Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland
By Shana Penn
The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor
Spring 2005, 372 pages
The changes sparked by the Solidarity movement in Poland are often characterized as a tele-revolution. The unfolding drama staged by the Communist Party, along with a growing and intransigent civil society, differed from the conflicts that occurred earlier. In this clash, the leaders of Solidarity decided to make full use of technological innovations in communications such as the telephone, fax, television, radio and duplicating machine. News of a strike in one part of the country spread thorough the telephone lines like wildfire into other regions of Poland. The West was inundated with images of the unrest and its leaders. This tele-revolution, however, promoted and solidified the erroneous image of a male revolution, which, according to Shana Penn, entirely eclipsed the contribution and role of women in Solidarity’s meteoric rise.
Penn’s research presents the reader with an often-overlooked question: since the leadership of Solidarity was arrested during the military coup of 1981, who then picked up the torch and kept the movement active over the following months and years? To answer this the inquiry steps down from the echelons of high politics and visibility into the less illuminated region of grass roots activism. There emerges an intriguing picture challenging the generally accepted narrative of modern Polish history. It was women who, in the absence of male leadership, organized themselves and carried on clandestine daily work of the movement. An all female editorial team emerged in the Warsaw region to produce Tygodnik Mazowsze, the most influential underground paper in Poland. The existence of this publication contributed immensely to the fall of Communism.
In uncovering this remarkable story Penn’s research relied heavily on oral testimony. This approach allows the reader to be immersed in many wonderful eyewitness accounts; however, at times these are given too much weight. One is lead at times to make far-reaching assumptions and conclusions about the extent of certain contributions made by female activists.
Overall, however, the book is an exciting addition to Polish historiography. The analysis of Solidarity through the prism of gender preserves the legacy of female activism and sets the record straight. Without Penn’s work an important chapter in Polish history might have been lost in obscurity and indifference.
Intriguingly, Penn found in her research that Polish women did not generally confront their men or develop a feminist consciousness. They were ignored as participants because Solidarity’s leaders concentrated on and reported on the top tiers of action. It did not pay much attention to civic and community leaders, many of whom were women. And the communist regime did not suspect women of participation in the opposition’s activities. The author also found that anti-communism in Poland was cloaked in many of the 19th century’s romantic images. The mythic roles prescribed to women stressed unity above all and glorified the mother of the struggling nation who needs to support her terribly disempowered men. According to Penn, female activists deeply internalized these images and thus proceeded to act out their roles anonymously. Was there a price for solidarity? Fifty percent of the ten million Solidarity memberships in 1990 were women. However, at higher levels of the movement the numbers of female leaders diminish. According to Penn, this is the price that women paid. Instead of rewarding them for their work, Poland after communism became a grand violator of female rights. This was exemplified by various abuses of women’s rights such as a ban on abortion, thirty percent lower pay, and sixty percent unemployment rate among women.
While many of the women portrayed in the book came to wield great power in post-communist Poland, the ban on abortion has been in effect and unchallenged for nearly twenty years now. From a political point of view there is no reason for women not to have staged a strong enough opposition to abrogate this law. It has to be admitted that lower pay and higher unemployment rates for women are a sad, yet very real violation that occurs in Poland as well as in the United States today. (In 2007 in the state of Illinois women earned 71 cents to every dollar earned by a man.)
It is challenging to fit Polish women and their activism into the mold of Western feminism. Penn admits this frustration. Nevertheless, the book presents an intriguing and refreshing take on the Solidarity movement. It shatters the common portrayal of the events in the 1980’s as an exclusively male revolution and establishes women as equal partners in the struggle against Communism.