Women’s Movement in Poland “What frightens them is that people in small cities are protesting“

Women dressed in black protest on the street
"Black Monday" in Warsaw - the first protest action of the All-Polland Women's Strike. Participants protest in front of the headquarters of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) on Nowogrodzka Street in Warsaw. Demonstrations against the tightening of the abortion law are taking place all over Poland on 3 October 2016. | Photo (detail): Tomasz Gzell © picture alliance

The All-Poland Women's Strike is a movement that has mobilised people from big cities and small towns throughout the country. Co-initiator Marta Lempart explains the social and political changes driven by the strike and why it has turned into an anti-government protest.

Ms. Lempart, how did the All-Poland Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet) come about and what events led to the strikes?

In 2016, a bill was discussed in parliament that provided for a complete ban on abortions and the possibility of prison sentences for miscarriages. The political party “Razem” (Together) then launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #czarnyprotest (Black Protests) and organised several demonstrations with the same motto. At one of these demonstrations, I called for a strike. My partner Natalia Pancewicz and I formed an organising committee and on 3 October 2016, the first protests by the All-Poland Women’s Strike took place in 150 cities. Many people wore black and did not go to work that day.

It wasn’t a mass movement yet back then. Around 37 percent favoured legal abortions. A large proportion of the protests’ organisers wanted to uphold the “Abortion compromise” of 1993, which only allowed abortions in three exceptional cases, and did not want abortion to be legalised. That changed later on. In 2018, there were mass protests, and the tightening of the abortion law was prevented. But on 22 October 2020, the ban on terminations of pregnancy for embryo-pathological reasons was brought back, this time not by the Sejm (Editor's note: One of the two chambers of the Polish Parliament, along with the Senate.), but by a judgment by this quasi-Constitutional Tribunal. The Tribunal ruled that in cases of serious and irreversible damage to the foetus, legalising termination was unconstitutional. The government, judiciary, media and doctors are now acting as if there were an actual ban on abortion in Poland, but that is not the case because this is not a valid court ruling. (Editor's note: The independence of the Constitutional Tribunal is highly controversial as the court stands under the influence of the ruling PiS party.)

The Women’s Strike is being compared with the Solidarność, the independent trade union movement of the early 1980s. What effects have they had and are they having with regard to changing democratic practices and ideals?

In Poland, the concept of strikes is not only associated with protests for better wages and working conditions, but also with a fight against the government. The name “Women’s Strike” was inspired by a strike by Icelandic women in 1975 that my partner Natalia Pancewicz read about. We now know that women from Solidarność protested alongside the men. Our movement protects and consolidates their position. Many of us are afraid that following a success, men from the opposition will oust us from the political arena – as they did back then.  

To what extent has a feeling of solidarity based on a common experience of inequality and discrimination triggered processes of emancipation and empowerment?

Many people are standing for municipal election, driving the movement from the bottom-up. In a mass movement, you have to be open-minded. It’s not a matter of reducing prejudice or pursuing particular policies, but of choosing a direction. How we differ as individuals, for example in the way we interpret feminism, is irrelevant. The important thing is to take action and do what you are good at doing in your own way.

Who is taking part in the strikes and how have the protests changed in the last five years?

We see the whole social spectrum. Men and women of all ages and from different walks of life. By no means just young people. It is a mass movement of people doing their bit after work.

Are you the first fighting woman in your family? When did you first encounter the concept of feminism?

My mother was never a feminist activist, but always a feminist in the practical sense. She fought for everything she wanted, bit by bit. She was well ahead of her time in terms of the social role of women. It is the same for most of us. Many are not feminist activists. We have only been involved since the protests in 2016. It’s different in the big cities – that’s a different world altogether.

What significance does the development of the All-Poland Women’s Strike have in medium-sized and small cities?

As far as the effect of strikes is concerned, big cities are completely irrelevant. Protests are only effective if they take place in small and medium-sized cities where the PiS Party has a large following. In Warsaw, half a million demonstrators can take to the streets and it has no influence on the government’s decision. The fact that people are protesting in small and medium-sized cities – that is what frightens them.

In what way do the Women’s Strikes contribute to the development of social justice?

Our main focus is on providing information about what is actually happening in Poland at the moment. In December 2021, there was a bill to establish a Polish Institute of Family and Demography. What people did not know was that this meant a ban on divorce and the criminalisation of LGBT people.

What is the role of a strike leader? What do you associate with it and what are the biggest challenges?
I’m the Zakopane bear – a kind of human publicity mascot. I’m the one who has her photograph taken and has to appear in Poland or abroad. Sometimes I have to do the things that no one else can do, – to coordinate and take quick decisions that move things forward.
What I find most difficult is the hatred that comes from the democratic, progressive side. That hatred plays into the hands of the hatred produced by the government and government media. People completely ignore that this could lead to someone actually killing me.
The best thing is the field work. There is nothing better! It is also great to see how online actions are translated into the analogue, how people come up with ideas themselves and apply them. The actions are different every time. It is amazing

What have the Women’s Strikes changed and what is your wish for the Future?

69% of people in Poland are now in favour of abortion being legal. The majority are in favour of marriage for all, not just registered life partnerships. The church has lost its significance. Moreover, in a resolution in June 2021, the European Parliament declared abortion to be a human right. That was a success of our protests. I wish the Polish government would disappear, but that will not happen, and that the gentlemen of the opposition will not deceive us and join forces with the church. “You bring the government down and we’ll take over” is a very strong message and for us, it represents a serious threat. That has not changed since the days of Solidarność.

So there is hope?

I do not hope – I know everything will turn out all right in the end.

The interview was conducted by Marta Krus, online editor trainee of the Zeitgeister magazine.