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When Polish Women Revolted

Looking back at the struggle that, two years ago, defeated a historic anti-abortion bill in Poland.

A protest for reproductive rights in Poland in 2016. Sophie in 't Veld / Twitter

Adrienne Rich once commented on the “blanketing snow” that comes to “drift [. . .] over radical history.” Such has been the fate of many of Poland’s historical women’s movements; the sisterhoods of the mid-twentieth century, the communist and anarchist activists, the lesbian and queer radicals that never made it into the history books. Today, thanks to the strength of Poland’s right, this may also be the fate of 2016’s “Black Monday” movement, in which thousands of Polish women revolted against draconian anti-abortion measures. That is, unless the Left defends the space opened up by the revolt.

Before 2016 women’s and feminist organizations did exist in Poland, mostly in the form of gender studies programs in various universities and a hundred nonprofits dedicated to the issue (in 2003 some five thousand organizations mentioned women’s rights in their policies in some form). They focused mostly on abortion, reproductive justice, and violence against women. However, the majority of organizations were located in big cities or towns, and their members were limited to the urban, educated middle-class.

It wasn’t until 2016, when the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, introduced a bill that would have made abortion completely illegal that the women’s movement was able to break out of this isolation. Abortion is legal in Poland only in three cases: when pregnancy is the result of rape, when the fetus shows risks of severe damage or illness, and when the life of the woman is endangered. Unfortunately, even under these conditions women often do not obtain permission to terminate pregnancies, which leads them either to illegal abortions, in Poland or abroad, or to face serious risks to give birth anyways. Official statistics count only around 100 legal abortions per year in Poland; but, according to feminist organizations, some 140,000 illegal ones are additionally carried out. The PiS bill would have made abortion illegal even in these exceptional cases. Additionally, it would have criminalized not only women who sought abortions, but their doctors and anyone else who assisted them, allowing them to be sentenced to up to two years of jail time.

The bill’s introduction followed a sustained media and political campaign of misogyny by the ruling party. Kaczynski made comments that women should give birth regardless of their situation, even in cases of fetal illness. The version of the anti-abortion bill introduced in April 2016 explicitly referenced women’s “misconduct” in cases of miscarriages. The critics of the bill were called “killers” and women told to obey their biological duty. By the time the abortion bill made it to Parliament, women were already fed up.

It was Gocha Adamczyk, a member of the left-wing Razem Party, who, through a simple Facebook event, called for Polish women to protest against the proposed abortion bill in September 2016. She invited women to post their pictures wearing black and adding the hashtag #BlackProtest.  The call for Polish women to “strike” against the proposed abortion bill was announced by Krystyna Janda, the famous actress known from Andrzej Wajda’s film The Man of Steel. These simple yet powerful ideas inspired more than 150,000 Polish women — and more abroad — to join the online protest, wearing black to symbolically mourn their reproductive rights. Demonstrations had already begun earlier that year, in April, when the first version of the bill appeared. But it was after the bill was introduced to Parliament in summer 2016, with the #BlackProtest online and the Women’s Strike on October 3 on the streets, that they reached worldwide prominence and the peak of their strength. All of this culminated in the International Women’s Strike on March 8, 2017.

These “Black Protests” inaugurated a new Polish feminism that could live outside academic and nonprofit frameworks. They didn’t exist just on social media, but also in the streets, with over 150 towns, small villages, and cities seeing protests on October 3, 2016. And the strike tool gave them a distinct labor dimension. For example, a group of teachers from Zabrze, a post-industrial town in Silesia, posted a picture to Adamczyk’s page of their own Black Protest. When a male colleague reported them to the Disciplinary Board of Education, they were forced to fight for their political rights at work — and won.

Moreover, the Independent Workers Union’s famous “Solidarność” sign could be seen at many of the protests. This sparked a conflict with the union’s now-right-wing headquarters, whose leadership also raged against the Chroatian artist Sanja Ivekovic for transforming the “Solidarność” electoral poster from 1989 to depict a woman instead of a man. But Ivekovic and the protesters were defended by the sign’s creator, Jerzy Janiszewski, who declared that anyone may use the sign as long as it’s for progressive purposes. The link protesters forged between reproductive rights and labor was not readily accepted by everyone. But it was vital for breaking the middle-class character of feminism in Poland.

The demonstrations also highlighted the lack of political alternatives in the country. In fall 2016 some of the most vocal of these activists joined and supported the liberal opposition. But they quickly discovered that much of the liberal opposition not only opposed further liberalization of reproductive rights, but would not even openly support the women’s protests against the PiS bill. This was the movement’s greatest challenge, that in their hopes for the liberal support they did not predict what was later seen in Parliament’s votes — that many members of the liberal parties are actually conservative. The Razem Party, on the other hand, unconditionally supported the women’s protests from their beginnings in April 2016, adding media platforms, infrastructure, and political support to the women’s cause.

When the Black Protests defeated the abortion bill, they became the only movement to have won a victory against the PiS government. Every other resistance has faltered. Although some restrictions to women’s medical access have since been made, the movement is still seen as one that effectively stopped Kaczynski’s party. It changed the position of women in Polish society, had a strong impact on women’s representation in media and science, and forced political parties to begin making appeals to women in various ways.

Feminist Counterpublics

After this victory, Polish feminist groups joined the International Women’s Strike network, joining together with women from some thirty other countries to organize demonstrations on March 8, 2017. The action epitomized the movement’s ability to, in the words of feminist theorist Nancy Fraser, act as a “feminist counterpublic,” overturning the “public/private” division that pushes reproductive rights out of the political sphere. This “counterpublic” posed a twofold resistance against the conservative PiS government and the liberal opposition. And it began to challenge the logic of Poland’s right in its entirety. From the October 3 Black Protests, movements were born that protested the ecological disaster in the Białowieża primeval forest, air pollution, the courts’ dependence on executive power, fascist demonstrations, and the government’s violations of labor rights.

But these changes are unfortunately fading, with almost every sector of public life governed either by conservatives with fascist tendencies or by liberal economic elites, who — when it comes to women — often do not differ from the conservative consensus. Meanwhile, the PiS government continues its attempts to privilege executive powers and strengthen its hold over the state. In this context, the feminist counterpublics created in the women’s protests in 2016–17 and recently fueled by the #MeToo campaign must take responsibility for the revival of progressive politics in Poland.

In 2016, women acted as those who had only their chains to lose, and we won. We used the ordinary, common strategies of basic solidarity and resistance, and this, not any heroic figures or bravery, made a successful movement possible. In 2018, we will once again participate in March 8’s International Women’s Strike and use this as a foundation for preserving and extending the victories of 2016. The #BlackProtests and Women’s Strike elevated women’s political agency, and there seems to be a new consensus in Poland that we are not to be ignored in politics anymore. As the only movement that managed to stop a PiS policy, we have won. Hopefully this will lead to further progressive changes in Polish politics.