White House, many conservatives did not want a woman to be president. The repercussions are still being felt in various ways, for example during the current nomination of a presidential candidate by Democrats. The Democratic party is afraid that a woman cannot beat the GOP. On the other hand, women have never been more powerful in all spheres of life. As concerns gender rights, we are traveling on a bumpy road -- sociologist Ewa Korolczuk says we are facing either the swan song of the patriarchy or the beginning of a new ice age. My pragmatic optimism makes me believe that we’ve turned the corner toward the swan song … as long as we keep mobilizing and voting.

Shana Penn lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, a human rights and environmental advocate, nearby to their two daughters, their spouses, and three grandchildren. A director of Taube Philanthropies and a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union, in 2013 she was awarded the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit. Currently, she also is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Sociology/Gender Studies at Jagiellonian University and is exploring a film adaptation concept of her book, Sekret Solidarnosci, with the esteemed filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. 

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