'Turbo-Emancipation' Polish Women Enjoy Post-Communist Success

Women are revolutionizing Poland's deeply Catholic society. Not only have they found economic success, starting more new businesses than many of their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but they are now demanding their place in politics.


Ewa Wieczorek knows she will face sharp criticism when she prints the report in her magazine. It is about female guards at the Stalin Museum in Gory, Georgia. By day, the guards watch over the shirts and pipes of the dictator and, by night, they dream that he will come to their beds.

Stalin had close to 200,000 Poles killed and the story is bound to trigger floods of letters to the editor. But Ewa Wieczorek, a girlish 43-year-old woman with a short haircut, is used to criticism. She says that she wants to know what motivates these women to continue their worship of a mass murderer today.

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Photo Gallery: Overturning Taboos in Poland

Wieczorek is the editor-in-chief of Wysokie Obcasy (High Heels), Poland's leading women's magazine. The magazine, published Sundays as a supplement to Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, can be described as a cross between a high-brow cultural magazine and Cosmopolitan. Gazeta Wyborcza, with a circulation of about 500,000 copies, was the first uncensored newspaper in the Eastern bloc in 1989.

Eight female editors write for Wysokie Obcasy, touching on subjects that were long taboo in Poland. Articles describe people cheating on their spouses and women taking on traditionally male professions. They are about abortion, pornography and sex during pregnancy. They write headlines like "A Woman is Not a Lamp," an opinion piece in which the writer argues that women should not have to respond to demands of sex, like a light being switched on.

They are the kinds of subjects that still shock many in a deeply Catholic country like Poland.


The editorial offices are housed in a minimalist steel-and-glass building in the Mokotów neighborhood of Warsaw. Wooden blinds hang in front of the windows and expensive mountain bikes are parked in the hallways. The success of Wysokie Obcasy is a sign of the enormous social change in Poland since the fall of communism. In the last 20 years, Polish women have achieved as much as women in the West took many decades to achieve. For women in Poland, the end of communism translated into a sort of turbo-emancipation.

Statistically speaking, Polish women are among the most modern women in Europe. They are behind one in three new business startups, putting Poland ahead of many other European Union countries. They occupy more than a third of positions in middle management, a record which is only beaten by France, Latvia and Lithuania. And the Polish birth rate, long one of Europe's highest, is now one of its lowest, at 1.4 children per woman. "We are no longer willing to be tied down to the mother role," says Wieczorek.

Wysokie Obcasy chronicles the change that Wieczorek herself symbolizes. She has a 22-year-old son from her first marriage who plans to attend the university. She divorced his father after the Soviet bloc collapsed, scandalous behavior by Polish standards at the time.

The communists did little to change the traditional image of women in Poland. After the war, women were expected to have children, and after that the communists sat them on tractors, sent them to universities and had them work in mines. "It had nothing to do with self-realization, but a lot to do with duty," says Wieczorek. "The Polish woman has to work, and yet she carries the main burden in caring for the children and in the household."

Networking Women

When the Soviet bloc collapsed, the old order fell apart, while the transition back to capitalism destroyed the previous role models completely. Nowadays, very few families with more than one child can survive on only one salary. As a result, many women are forced to create their own companies, from translation agencies to hairdressers to shops. These are the kinds of businesses that are most compatible with children, an important factor in a country like Poland, where preschool and kindergarten places are rare.

But women also occupy key positions today. Since 1999, the Polish Confederation of Private Employers has been headed by a woman, Henryka Bochniarz. Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a law professor, ran the country's national bank during eight difficult years of transformation.

A woman is also in charge of Evip, one of the country's most successful management consulting firms. The company's achievements have included introducing Coca-Cola, Shell and Saudi Arabian investors to the Polish market. Only 10 years after the fall of communism, a group of successful women developed their own network, the "Club of the 22."

The up to two million Poles who emigrated in past years have played an important role in this revolution. Most worked in Scandinavia, Great Britain or Ireland, and now more and more are returning to Poland. They include women who learned to make it on their own while abroad.


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