#OutstandingPLWomen: Polish suffragists, the first female Members of the Polish Parliament.
The women’s emancipation movement in Poland reached back to the 19th century but grew stronger at the beginning of the 20th century. Polish women, like their sisters around the world, demanded voting rights, access to education and skilled professions, as well as financial independence. However, their situation was even more complicated by Poland’s subjugation and division between Prussian, Russian and Austrian partitions. Polish women had severely limited educational opportunities and faced manifold legal discrimination – they could not appear in court, sign contracts, or inherit assets. They could not work without their husbands’ consent, and even if they did, they could not freely dispose their own earnings. They were forbidden to divorce and in most cases of separation, they lost custody of their children. Even after their husbands’ deaths, they were deprived of parental rights.
The onset of World War I, which saw Polish women work as nurses and intelligence agents, and even don men’s uniforms to fight at the front, brought deep cultural changes. The price these women paid was often prison, torture and death. The Great War put women in a position to take over many roles and responsibilities that had traditionally been assigned to men. They proved perfectly capable of fulfilling them . This experience showed that women were more than housekeepers. They were ready to actively participate in rebuilding a country that had been erased from the world maps for 123 years.
Women were given the right to vote and run for political office immediately after Poland regained independence in 1918. In this way, the demands of Polish suffragists were met and Poland became a precursor in Europe for granting active and passive electoral rights to women. Eight women were elected to the lower chamber of the Polish parliament in the first general elections held on January 26, 1919 – occupying positions that had previously been held exclusively by men. They constituted only 2% of the total number of deputies. Initially, the Polish language had no adequate designation for their profession. ‘Member of parliament’ was modified into various awkward and often grotesque feminine variants. Even with no proper name for their profession, these women faced an enormous task – yet, as MPs, they had also acquired new tools to effect change and act on a larger scale than ever before.
The first female MPs were of various ages and representing almost all parties of the political spectrum – from Socialists to National Democrats. They had distinguished backgrounds and considerable accomplishments in social work: Gabriela Balicka – Iwanowska (1867-1962) was a doctor of botanical science; Irena Kosmowska (1879-1945) was a newspaper columnist under a male pseudonym; Jadwiga Dziubińska (1874-1937) and Anna Piasecka (1882-1980) were taught education; Maria Moczydłowska (1886-1969) and Zofia Moraczewska (1873-1958) were schoolteachers; Zofia Sokolnicka (1878-1927) was active in a number of legal and clandestine organization to educate young Poles; Franciszka Wilczkowiakowa (1880-1963) was an activist among Polish emigrant communities. These women usually combined politics with social activities, which could be educational, charitable or caregiving in nature.
They drew attention to what men tended to forget in the whirlwind of politics – the basic human issues that every Polish family and citizen had to deal with on a daily basis.
Many sacrificed their academic careers or family life to enter politics. Some remained active for many years, while others withdrew after a single term in office as their encounter with power politics proved too brutal. Nevertheless, they exercised their mandates to the best of their ability, engaging in politics not for career purposes but primarily to help those in need: not just women but other social groups that had been neglected, excluded or forgotten in Poland. They wanted to change lives for the better. What these women discovered was that it was hard to break through with their demands. They were not taken seriously, waiting years to push their bills through. Although they represented very different political milieus, they worked together and tried to speak with one voice, rising above party lines. They considered themselves, first and foremost, as representatives of their sex, and only second as members of their parties.
They succeeded in introducing many improvements to Poland’s civil, procedural and administrative laws between the world wars, while helping modernise the country’s schools, higher education and social welfare systems.
The outbreak of World War II interrupted these social changes and washed away the achievements of several generations of Polish feminists. Their work was only completed many years later.