The Role of Women

Poland Table of Contents

By the mid-1970s, nearly half the Polish work force was made up of women. On a purely statistical basis, Poland, like the rest of the Soviet alliance in Eastern Europe, offered women more opportunities for higher education and employment, than did most West European countries. Between 1975 and 1983, the total number of women with a higher education doubled, to 681,000 graduates. Many professions, such as architecture, engineering, and university teaching, employed a considerably higher percentage of women in Poland than in the West, and over 60 percent of medical students in 1980 were women. In many households in the 1980s, women earned more than their husbands. Yet the socialist system that yielded those statistics also uniformly excluded women from the highest positions of economic and political power. In the mid-1980s, only 15 percent of graduates in technical subjects were women, while more than 70 percent of jobs in health, social security, finance, education, and retail sales were filled by women. During the 1980s, very few women occupied top positions in the PZPR (whose 1986 membership was 27 percent women). Similar statistics reflected the power relationships in Solidarity, the diplomatic corps, and the government. By definition, women were excluded completely from the other great center of power, the Catholic Church. In mid1992 , Poland elected its first woman prime minister, Hanna Suchocka. Her coalition government included no other women. In 1992 the head of the National Bank of Poland, a very powerful position, was a woman, and Ewa Letowska, former commissioner of citizens' rights, was prominently mentioned as a presidential candidate.

Some experts asserted that the male power structure protected its dominance by limiting the opportunities for the advancement of Polish women to those that filled an existing need in the male-dominated society. Another factor in the role of women, however, was the high priority that Polish society continued to give to their role within the family and in raising children. In the 1980s, one in ten Polish mothers was single, and many single mothers had never been married. In 1991 over 6 percent of Polish families consisted of a single mother caring for one or more children. The extended family provided support for such unconventional arrangements. During the 1980s, both the state (by adjusting school schedules and providing nurseries and substantial paid maternity leave) and the church (by its influential emphasis on the sanctity of the family) successfully promoted the traditional role of women in raising the next generation. In the early 1980s, a very small women's liberation movement began at Warsaw University, but in the years following it failed to expand its membership significantly. In 1990 women in Warsaw set a precedent by demonstrating against church-inspired legislation making abortion illegal.

Even with the support of state institutions, however, during the communist era working women with families often had the equivalent of two full-time jobs because their husbands did not make major contributions to household work. According to one study, working women averaged 6.5 hours per day at their jobs and 4.3 hours per day on household duties. In the times of scarcity in the 1980s, standing in line to make purchases occupied a large part of the latter category. Women without jobs, by contrast, spent an average of 8.1 hours per day on household duties. The increased unemployment of the early 1990s generally affected more women than men. According to official figures, in 1992 forty women were jobless for every vacancy they were qualified to fill, while the ratio for men was fourteen to one. Women made up 52.4 percent of the total unemployed, a higher percentage than their overall share of the work force.

In 1992 women ran about 20 percent of Polish farms, a much higher percentage than in Western countries. In most cases, such arrangements reflected necessity rather than choice. Nearly 70 percent of these women were single, and over 40 percent were over age sixty. In most cases, grown children had left the farm for better opportunities and the husband had died or become incapacitated.

The end of communist government brought a new debate about women's role in Polish society. After 1989 many Poles began to associate women's rights with the enforced equality of the discredited communist past. A significant part of society saw the political transformation as an appropriate time for women to return full-time to the home after communism had forced them into the workplace and weakened the Polish family.

The rights of women were central to the controversy over state abortion law that escalated sharply in 1991 and 1992, although few women had policy-making roles and no major women's groups took advocacy positions. Some of the social policies of the postcommunist governments complicated the situation of working mothers. A 1992 national study revealed discrimination against women in hiring practices and payment of unemployment benefits, and no law prohibited such sex discrimination. Because childsupport payments were not indexed to the cost of living, the payments many women received became nearly worthless in periods of high inflation. In the communist system, daycare for the children of working mothers had been cheap and widely available, but by 1992 more than half the Polish daycare centers had closed. Striving to become self-supporting, the remaining centers raised their prices sharply in the reform period.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress