Women’s Day in PL: 12 Legendary Polish Ladies Worth Knowing

Are International Women’s Day and the Polish version of Women’s Day the same thing?

The simple answer is: No, they’re not. Slowly (really slowly) but steadily, however, this is changing in Poland and in many other countries. The increasing global attention on gender inequality and women’s rights is manifesting itself as a bonafide movement here in Poland, and though there’s still a long way to go, Polish women are proactively engaged in this struggle. But what about men? Are they equally committed to the cause?

Let’s start by describing what Women’s Day in Poland actually looks like. Traditionally – and it’s a tradition that started in the communist era – Women’s Day in PL is a day for expressing your gratitude for the women in your life with flowers (typically tulips and carnations) and well-wishing. And by ‘the women in your life’ we mean all of them – from close family members, to every female at the office, to shopkeepers and retail clerks. In the post-PRL era Women’s Day has becoming increasingly commercialised, hedging closer to Valentine’s Day with romantic dinner reservations and gift-giving, spurred by special offers and sales across town intent on spoiling girlfriends, wives, mothers, friends and lovers. Deep-rooted traditions and behaviours die hard and if you happen to be in Poland on March 8 you’ll surely observe Polish men being overly gallant and chivalrous towards women, dispensing kind words to them at every encounter.

Curiously enough the Andrzej Mleczko calendar features in March an interesting cartoon which barely needs any interpretation.

Cut flowers certainly smell nice, but for how long? What about actually empowering women and improving their station in society? What about Women’s Day as a vehicle for social change and working to make sure our daughters don’t face danger or discrimination because of their sex, and get the same opportunities and wage compensation as their male counterparts in an increasingly global future society.

For our part, we’ve decided to modestly contribute to the cause of gender equality by presenting you with a list of Polish women who are making, or have made, a significant impact on society through their respective fields of activity; for example and inspiration must start somewhere…

Polish Women: #8M | Black Magic Women (2017)

courtesy of Ania Wyzykowska

Our recognition and admiration goes out to all women and men in Poland who acknowledge that now is the best time to challenge conscious and unconscious bias; call for gender-balanced leadership; value women and men’s contributions equally; and create inclusive flexible cultures.

1. Anna Walentynowicz

While Lech Walesa came to be the face of Solidarity and all of Poland in the 1980s, there were many activists who it might be argued were just as responsible, if not more so, for the birth of the movement that contributed to the ultimate defeat of Communism first in Poland, and then across Europe. One of them was, at the time of the strike in 1980, a 50-year-old crane operator, single mother and civil rights activist, whose commitment to workers’ rights and the welfare of others marks her out as a hero of the movement and a quite remarkable character.

2. Marie Curie

A two-time Nobel Prize winner and pioneer in the world of science. Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska on November 7, 1867, she lived in what is now the New Town of Warsaw (her birthplace at ul. Freta 16 now houses a museum about her life) in the Russian partition of Poland. Skłodowska was born into a home that put a high value on education.

3. Edith Stein

The youngest daughter of a large Jewish family, she was born in Wrocław (then German ‘Breslau’). An excellent student, she studied philosophy, history and German at the University of Breslau (today’s Wrocław University). She earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1917 and in 1918 gave up her job as a teaching assistant to pursue a professorship, something quite impossible for women at this time. She was beatified as a martyr in Cologne in 1987.

4. Wisława Szymborska

She accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. During Nazi occupation Szymborska secretly attended an underground secondary school and after the war studied literature and sociology at Jagiellonian University, dropping out before getting a degree due to financial problems. It was during this time that she first began publishing her poetry.

5. Rosa Luxemburg

Intellectual, activist and noted revolutionary socialist. Despite her untimely death Luxemburg left a vast legacy of ideas and writings, with the term “Luxemburgism” even used to describe a specific revolutionary theory within Marxism that is based on her work. And while there are currently no monuments or memorials to the revolutionary in Poland, Berlin sports a U-Bahn station named in her honour (Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz) and a memorial in the city’s Tiergarten.

6. Irena Sendler

Known as the female Schindler, Irena Sendler – who died in May 2008 at the age of 98 – is credited with having saved the lives of some 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. The Story of Irena Sendler by Andrzej Wolf (Culture.pl)

7. Nawojka (mention)

The uni’s first female student, named Nawojka, entered academia in the early 1400’s, about 500 years before it was permitted (in 1897) by passing as one of the boys. Her fabled time at the uni predates by almost a century that of its most famous alumni – Nicolas Copernicus (class of 1492).

8. Clara Immerwahl (mention)

The first female Ph.D. student at the University of Breslau (Wroclaw) and a successful chemist, she married Fritz Haber and led a life as a housewife leaving her personal aspirations aside. She translated her husband’s work into English with no recognition. A pacifist, she took her own life as a result of the disappointment of knowing her husband’s contribution to the development of chemical weapons.

9. Michalina Wisłocka

A Polish feminist and gynecologist who fought for reproductive rights of women during the communist era. She wrote the controversial book ‘On The Art of Loving‘. The book encountered many problems during the publishing process: as stated before, the puritan mentality of the communist censors made it difficult to publish almost anything about sexuality, let alone something that could be considered a sex manual. (Culture.pl)

10. Agnieszka Holland

Film director and scriptwriter, born in Warsaw in 1948. Nominated for the Oscar in 1985 for Angry Harvest, in 1990 for Europa, Europa and 2012 for In Darkness. She was recently awarded the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlinale for her latest film Pokot.

11. Helena Modrzejewska

She managed to reach success and fame as an actress twice in two different continents. Celebrated Polish actress, a living legend in her time as a star both in Poland and America. Born 12 October, 1840 in Kraków, died 8 April, 1909, in Newport Beach, California. (Culture.pl)

12. Queen (King) Jadwiga

The most influential woman in Polish history, bar none, Queen Jadwiga of Poland reigned as the country’s first female monarch (formally holding the title of ‘King’) between 1384 and 1399. Her reluctant marriage to the much-older Władysław-Jogaila at only twelve years of age meant a tightening of Polish-Lithuanian relations. Her life was cut short at just 25 due to complications from the birth of her first child – a daughter – who died only three weeks after being born.

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