In the early Nineteenth Century, Poland’s beloved Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote a poem titled, “Do Matki Polki,” which scholars consistently translate as “To the Polish Mother.” The titular mother is seen as a representation of all Polish mothers who, in “response to various occupations of Poland” selflessly raise their sons to become soldiers who fight and die for the freedom of their country (Ostrowska 420). This image of the suffering Polish mother, “pure and immaculate, almost like the Mother of Jesus,” corresponds with the emergence of the “national-religious ideology” that followed Poland’s three partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria between 1772 and 1795 (Ostrowska 422; Morawska 29). While struggling with the loss of political sovereignty, Poles found the meaning of the occupations and purpose of their suffering in the figure of Jesus who suffered from his oppressors and died, but eventually rose again. Furthermore, the Polish mother, a symbol of great moral strength, faith and loyalty that derived from the image of the Virgin Mary, assumed the role “of a leading defender of the spiritual idea of Poland” until the restoration of its independence in 1918. During the 123 years of foreign occupation, the Polish mother taught her children the “dogmas of the Catholic religion and a love for their lost motherland,” she sent her sons and husbands to the battlefield, and she awaited their return or mourned “their heroic death” (Ostrowska 421).
After World War II the Polish mother symbol continued to play an important role in the lives of Polish people, who after only twenty years of sovereignty, found themselves governed by yet another enemy— the communist regime. It seems, however, that the traditional image of the Polish mother as the powerful matriarch was diminished to the role of one who merely bears children, provides food and clothing for her family, and timidly stands on the sidelines while her husband fights for freedom. The image was additionally altered by socialists who used this traditional myth to promote a “labor heroine” and falsely promised that the new political order would provide women with the “right for individual development and the possibilities of self-realization” (Ostrowska 425). However, the realities of food shortages and demands of the queuing culture that women had to endure in order to provide for their families made self-actualization impossible. The image of Polish women suffered, and many critics judge those women not by their contributions to the success of resistance in underground Solidarity but rather by their shopping bags.
Contrary to popular opinion, the women of Poland, especially from the time that martial law was declared in 1981 until the fall of communism in 1989, had not been just passive citizens. These women had also taken part in the resistance to that regime. Their opposition was perhaps less obvious than that of the men, who organized strikes (in male-dominated factories) to show their discontent with the governing socialists, but in actuality, women’s roles were equally important. Some critics argue that the image of the self-sacrificing Polish mother, so prevalent in society’s consciousness, had a negative impact on the nature of opposition in the face of food shortages and declining wages between 1981 and 1989. This project addresses the question: How has the myth of the Polish mother helped the fight for Poland’s autonomy or created a stereotype that slowed down the progression of resistance to the socialist government in the years between 1981‒1989?
In “Filmic Representations of the ‘Polish Mother’ in Post-Second World War Polish Cinema” (1998) Elzbieta Ostrowska argues that the traditional image of the Polish mother that originated in nineteenth century is unidimensional; she was “deprived of the right to make a choice, to be herself” and is not allowed to participate in national affairs that are defined as “masculine” (423). Fictional films made during the socialist regime promote the government’s propaganda by using the traditional image of the Polish mother adapted “to the demands of the new Communist ideology” (424). Here, the ideal mother is seemingly allowed the “individual development” and “self-realization” and she is furthermore cherished for her commitment to raise the future “working class members” (425). This use of the Polish mother myth gave the impression that the socialists governing in Poland, unlike in other countries of Eastern Bloc, were open to the ideas of “continuity in national existence” (424).
Socialists further used the image (that represents resistance) to portray women as the opposition to the “evil “men who do not “follow the principles of the new ideology” (425). Ostrowska points out that the image created by socialists was just an illusion. The heroines cannot lead fulfilled life because work and family commitments consume all their free time (427). The myth of the Polish mother gave Polish women a special role during a national crisis, but also “liberated” them “from taking part in conflicts and moral dilemmas of national life” (423). Ostrowska interprets the image as a form of “imprisonment” that deprives women the opportunity to live their lives as they choose.
Monika Ksieniewicz, in her article “Specyfika Polskiego Feminizmu” (2004), explains, that contrary to what Ostrowska argued, Polish women tend to be content with their roles as mothers and homemakers. The reason for this characteristic can be traced back to the Poland’s partitions in the late eighteenth century when the need for the icon of the Polish mother originated. In the face of foreign occupation mothers cultivated Polish traditions, taught their children Polish language and passed on Catholic beliefs. Home and family became the only way to preserve the national identity, and Polish women took the role of protectors with pride and sense of purpose (93). Similarly, during the socialist regime, women took pride in providing for their families and preserving national identity. They did not feel the need to contribute to the political scene nor did they feel discriminated against, because they found fulfilment in their role as homemakers (94). Raising children was not necessarily only a private matter but became a task on the political level. Once again, just us their female ancestors, women quietly fought their own battle with the enemy. They cultivated traditions, religion, and customs, and in the face of difficulties, such as the death of the husband they became independent, strong, and unbreakable (95). Elzbieta Ostrowska would argue against this image of a woman still living a fulfilled life after the death of her husband, because in movies that portray a single mother the protagonist is pushed to the margins by her community and eventually fails her family and is unable to carry on. (Ostrowska 433).
Ksieniewicz further points out that during the strikes in the 1980s, women had the chance to revisit their identity; Solidarity created a platform for both genders to express their individuality as they were allowed to contribute to the life of Solidarity, but women always found themselves supporting men (and conforming to the Polish mother image) rather than leading.
Similar to Ksieniewicz, Shana Penn in her article "The National Secret" (1994) blames the myth of the Polish mother (the immaculate, sacrificing selfless image of a woman) for lost opportunities. Women were so used to being on the sidelines that even very talented female leaders did not seek recognition for their contributions to the Polish resistance. Penn points out that in December of 1981, following the announcement of martial law, many of Solidarity’s leading men were arrested; Polish women naturally assumed the positions of the leaders of the underground Solidarity movement and kept the opposition alive. Penn sheds the light on the supposedly masculine character of opposition by revealing the “unseen” work of Polish women in the underground Solidarity movement. Penn points out that women, “ranging in age from fourteen to eighty years old” worked as “typists, printers, couriers, and distributors” (56). Penn’s article portrays women who seemingly defied the general image of the “Polish Mother” by taking part in the national affairs; however, when the men came back to claim their leading positions, women quietly returned to their assumed roles as male supporters. Penn points out that Poland is full of unpublished stories of women who were leaders but - characteristically - never asked for any form of recognition (67).
In “The Gender of Resistance in Communist Poland” (1999), Padraic Kenney also addresses the assumed masculine character of Polish opposition under the socialist regime. According to Kenney, the “struggles for Poland” are understood as “struggles shaped by gender” (400). In the accounts of protests from the socialist era, men and boys are photographed and remembered as those who threw rocks at the police or those who were being gunned down. Women on the other hand are “placed” on the outside of the factory walls where strikes took place, handing out sandwiches to the protesting husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers, or “sitting numbly on courthouse benches” watching their husbands being sent to prison (401). Solidarity, and any other form of opposition, was understood as the responsibility of men, whereas women were primarily engaged in household duties, including the acquisition and preparation of food. Even though Kenney does not talk about any female leader, he argues that women’s collective involvement in strikes could have brought the end of socialism much earlier than 1989. Women’s protests, although rare, were different in style and original in demands. They were based on the experience of shortages and the hardships of queuing well known to mothers. The “unstructured” nature of their opposition was confusing to the police and forced the regime to give in to some of their demands (411).
The original character of women’s strikes was closely connected with the role women played in the family structure. Agnieszka Imberowicz in her article, “The Polish Mother on the Defensive” (2012), points out that the power of the Polish woman of the socialist era was restricted to the household. Siemienowicz argues that this responsibility was time consuming, labor intensive and perceived as insignificant in comparison with the roles of men. It was generally understood that the “important matters” took place “in the public sphere,” not so much in the household (143). Women accepted the “lack of recognition and appreciation” for their efforts “for the sake of the success for the common cause” (144). They saw their own suffering in the effort of providing their families with food and other necessities that were not available in the stores. As the food shortages in socialist Poland became more prevalent the queues in front of stores only grew longer and the women increasingly dissatisfied.
In his article, “Reakcje Spoleczne na Niedobory Miesa w Polsce w Latach 1945-1989” (2006), Dariusz Jarosz further describes the problems of food shortages that characterized the late years of Polish socialism. The government and the party leaders devoted a great deal of time and energy to satisfying the demands of consumers for meats and other articles of everyday use, such as toilet paper and sanitary napkins. They were unable to deliver on their promises as food was still scarce, even after implementing a system of food stamps in order to distribute supplies between citizens evenly. Queues in front of stores became everyday reality that mostly affected the women who were often late for work because of the long lines on their morning run to the store; it was also common for women to take a day off from work to stand in queues to acquire their family’s basics (258). In 1981, frustrated with food shortages women organized “hunger marches” as a response to lower meat rations (265). The mothers and wives, unlike the protesting men, came out to the streets with their children in strollers and in their hands, carrying banners stating, “our children are hungry,” “we stand for 24h in queues,” “give us our daily bread,” etc. (265). This form of protest corresponds with the notion of “unstructured” protests described by Padraic Kenney. Lack of food was one of many problems of everyday life in socialist Poland, but one that Polish Mothers refused to accept.
I am taking a qualitative approach to answer the research question: Did the myth of the Polish mother help the fight for Poland’s autonomy or created a stereotype that slowed down the progression of resistance to the socialist government in the years between 1981‒1989? Answering this question requires analysis of primary sources such as promotional posters, and diaries, while secondary sources will provide information on the topic already available in the form of scholarly articles. I also plan to conduct interviews via Skype with Polish women who were responsible to provide for their families, and those who took part in the opposition to the regime during martial law. I will follow the guidelines for conducting interviews established by the BIS program for the purpose of capstone projects. To answer my research question, I propose addressing the following sub-questions:
1) What is the myth of the Polish mother and how did it develop throughout the history of Poland starting with the first partitions in 1792?
2) How was the myth of the Polish mother used by socialist to create an image of the labor heroine and to promote their own agenda?
3) What was the role of Polish women during the resistance to the regime from the time the martial law was declared in 1981 until the fall of communism in 1989?
My first sub-question is “What is the myth of the Polish mother and how did the myth develop throughout the history of Poland starting with the first partitions in 1792?” To answer this question, I will first analyze a primary source in the form of a poem by Adam Mickiewicz that became a foundation for the Polish mother icon. Secondary sources will help to provide the historical background and will help with the analysis of the evolution of the Polish mother image that came from the need for national identity. The sources will include Shanna Penn’s Solidarity’s Secret (2005), Elzbieta Ostrowska’s “Filmic Representations of the ‘Polish Mother’” (1998), Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1983), and Ewa Morawska’s "Civil Religion Vs. State Power in Poland" (1984).
My second sub-question is “How was the myth of the Polish mother used by socialists to create labor heroine and to promote their own agenda?” The primary sources to address this question will consist of promotional posters, movies and TV clips used by the regime where representations of the Polish mother had been modified and adapted to serve the new ideology. Secondary sources will include articles that also treat this topic. These will include Elzbieta Ostrowska’s “Filmic Representations of the ‘Polish Mother’” (1998), Malgorzata Fidelis’ Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (2010), Barbara Einhorn’s Cinderella Goes to Market: Citizenship, Gender, and Women's Movements in East Central Europe (1993), and Zdzislaw Zblewski’s Abecadlo PeeReLu (2008).
My third sub-question is “What was the role of Polish women during the resistance to the regime from the time that martial law was declared in 1981 until the fall of communism in 1989?” Primary sources will include photographs of women protesting on streets and in factories alongside their men, interviews in documentaries, diaries as well as interviews conducted by me. Secondary sources will include Monika Kisniewicz’s “Specyfika Polskiego Feminizmu” (2004), Padraic Kenney’s "The Gender of Resistance in Communist Poland" (1999), Ewa Toniak’s Olbrzymki. Kobiety i Socrealizm (2009), Kathy Burell’s “The Enchantment of Western Things: Children's Material Encounters in Late Socialist Poland” (2011), Agnieszka Imberowicz’s “The Polish Mother on the Defensive? The Transformation of the Myth and its Impact on the Motherhood of Polish Women” (2012), Dariusz Jarosz’s “Reakcje Spoleczne na Niedobory Miesa w Polsce w Latach 1945-1989” (2006), Shana Penn’s Solidarity's Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland (2005), as well as Penn’s article "The National Secret" (1994).
Imbierowicz, Agnieszka. “The Polish Mother on the Defensive? The Transformation of the Myth and its Impact on the Motherhood of Polish Women.” Journal of Education Culture and Society, 2012, pp. 140‒153, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307682232. Accessed 19 Oct. 2018.
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