The Organized Development
of Polish Women
May 19, 1893 — Panel Discussion, World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL
First, I must ask your permission for a personal remark. When I was invited to appear in the congress as one of the representatives of women on the stage, I was not aware that two days later I should again step on the platform as a representative of Polish women.
The task fell to my share very unexpectedly, and found me unprepared. The regular delegate was prevented at the last moment from arriving here, and as I am one of the members of the advisory Polish committee, I agreed to appear before you in her place, taking upon me the risk of coming before you unprepared, rather than suffering our Polish womanhood to remain unrepresented at this great gathering.
Being deprived of its political independence, Poland is hampered in every manifestation of its vitality. Those who have taken away from us our national existence try to make the whole world believe that there is not, that there never was, such a thing as a Polish nation. They endeavor to obliterate from the annals of humanity the history of Poland; to restrict, if not entirely prohibit, the use of our language, to hinder the development of every progress, be it economic, intellectual, or social.
In such conditions it is only natural that any organized movement of women toward improving their situation should be considered as a political crime, and punished accordingly. Whatever is done must be done in secret, and therefore I am prevented from giving you evidences of the work done by my countrywomen, and must confine myself to generalities, for fear that any personal allusion may bring on very serious consequences.
And yet we have in our country a splendid array of women, distinguished in every branch of human activity, with great minds and greater hearts, who work both individually and by combined efforts with the view of raising the level of Polish womanhood. Some of them would certainly be invited to figure on the Advisory Council lists of the divers empires whose governments they are subjected, but they scorn to be enlisted otherwise than as Polish women. They would a hundred time prefer to have heir names remain in oblivion, and left out of the golden book of deserving women, than to appear there as representatives of the nationality of their oppressors. The greater number of the Polish women who would be entitled to appear here are subjects of the Russian government. It is well known that even postal communication is far from being safe there, which may explain the scarcity of the documents sent for the occasion. I have, however, with me some papers from which I will take the liberty of reading you a few translated extracts.
Woman’s situation depends upon the general level of her country and epoch. The higher the intellectual development of the community, the higher rank occupied by woman. The economic conditions exercise a similar influence, because the widening of commerce and industry opens new fields of activity, and therefore new material advantages to our sex. Race, customs, and traditions are of paramount importance in this regard. They define the character of woman’s influence. In some countries it asserted itself mostly in the direction of wordiness or sentimentality, and it was exerted by cunning or by personal charms, a state of things not very favorable to morals; in other it was based on the universal respect for women, the earnestness of her higher qualities, the earnestness of her mind, the strength of her will.
This was the case in Poland. In old times the intellectual vitality of the nation was concentrated in one class — the Polish gentry. They resided in the country, and were given up to agricultural pursuits. There woman occupied a prominent rank. Each noble mansion was enonomically a little world of its own. Its inhabitants were living entirely on home products — those of the field, the stable, the poultry, dairy, and garden. They drank home-brewed beer and mead. They were clothed in home-spun and home-woven cloth and linen. Even the costly garments, the pride of the family, were manufactured at home. The management of all these home industries were entirely in the hands of the lady of the house. Like the strong woman of the Scriptures, she fed and dressed everybody in the house and village. She had the care of their food, their comfort, and their health. Physicians were almost unknown; she had to take their place; she knew qualities of plants, and she composed the healing salves and drugs which up to today form the basis of our so-called home medicine. There remains yet an unmistakable trace of her medical pursuits; the house pantry, destined for the safe-keeping of the groceries, is called still today in Polish houses the little pharmacy, “Apteczka”.
The usefulness of the Polish woman increased her importance, and endowed her with the rights which were refused to women in other countries. By a natural process she came to take a predominant part in the business affairs of the family. This participation tended to educate her mind, the habit of commanding a numerous retinue of servants gave strength to her character, and the variety of her occupations widened her practical knowledge.
The latter, the practical knowledge, passed from mothers to daughters, and for a long time there was no other education. The convents, which abroad furnished the schools for the young girls, had a very small pedagogic influence in Poland. The little they possess at present they acquired only in the present century. There was a universal opinion, which is far from being extinct even today ,that only a mother is a competent tutor for her daughter.
The very nature of country life, the difficulty of communication, or the distances and the bad roads, had a natural result in the tightening of the family life. The intimacy of wife and husband was uninterrupted, and thus woman became initiated into public affairs and took in them a lively interest. Her mind, trained by activity, was prepared for responsibility by the comprehension of the most earnest concerns.
Our women, even of the highest rank, had nothing in common with the habits of the effect European aristocracy. They were strong in body and strong in spirit, and our historical records, as well as family traditions, have preserved the names of many heroines who have battled on the borders of Poland against the Turks or Tartars, and often successfully repulsed their attacks.
Courageous and useful, the Polish woman had a high standard of morality. A strong religions conviction and inbox feeling of dignity preserved her form the laxity of morals which only too often prevailed the higher classes of other European nations.
This feeling of natural dignity was so deeply rooted in our sex that during long centuries a wife’s infidelity was an exceedingly rare occurrence.
In the present days the instruction and education of the Polish woman stand on a level equal to that of man, sometimes above it, and yet it is admitted that our men are distinguished by their encyclopedic knowledge. Our women are great readers, and, as may be proved by the statistics of our public libraries, their reading is not confined to novels but to earnest books; and therefore scientific, literary, social, and political questions are a prominent feature of our city life, and certainly women made by far the larger part of their audience.
Another element which tends to sharpen woman’s intellect is the special character of Polish sociability. Probably social life is nowhere developed to such an extent as in Poland. Our men do not desert the house for the attraction of the club, the cafe, or the saloon. They remain at home, or gather together with women in the houses of their friend. Hospitality is essentially a virtue of the nation, but it is a hospitality fee from any kind of display, as frequent in the humble abodes of the poor as in the palaces of aristocracy and plutocracy. The old Polish proverb is, “A guest in the house is God in the house.” The main feature of these private reunions or parties is general conversation, directed by the lady of the house, but participated in equally by men and women; a conversation turning on serious topics, and where personal gossip is almost unknown.
This sociability, spread to all classes of our nation, has important advantages, as it reflects upon other relations among them, as upon marriages. In other European countries it is only too often the case that the forming of marriages is purely a business transaction between two parties hardly known to each other. With us, on account of the recent social intercourse, marriages are based on thorough acquaintance, and concluded through natural sympathy. While it cannot be said that money considerations are always the moving cause, they yet figure i a small degree in the tying of matrimonial bonds. Thus it happens that in Poland the poor girl has suitors as well as the rich one; if the latter has the advantage as to their number, the former has a better chance in regard to the quality of her choice.
The unmarried girl in my country enjoy: a position, if not so independent as in America, still much better than the rest of the European continent. In recent times especially there has been market progress; her social standing and her freedom of action are gaining ground every day. As a natural consequence there is a great movement among our unmarried girls to obtain independent livelihood, and not to loo upon marriage as the ultimate goal of their ambition.
In a great part of Russian Poland, the so-called kingdom, Napoleon’s legislative code is still in force, and according to it, the unmarried woman of age, or the widow, has the absolute right, to dispose of her fortune, while the married woman remains under the power of her husband. Without his assistance she cannot execute any legal act. He is absolute master of her revenue, and is not obliged to render any account of it. His only duty is to support her and her children in a way befitting his social position. He cannot, homer, erect any sale of her estates or incur any debts on them without her permission.
This subordinate legal situation did not act as injuriously as it might upon the Polish woman of today. it did no destroy her influence or restrict her field of action. With the charge of economic and other conditions, and the consequent disappearance of many home industries, her circle of activity in the household became narrower, but her energies were soon directed into new channels. She is the continual helpmate of her husband in all his business enterprises; she is consulted in every financial transaction, and, if she becomes a widow, usually takes place the management of the business. Some of our largest fortunes and our most important industrial establishments are directed and controlled by women.
In the old times, when Poland was so to say a bulwark between Tartars and Turks and the rest of Europe, stating on the defense of civilization against the Asiatic hordes, when eery man was a soldier, the Polish women were left at home, the sole masters of the family and estate. This independence developed in them a spirit of national pride, wisdom, and courage. Forced to spend months and years in awaiting the return of her dear ones, left for a long time without news from the field of battle, and harassed by dreadful persecution and fears, still holding a serene countenance before the people. Thus courage, industry, patriotism, and patience are the prominent characteristics of Polish women.
Let us go back to the seventeenth century. What pictures of women’s life are impressed upon my mind from the records of our history! I see through the mist of ages a young, beautiful bride and her manly bridegroom. They have just returned from the church, and stand upon the porch of the house. Her eyes are moist with tears of happiness; their hands clasped together, they look at each other in silence with a great, solemn interrogation in their eyes, afraid of speaking lest they should break the spell of the exquisite joy of two perfectly harmonious souls. Fro the house merry peals of laughter and music come to their ears, but they do to seem to hear it. He tenderly puts his arm around her waist and whispers words of love, when suddenly he lifts his head and listens. What is it? The air is still, and yet in the far distance a scarcely audible sound is heard, first footsteps of horses, then the clang of armor, and a few moments later a troop of warriors gallops to the house. A dispatch is handed to the bridegroom, which he reads in silence, but by the expression of his facd she guesses that it is a summons to leave her and go with the others to the field of battle.
Leave her, and now! Her face grows deadly pale, but there are no tears in her eyes. She extends her arms to him, falls on his breast, then, making the sign of the cross on his brow, she speaks firmly. “In the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Ghost, go!” And the part. He goes to the battle fiercer than ever. She stays at home, left to her prayers and domestic duties, ever patient, industrious, with no other consolation but her religion, her national pride, and the hope to see her husband soon again. But he must come home with a brave record or else she would rather see him in his grave. Religion and her country first, and then love!
The usefulness of the Polish woman increased her importance, and endowed her with the rights which were refused to women in other countries. By a natural process she came to take a predominant part in the business affairs of the family. This participation tended to education her mind, the habit of commanding a numerous retinue of servants gave strength to her character, and the variety of her occupations widened her practical knowledge.
Another picture suggests itself to me. A young mother, left alone with a little son five years old; after the morning prayer and breakfast, she leads him to the yard. An old soldier, dover with scars, is waiting for them. He holds two words in his hands, one of them a mere toy, but made of sharp, strong steel. The boy grasps his little sword; both stand in position, and the fencing lesson commences. The mother sits quietly watching her little one, terrified at moments, but with a smile on her lips. From time to time she veteran gives points to the little warrior: “Cover you hear, your side.” No! That’s not good. Try again. Not this way. Take care or I will cut you.” He cuts. The boy grows pale with rage. Mother comes to him, bandages the slight wound. The old soldier apologizes, but she only says, “You have done right. He will do better next time.” Again she sits among her maids, spinning, sewing, or embroidering the church vestments. She talks to the girls, she tells the legends, stories of battles, or reads to them the New Testament and lives of saints. When the work is over, all unite in evening prayers and songs.
Such a life must have developed a sense of responsibility, authority, and chastity. This training lasted for generations, and its effects are so deeply rooted, so distinctly marked, that they cannot be erased, either by economic or social changes or by political upheavals.
The best proof of the tradition of the past still lives in the Polish woman’s heart is the share she took in our constant struggle for independence.
With the impious spirit of our three Christian neighboring monarchies prompted them to form a so-called holy alliance in order to crush and tear to pieces our unfortunate country, which was then the only representative of self-government and personal liberty; when not satisfied with the annexation and division of Poland, they robbed and pillaged our land from end to end, stabbing the very heart of our national life, destroying our institutions, persecuting our language and religion, shutting all the gates of civilization and progress. When our men, exhausted by wars and defeats, became despondent and disheartened, it was the Polish woman who stood like a guardian angel at the doors of their conscience. It was she who taught her sons how to defy our enemies, she who preserved the tradition of honor, patriotism, valor, and integrity, not allowing herself a moment to rest, but working with strange tenacity, in spite of bullets, the chains of Liberia, and, worst of all, the lash with which she was often punished, to the everlasting disgrace of the Russian government. It was she who encouraged them, always ready to lay down her life for the welfare and independence of her country.
Our enemies are making a great mistake if they think that they can kill patriotism. As long as there is one Polish woman left alive, Poland all not die, and the more they persecute us the better it is for us now. We may have deserved punishment for the faults and mistakes of the past. We must pay the penalty, and God only knows at what expense we pay it.
A well-known French water says that the best thing about Poland is the Polish mother. He spoke the truth ,and I take the opportunity afforded me by this congress to send Polish mothers a message across the ocean; a message of respect, love, and veneration. The world knows of the Roman matron and the Spartan mother. I dare claim a place next to them for the Polish mother. When the French artist, Horace Vernet, was asked by Czar Nicholas to paint an episode from the last struggle between Poland and Russia, he answered, “Your Majesty will excuse me; I have never painted Christ on the cross.” And he was right. Poland was crucified, but was there not a mother kneeling beneath the cross of Golgotha waiting patiently and praying for the resurrection? And is there not also today the Polish mother waiting patiently and praying for the resurrection of her country? Will she wait forever? No; If there is justice on earth, she will not wait in vain.
Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company),1894, pp. 738-749.
Also: Fair Rosalind: The American Career of Helena Modjeska, by Marion Moore Coleman (Cheshire, CT: Cherry Hill Books), 1969, pp. 625-630.