Emancipation as a Social Barometer

The transformation of society from a centrally steered, communist system to a market economy, which seems to be neither social nor just, has had a particularly profound effect on gender relations. The economic independence of women has worsened, in Germany just as in Poland. Why is this so, and was it inevitable? And how do Poland’s female artists survive under this increasing economic pressure and the political shift to the right? The art historian Dr. Izabela Kowalczyk (35) and Anna Krenz (30), an architect and provocative artist, discussed how the positioning of women in Polish society works as an indicator for the country’s modernity. Anna Krenz moved to Berlin to live with her partner, a Polish man, while Izabel Kowalczyk lives in Poznan with her husband and two children. The discussion was lead by Dr. Claudia Neusüß, a political scientist and expert for Gender Mainstreaming.

The art historian Dr. Izabela Kowalczyk (35) and Anna Krenz (30), an architect and provocative artist, discussed how the positioning of women in Polish society works as an indicator for the country’s modernity. Anna Krenz moved to Berlin to live with er partner, a Polish man, while Izabel Kowalczyk lives in Poznan with her husband and two children. The discussion was lead by Dr. Claudia Neusüß, a political scientist and expert for Gender Mainstreaming. Dr. Neusüß is the author of numerous publications on topics such as EU expansion and gender democracy.

Dr. Claudia Neusüß: Izabela, the website of the Polish Green party, “Zieloni 2004”, presents you as an irrepressible optimist, as a green campaigner and a resolute feminist. How do you find life now, as a woman and as a feminist in Poland?

Izabel Kowalczyk: Poland is a strange country, and this is not just a momentary thing; it is not very friendly to women, and not at all to those who get involved in the promotion of women’s rights. But of course, I am, and will remain a committed feminist! Art, and also art history, need to be seen in a new light - from a feminist perspective.

CN: Anna, as a Polish woman living in Germany, what impressions do you have of your homeland from a distance?

Anna Krenz: I am plagued by a feeling of emptiness and sadness. Most of the people I know have left Poland; all my female friends live in other countries. Apart from my parents, I don’t have many ties to Poland any more. And Polish politics? I am too far away from it to voice an opinion. But with Polish art things are moving forward, and I am very proud of that. But on the other hand, today we have a kind of centralisation through the power of the media, which is even similar to the centralised system under Communism. Whoever wants to make a name for themselves as an artist must build a career in Warsaw.

CN: What freedoms are there in Poland to express yourself artistically and to make yourself heard? What are the limits?

IK: Exhibitions are sometimes closed or items removed. There is a more or less open censorship in place - and also a self-censorship. This applies especially to artists such as Dorota Nieznalska, who address controversial topics: the body and sexuality, issues of social order or criticism of the Church. At least nominally, In Poland 96 percent of the people are Catholic. This faith has a great influence on Polish society; it is very traditional and conservative. In the decisive year of 1989, the Church was a bastion of freedom and a meeting place for the Solidarity movement. In the years which followed, the Catholic Church managed to strengthen its position with the introduction of religious education in schools and, in 1993, with the banning of abortion by parliament. A woman’s image is defined in terms of the housewife, the mother or the virgin. In this social context, feminism is extremely unpopular.

CN: What is the position of female artists in Poland today?

IK: Because of their sex, their work is categorised as banal in a way that never happens to male artists. Since the confrontation over her “Pasja” installation, the artist Dorota Nieznalska has not had another official exhibition in Poland. Her works are now only shown in private. As a woman and as an artist, Dorota Nieznalska broke a sexual taboo: her installation showed a cross which was covered with male genitalia. She is now already into the fifth year of her court case. In the first round, she was sentenced to community service. Nieznalska is now living under great pressure; her whole existence is threatened.

In the 1990s, feminist art moved very close to critical art. Feminist works were also produced by men; Zbigniew Libera, for example, with his "How to train little girls" in 1987 or the "Universal Penis Expander" of 1994. Certain subjects and a certain language were viewed as being feminist. If you compare today’s art with the art of fifteen years ago, that period was a lot more radical. Amongst artists today, an unwritten rule seems to hold sway: “don’t be a feminist, don’t produce art that’s too radical!” Instead, a kind of pop-feminism seems to control the scene. This is a regression for art as a whole. People are turning their backs on feminism, returning to more traditional things. Certainly, the artists themselves are not becoming traditional; they have retained a good deal of irony, otherwise it would be impossible to work these days. Julita Wójcik’s work demonstrates a lot of traditional elements: she plants flowers, peels potatoes...

AK: Dorota Nieznalska’s work has been stagnating since her trial began. Her works before that were grandiose; she was highly thought-provoking. It is a tremendous loss! But he backlash in the art world is not just in the field of gender. For the last five or ten years, Polish art has been dominated by banal pop-art. The artists are adjusting to what they think will assure them success, just like it happens in the West. I would criticise this, despite the current boom in Polish art.

CN: Anna, on your website it’s possible to construct a polish woman from component parts: big breasts or small breasts; in a maid’s uniform or as a nurse. What was the reaction to this project you call “The Polish Wife”?

AK: When I lived in Poland I wasn’t able to view the country with any distance. But when I began to travel, I became aware that men often think of Polish women as attractive objects: as wives, maids or cleaning women. Danes said to me: “It’s great that Poland is now a member of the EU, no I can get a wife without any bureaucratic problems.” Is Poland really just self-service shop? This is why I began this project, to question the belief that Polish women are all beautiful, trusting and industrious. European men take the project seriously; German women are more likely to smile with understanding. On the other hand, some Polish women have complained because they felt as if they’d been personally slighted. The project is provocative, but I don’t want to insult anyone.

CN: In Germany there are varying opinions about emancipation; some say it hasn’t really brought women any benefits. Would such a debate be possible in Poland?

IK: In Poland the current debate accuses the feminists of being responsible for the misfortunes of women. Again and again one sees headlines such as “The Emancipation Trap”, “A Woman - Your Greatest Enemy” or “On the Nonsense of Feminism.” On the one hand, Poland seems to be falling behind in terms of emancipation, but on the other, there are feminist and post-feminist discussions taking place - a real gender debate. Within Polish feminism, there are many arguments about the guiding principles; there’s no single language of feminism.

AK: The return to traditions can be seen across the whole of Europe. This is perhaps understandable, when the efforts to achieve equality have - as in Germany - been going on for decades. In Poland, this movement is only just growing, we’re catching up.

But can the German women say it made sense to fight all those years? Can they say it made sense not to shave their legs and to have been an emancipated woman with a beard? I don’t know. The Polish women will take a different route. They are different. They continue to shave their calves and paint their nails. The German women were always so masculine.

CN: How do you view the difference between East and West in terms of equality of men and women?

IK: The discrepancy between western and the Polish feminism remains huge. After 1945, the Polish government propagated an image of women as part of the dominant communist approach to life; women were a target for the all-enveloping propaganda. The large presence of women in the workplace between 1947 and 1954 was basically because there weren’t enough male workers. Once this deficit disappeared, from 1955 well into the 60s, the government began talking in terms of the so-called biological pre-determination for women. In the 1970s both the sociological and political visions of society proved very defensive against feminism. Feminist art was heavily influenced by western trends; it was very often just a poor copy without any reference to the reality experienced here. Many prominent female artists even denied having any connections with feminist thinking. This position was certainly the result of the lack of opportunities for any kind of critical, public debate. The country only opened up with the collapse of Communism.

AK: Poland needs to do a lot of self-reflection. Violence in families originates mainly from men. But the police haven’t been sensitised to this issue and there are next to no safe houses to protect threatened women. Legal enactments are missing too, such as anti-stalking measures to protect women form unwanted advances. As things stand, we can hardly compare ourselves with the rest of the EU.

CN: What are the strongest stereotypes affecting young women in Poland?

IK: Fortunately, not everyone thinks in terms of stereotypes. Young people in particular have nothing more to do with politics. Even so, they are still flooded with messages - especially from the political right. The manifesto is that women should be mothers and housewives. But nevertheless, I still think that feminism is being put into practice by many young women. There’s no doubt that consumer culture has a stronger pull than tradition; this sees women in the role of sexual objects, and it is easier to be critical of that - especially when money is in short supply.

CN: In 2003, some Dutch feminists formed “Women on Waves”, sailing a medically-equipped ship to the Polish coast which then carried women who wanted to have abortions into international waters. What kind of debate was caused in Poland by this action?

IK: This produced the first large-scale debate there has been about women and abortion in the Polish media. When the hugely aggressive attitude of the anti-abortionists - above all the young men of the “All-Polish Youth” movement - threatened to get out of hand, a considerable swing took place in the media, away from their originally rather negative position. Also, the market for illegal abortions became a matter of public debate. The Dutch action was very important for Poland.

CN: Are there any women who you consider as role models?

AK: Maria Janion, the great forerunner of feminist thinkers, is a good model; I love her books about her Sturm und Drang periods, especially "Patriota – Wampir". This book touched me deeply even as a young teenager. But my greatest role model is my mother; as a woman, as an artist and, of course, as a mother. She is unbelievable! I admire women who manage to combine their careers with having a family.

IK: Anna and I are representatives of a particular feminist milieu, separated from society’s norms. The literary academic, Maria Janion, is one of the undisputed intellectual authorities of this country. She initiated the “Letter from 100 Polish Women”, an act of protest involving 100 women from public life who protested against the pact between the government and the Catholic Church. The church had undertaken to promote EU membership for Poland across the country as long as the government promised not to make any changes to the restrictive abortion law. And the cultural expert, Bożena Chołuj, is also up there amongst my role models, or Małgorzata Fuszara who introduced “Gender Studies” to Warsaw University. In politics, good examples for women to follow are rare.

CN: What, in your opinion, have been the greatest successes of the women’s movement? Where were - or are - the difficulties?

IK: One of the first acts of the newly elected “Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc” (Law and Justice) Party and of Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz the Prime Minister, was to rescind the governmental department of the “Secretary for Gender Equality”, which had only just been established four years earlier. Magdalena Środa had to go. Poland is the only EU member state which does not have an independent office for gender equality issues. This puts the country at odds with the EU anti-discrimination guidelines.

With interventions in the field of civil society, feminists have achieved a great deal. Gender studies have just been introduced to Poland. We need a much stronger commitment from women in the political process. We need a gender index before we can even include women’s issues in the national agenda.

Women still continue to be marginalised. The most painful issue is abortion, which the political right is threatening to restrict still further. To make politics more attractive for women, policies are needed which accommodate gender mainstreaming. But the women too have to change. They have to go out and assume their rights, and they need to want to enter politics. Certainly, there are psychological barriers to overcome. Special training should be available for women so they can take a larger share of political life. And there should also be a quota system for women.

CN: What do you think is the mood in the country now? Government representatives are often talking about Radio Maria. The owner and programme director, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, is known around the country for his anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic attitudes.

IK: It is not just the homophobic rhetoric of many of the Law and Justice members which gives cause for thought; it is also their choice of coalition partners. The governing party formed a “stability pact” with the populist, right-wing movement known as “Self-defence” and the radical Catholic “Polish Families League”. Amongst those belonging to the Families League are also some who used to be members of the “All-Polish Youth”, a group from the extreme right wing.

CN: What are your experiences of the stigmatisation of Poland’s gay community?

IK: It’s good that Poland is a member of the EU. I felt that most strongly when I was organising the “Parada Równości” - the Equality Parade - in Poznan. On 15 November, 2005, the independent Mayor, Ryszard Grobelny, banned the demonstration, which had been planned by several feminist and gay organisations as a march through the city centre. A year before, the march had been broken off because of attacks on it from counter-demonstrators.

This time it was intended as a part of a festival for the UNESCO International Tolerance Day. The reason the Mayor gave for stopping the march was that it “represented a considerable threat to public order, life, health and property”. Despite the ban, several hundred demonstrators still gathered; they were attacked by members of the All-Polish Youth. The latter threw eggs and bottles at the demonstrators, and shouted things like “Gays to the gas chambers!” and “We’ll do to you what Hitler did to the Jews!”

The police were brutal - to the participants of the demonstration. They cordoned off streets and arrested sixty-five demonstrators. Just a few weeks later, the Poznan administrative tribunal declared the ban to be unconstitutional. It contravened both Polish law and European law. The Mayor’s decision shows that democratic rights can not be taken for granted in Poland. This event was discussed at length at a national level. We were thankful for the support and the attention it brought us.

CN: How have you experienced the process of integration into the European Union? Have there been any changes?

AK: As a woman, I might like to say: “I want to find a man in the West,” but I don’t expect anything from life because I am not in a position to have any influence on it. I was brought up in such a way that I can feel happy everywhere. If I’m sleeping on a field in Denmark I feel just the same as when I’m living in a flat in London or Poznan. It all depends on one’s state of mind.

CN: What do you think has been the greatest success for emancipation in Poland?

AK: I studied architecture, a very male-dominated subject. In the first year of my studies, one of the professors said: “You, a girl at the polytechnic? You’re only going to make the coffee later!” Five years later, he called me up with some interview questions because he was writing a magazine article about young, successful architects from Poznan - and because I’m one of the few active women. That is my very personal emancipation success!

IK: On a personal level, for me, bringing up my children with the values of emancipation, and sensitising them for gender issues is an important contribution to the daily enactment of emancipation. All my professional success is bound up with the incorporation of feminism into art.

CN: If you should become the Polish premier tomorrow, what would be your first three most important acts of government?

AK: First of all I would sack all these ignorant and stupid politicians. Secondly, I would introduce a monarchy, with myself in the leading role. It doesn’t need to be queen, but a princess. In a monarchy there is order; it isn’t possible for any idiot to rise up and become president. I’d bring in green policies, not just feminism; energy is also an important issue. I’d lower taxes and raise incomes.

IK: above all I’d liberalise the anti-abortion law, which in its current form is a blow against human rights. Secondly I’d start moves to effect the separation of Church and state. And thirdly, I’d introduce a quota system for women.

CN: Thank you very much for this conversation.

articles on the topic:
The Polish Political Reality Show
The theatre academic Paweł Goźliński takes arms against the hogwash in the media, against the talk-show mania and the politicians who would have done better becoming second-rate actors.
projects on the topic:
Ambassadors – Research Programme
[ Work exchange for artists and curators ]
[ German-Polish artists' radio ]
Jagniątków. Move the Mount
[ Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Choreographers ]
SFX: Publiczność - Spontaneous Publics
[ Exhibition project ]
baz@rt / Europe Learning - Frankfurt meets Krakow
[ Theatre festivals in Krakow and Frankfurt on the Main ]
The Mechanics of Oblivion. A German-Polish Conference
[ Phenomena of oblivion and marginalisation in visual art of the last two decades ]
Germany against Poland
[ The Football Talk Show ]
Veronika Blumstein - Moving Exiles
[ Festival for invention and choreography ]
PDF / RadioSimulator
[ Polnisch-Deutsche Freundschaft ]