A women’s place is in the revolution

Challenges and opportunities for women leadership in Central Europe

Anna Wójcik
25 June 2014

Anna Wójcik talks to Shana Penn, an American author, lecturer, columnist, and Executive Director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture.


Anna Wójcik: Your book Solidarity’s Secret: The Women who Defeated Communist in Poland, has helped to make a breakthrough in the perception of women’s role in the pre- and post-1989 changes in Poland. What first interested you in this topic?

Shana Penn: During the 1980s I worked for a human rights think tank in Berkeley, where we fervently discussed human rights, nuclear disarmament, environmental issues, and feminism. The organization was comprised of American intellectuals and activists who were keeping track of the events in Central and Eastern Europe and who were rooting for the opposition in Poland and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Then in 1989 the revolutions happened and I noticed that all the people who were being interviewed by the foreign press or who were reporting from these countries were men. Only one woman was interviewed by The New York Times: Rita Klímová from Prague, who later became the Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States.

I started to interview different women from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to do some comparative research. I talked with people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds, who were moving into government, media, academia, and those creating the nascent nonprofit sector. And I met people who considered their Jewish identity to be important. All these people were looking to start new lives in a free country and rebuild their societies. Everyone was open to and excited about what was happening. Yet, when I began to narrow my research to women’s experiences in the opposition in each country, the topic was ridiculed and dismissed by both men and women.




What was their typical reaction?

I remember a party hosted in Prague by Vaclav Havel’s sister-in-law and brother, Dagmar Havlová and Ivan Havel, where former dissidents, all involved in public life, came to relax for the evening. At the table I explained the topic of my research and Ivan said: “There were no women in the revolution.” Another man followed: “There is only one thing you need to know about women’s experience in the Czech opposition. It was their shopping bags. Women had to stand in queues and the shopping bag is a symbol of their oppression.” Not one woman at the table commented on this.

All across Central Europe people asked me: “Why are you studying women’s experiences apart from men’s experiences? We were all oppressed; we were all in this together. This difference doesn’t make sense to us.” The dissidents were focused on fighting for freedom, not for equality. That was the major weakness of each of the major opposition movements. Back then no one differentiated human rights according to class, ethnicity, or gender. That could have been seen as divisive, while in every country the political scene was already fractured and coalitions were fragile. It was crucial to somehow hold a lot of people together, but the costs turned out to be high.


What was particular about the situation of women in Poland?

Women’s contributions in every country reflect the character of the opposition. In Poland, there were certain places where the opposition met: factories, shipyards, media, and the church. Women did charitable work in the churches, collecting clothing and equipment. They protested on Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, setting up flowers in the shape of a cross against the police. They also helped to shelter dissidents in the parishes. It was a pacifist protest system. However, they were having more assertive roles in the factories and in the media, something I learnt during my stay in Warsaw. In my interviews I always asked “Where were you when Martial Law was introduced?” And many women in Warsaw answered: “I went into hiding,” or: “The underground resistance was managed by women and I received instructions from them.” This is how I learnt about Tygodnik Mazowsze, the independent media and network created by women. Ewa Kulik, today the director of Stefan Batory Foundation, answered my question precisely: “I remember the first week of Martial Law very well. Seven women got together and we created the underground – not the factory cells, which were run by men, but the newspaper.”


You interviewed female opposition leaders repeatedly in the early 1990s, in 1995, 1998, 1999, and in 2000. How has their narrative evolved?

I asked women if they were the leaders of the opposition. In the 1990s many of them answered: “Oh no, where did you get that idea, I never said that they were leaders. We did what we had to do.” Others, such as Barbara Labuda, openly admitted that women were leaders. In Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland I decided to structure the story to have women’s voices talking to each other and expressing different viewpoints. Polish society had a narrow framework, at the time there were no gender studies or women’s movement, and feminism had a sort of communist stigma. I wondered if the attitudes would change as women’s own lives were reinvented and as people would start to experience gender discrimination in a democracy. And slowly, they did. Ewa Kulik later said: “Whenever I heard the question whether women were leaders, I had a knee-jerk reaction: no way, what are you talking about, that doesn’t make any sense.” Finally she admitted: “Why am I saying that? Of course women can be leaders!”


How was the leadership defined back then?

This came up in a conversation with Helena Łuczywo, a former CEO of the Agora media group: “Solidarity” had its politically elected leaders, only a handful of whom were women. She did not at the time perceive that there are also civic and community leaders. For some interviewees, “leadership” had a negative connotation — it was still associated with the power of the oppressors. Communism showed people that leadership could be dangerous because if you were a leader you were vulnerable to political assassination. Once you are in office you can be thrown out. Power was seen as corrupt, while the notion of anti-politics played an important role. Dissidents were political, but they wanted to present themselves as a part of a social movement. And they didn’t want to be as accused of being political traitors. What’s more, as the power and leadership used to be linked exclusively to those who governed or in the case of Solidarity, politically elected, people needed time to associate the leadership with actors in civic life or in communities. Helena Łuczywo was a civic leader, but people needed some perspective to realize this fact.


Being a leader today often equals being in the spotlight. Some women argue against it, perceiving it as trivial or shallow, and instead advocate doing a good job in the background. However, being a role model for the younger generations constitutes an important part of civic engagement. Why did many women renounce it for so long?

The opposition was a very different kind of social formation. Invisibility was part of women’s strategy and it was important because the male spokespersons were public figures while at the same time, women had more mobility if they could be invisible. That was the tactic. The problem was that this tactic of invisibility backfired after 1989. Women didn’t demand recognition for their accomplishments or for seats at the Round Table negotiations, where there was only one female representative of Solidarity, Grażyna Staniszewska. Their failing was that they didn’t understand that they and other women had to speak as a social group to ensure that women’s issues and concerns were going to be a part of the democratic reconstruction. This happened not only in Poland, but also elsewhere as communist systems were being dismantled.


In the afterword to your book, Maria Janion, the renowned Polish feminist stated that: “Women’s rights are beyond rights that ‘Solidarity’ fought for. Their civic energy has been stamped or even rebuked. Democracy in Poland turned out to be a male democracy.” Is there any non-exclusively male democracy in the world?

There are different degrees of women pushing their way into democracy. The point of democracy, which Sławka Walczewska underlined years ago, is that men and women can’t take democracy for granted. They must fight for their rights, always. We must always ensure one’s rights or we risk losing them. What was not understood was that women were going to lose rights. They weren’t aware that they have rights as women. No one was prepared for losing. They were only prepared for what they were going to gain in their “free” country. There was an absence of consciousness at that time.

Today, we are starting to think about those women as role models, but it doesn’t mean they have to automatically assert themselves as such. You can write an article about a woman and make her a role model for others, but she may not be willing to spend her time advocating for women’s rights today. Also, a lot of people who were in the opposition would say: “You can’t learn much from my experience. I wasn’t a professional; I was kicked out of school, suspended from university. My only profession was as an oppositionist and it wasn’t a paid job. I lived underground and I didn’t see my children except for once a week, my marriage fell apart. Why should I be your role model?”

However, women have been pretty successful in their own right in Poland, whether they compete with men or not, whether they have gender consciousness or not. Helena Łuczywo ran a multimedia empire and made a lot of her staff wealthy, and Ewa Kulik is now the CEO of the Batory Foundation. These are meaningful examples.




Who should be responsible for fostering leadership in girls and young women?

I very much believe in sharing experiences. It is important to have access to people’s experiences whether it is through a YouTube video, a memoire, or a personal meeting. We need to know how other people have done it. Writers read other writers to excel in their profession. Today, with initiatives such as the Congress of Women (Kongres Kobiet), gender studies at universities, and NGOs where you can volunteer and gain experience, the infrastructure is already set and it’s happening not only in the biggest cities.

During this year’s Congress of Women, I’ve seen a very strong awareness of women leaders, who on the one hand are committed to the younger generation, and on the other are committed to being role models for women who were their peers and are now interested in learning how to be more assertive in their careers and in politics. This has a very good mentoring or inspirational function. Big gatherings are usually portals that you enter when you feel supported by large numbers of women doing something big together. If you come from a little town in Lower Silesia where only a few of you are interested in women’s rights and you are creating a lifestyle and profession based on fighting for women’s rights, it gives you a lot of energy to work with. That is the benefit of the Congress of Women on an inspirational level. Then there is so much compensation in networking. I was delighted to see a lot of really young women, teenagers and college students, coming to the panel discussions. That is also one of the reasons why I’m publishing Sekret Solidarnosci now in Poland. My readership is not as exclusive as it used to be.


One of the most discussed books published this year, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, was criticized as a successful business manual in an allegedly feminist disguise. The Congress of Women has started to face similar criticism, as an event for beneficiaries of the transformation.

There were quite a few businesswomen who spoke, but in my opinion it was not a “Lean In” type of event. You can’t brand the women’s movement, and that is what Sandberg was trying to do. That is not the way it works. I agree with Anne Applebaum’s critique in The New York Review of Books that it’s primarily a business manual. Sandberg is in the technology business, which is still primarily male dominated, and like every business, it’s about making money.

The real question we need to answer now is how to balance expectations on what is important to do in life and how it is remunerated. The “male” mentality of working 24/7 is obsolete. In Western advanced economies we need to open up again a discussion on the quality of life. We put too much attention on work for work’s sake and not for living.


Do we need a shift in values instead of trying to accommodate the old ones? Would this lead to a resurgence of conservatism in many societies?

In Poland, the new conservatism is still the old conservatism, while in the U.S. we have the Tea Party, which imbalances the conservatives, as well as the liberals and the leftists. The problem with the new conservatism is that it shifts everything so right that the democrats seem centrists, like Ronald Regan style republicans. There is no strong liberal, progressive movement. In this respect you in Poland may be doing better than we are right now. But we could have a woman president.

Special thanks to Antoni Wołowski for his help in editing the interview.


Shana Penn is an American author, lecturer, columnist, and Executive Director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. She is the author of “Sekret Solidarnosci” (Warsaw: W.A.B. 2014) and “Solidarity’s Secret: The Women who Defeated Communist in Poland” (University of Michigan Press 2005). She was awarded Poland’s Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit.

Anna Wójcik is assistant editor at Visegrad Insight and culture editor at Res Publica Nowa website.