The Political Stance of Women
1907 — The Polish Women’s Assembly, Warsaw, Poland
There is no doubt that the most significant phenomenon today, in the rapid and all-encompassing evolution of human ideas, is the rising popular awareness of civil equality.
This is the present day’s most important victory.
The final testimony to that process will be, or rather is, the woman’s achievement of civil awareness. Admittedly, it took a powerful rattle of the chains of oppression to lead women away from a passive servitude and into battle. Today that battle is already being fought. Women have finally realized that they too must take a stand on the grand stage of politics. That in order to fulfill their civil obligations, they must be entitled to all civil rights without exception.
And this leads us to the second epic victory of today. Only once we realize that the greatest error of our policy in the past, the error that led to our downfall and deprived us of our power, was to exclude the people considered today the foundation of our nation, can we say with equal conviction that another mistake, just as threatening to our nation’s well-being, is to subject women to that same exclusion. The sooner we correct this error and the sooner we stop ignoring and wasting the resources which we do not have in overabundance, the faster will we progress towards the attainment of our national and human ideals. Even if we gain freedom, we shall not be a free nation s long as half of our population is denied its civil rights.
What other nation is better suited to carry the torch of freedom to others if not the one with such a wonderful tradition of free spirit, the one with so many battels fought for its own freedom and the freedom of others, the one to have suffered through so much pain and torture? All those hardships were endured to the same extent by women, and this has endowed them with a special kind of dignity. Polish women were early to develop, to mature and to pass the test of humanity. Thus they can be bolder in their demands for human rights, but they are also more sensitive to each injustice. The slogan: “equal rights to all men” is a definite improvement on caste-related slogans of yesterday: “Rights to the nobility,” “Rights to the bourgeoisie,” “Rights to the clergy,” but let us not forget the shortcomings and defects of this legitimate claim based on sex. How superior and more democratic, how much more human is the new slogan heard all around and even triumphant in some places: “Equal rights to all!” . . .
As we know initially the “National Democratic Party” was strongly prejudiced against the emerging women’s rights organizations. Not officially, of course — we were not worthy of that distinction — but in secret; through female members of Parliament we were told, as were you in this very place, that “it is not the time to fight for women’s rights when the rights of the entire nation are at stake.”
Indeed, no other term in our language is more misleading, unclear, more abused and recklessly interpreted than the idea of what is, and what is not the national struggle or work. Summoned up at every opportunity, however insignificant, even against the most noble of actions, the word becomes a poisoned arrow, mercilessly striking down work and worker alike. It is no surprise therefore that it was also targeted against the emerging activity of women.
A question arises: is the woman’s position outside of her nation? Would her rights not be the rights of her nation? Is she not part of it?
I do not presume any ill will, but there is a basic mistake in this claim, a great misunderstanding, one that I emphasize with all the more insistence, as even women fall prey to it, especially those who tend to be less independent in their thinking and support the “National Democratic Party” at the same time . . . .
How do you tell the work that is in the nation’s interest from any other kind? Where does this work end, and some other type of work, which is not “national,” begin? If working towards women’s liberation is not “national,” then working for the liberation of the people, working to improve the situation of the working class, working for the betterment of ay class or estate would not be “national,” hence not work the time. And if it is not so, if the struggle for the rights of peasants and works, the rights of children, the rights of any group of people constitutes work done for the nation, which it clearly does, then so does the struggle for the rights of women, for their liberation. What other way is there to liberate and elevate the people and to liberate women, if not by leading them way from humiliating, centuries-long servitude? How do we empower them to work for the nation, if we deny them the right to work? . . .
To conclude this matter, let me add that the only times when it is not a waste of time — though there really is no time to fight for rights beside the rights of the entire nation— are the times of active revolutions. In those times, however, women become almost more equal than in any other circumstances, and we have seen and are seeing that they often make heroic use of that equality.
Such was the original position of the N.D. towards us.
Under the influence of the lively women’s movement in Galicia in recent years and faced with the threat of many women drifting towards radical parties which support women’s political rights, the N.D. started making concessions, even to the point of saying not only that it is not opposed to women being granted political rights, but that it is in fact willing to support them, although obviously not in the form of women’s suffrage, as that would make little sense to use women, but on the old, tried and proven basis of a curial system . . .
Despite this seemingly, sympathetic attitude of the N.D. towards our political rights movement, the group of women supporting the N.D., despite all our efforts, refused to be persuaded to organize a women’s rights association for fear that such an organization be detrimental to the national interest.
On the other hand, in Cracow and Lviv, such organizations were established by more radical groups sympathizing with the “Social Democratic Party.”
Unfortunately, raised for centuries to be obedient, women still feel the need to obey someone. With very few exceptions, some listen to the N.D., others to the S.D. And so they are conducting all their activities, especially those related to electoral reforms, under the auspices of the latter.
We have witnessed a whole host of women’s rallies organized to support this reform, during which women merely touched on the issue of their rights, an event that only in passing, while focusing on the demands fore qual voting rights for male workers, who, incidentally, despite having bene discriminated against in the voting regulations in force at the time, had more rights than women themselves . . .
The victory of political democratization must become the victory of women’s rights, but it can only happen if women fight for equality. Without struggle they will achieve nothing. Without their involvement, the matter of equal rights will never be treated with enough momentum that they can be granted political rights whether they demand them or not . . .
There is also no guarantee that male workers, should they win rights for themselves, will be so willing to share them with women without reservation as women seem to believe will be the case. Note that in countries that introduced popular voting rights for men a long time ago, the women’s struggle has not become any easier. We can see that in France, in Germany or even in the majority of the United States, women were denied political rights as long as hey failed to fight for them without enough tenacity.
Such were the motives of the women who chose this particular tactic when rallying for the elector reform in Galicia . . .
The S.D. cares primarily for the interest of male workers. Women’s interest, unless strongly bound with their own, are of little concern to them, and despite all declarations to the contrary, the S.D. does not strive for women’s political rights, assuming, as do socialists in other countries, that being conservative by nature, when given voting rights, women would be a negative influence on the progressive movement.
They are right, but only to a certain extent. First and foremost, there is no doubt that working class women, i.e. the vast majority of women, having gained voting rights, will be behind the working class man all the way. And although there are, admittedly, a lot of conservative, reactionary groups among women, they are no more numerous than those made up of men of all social classes, especially among the peasants, as well as the workers. Yet no one from the “Social Democratic Party” wishes to deny their voting rights based on that fact. A rule is a rule. Either you follow it, or you don’t . . . .
The idea of nationality is useful, but not in the hands of small-time ideology dealers, peddling it like devotional objects at the walls of the Sanctuary in Częstochowa. Watching all that, as Diderot once called on his contemporaries — “Open your minds to enlarge your concept of God, for as it is now, it could make Him repugnant” — so we feel like calling, “Enlarge your concept of nationality, for as it is now, it could make nationality repugnant.” . . .
How should we proceed? . . .
We, the Poles, have a duty and reason to love our homeland more than a Frenchman loves France, a Swede loves Sweden or an Englishman loves England. But the more we love it, the more we want it to be great and noble and free, the more carefully we need to protect it from being flawed. Let there be no harm in this land to anyone, and let there be justice for all. Let there be equal law to everyone and privilege to no one . . .
We, women, must work to bring closer that psychological moment when human affairs are no longer governed by national or class egoisms, but by more noble motives of honor and justice. Protect not only the interest of the nation, but protect even more fervently its virtue, honor and righteousness while remembering that out of the two evils there is more dignity for a nation in suffering than in doing harm. . . . . . .
It would be impossible to discuss individual social matters here, so I will only mention that in class struggle the weak and the oppressed must find in us their unreserved defenders. Even though our principal cause is equal rights for women as the citizens oppressed the most by the political and social system of today, we hold equally dear the cause of liberation for peasants and workers from all material land moral oppression. Proponents of equality and brotherhood, let us support everything that works towards the eradication of all estate and class differences between people and towards making our nation a group of equal citizens working in different professions, according to their talents and preferences.
Today all parties often fight against the privileges of their opponents only to win those same privileges for those who support them. And so, the “People’s Party,” incidentally the most appealing in its ideology and tactics, says to peasants: “”not you must seize the power of government, now you deserve to be the leaders of this nation,” i.e. it tells them that they are now to be privileged. The S.D. says to the workers: now you will come to the fore, as the head of the nation, and the intelligentsia, as camp followers, will follow behind.” The N.D. says: “We are Poland,” the rest are not Poles, they are half-Poles, if not straightforward enemies of the nation.
This is the state of the struggle against privileges today
Each of those parties, while claiming all virtues and successes for itself, ascribes all that is wrong to those outside of its ranks . . . .
Abnormal relationships produce abnormal people, thus is it’s not against people but against abnormal relationships that we must fight. We do not fight any person, party or opponent for the sake of resistance alone. On the contrary, let us give credit wherever it is due, but fight to the end everything that gets in the way of progress and justice ruling human relationships.
Therefore, let us put all our energy into fighting capitalism and the prime cause of all social abnormalities and in particular the cause of the oppression of the working class. The present capitalist system humiliates and degrades work by turning it into its humble servant and becoming its autocratic master. . .
Let us fight militarism as the greatest failure of nations, running them economically and morally, and constituting the greatest constraining on civilization as a whole.
No matter if those fighting for the liberation of the people want to combine freedom with militarism. If German socialists cheer for the army, if French socialists reject all anti-military words, thoughts and acts, if even our “People’s Party” declares itself the enemy of anti-militarism, then we, the women, when we are elected to Parliaments, must fight against militarism.
But before militarism and capitalism, our first enemy, all the greater because it is so close and common, is every harm done, every incident of oppression, untruth and lawlessness, and it is against those enemies that we must struggle and prevail.
With those tasks in mind, let us organize quickly, in harmony and unit. Let us not be divided by petty problems an disputes, but rather be united by our goals.
Remembering these words: “the first step to liberation from captivity is to dare to be free. The first step to victor is to learn one’s own strength.”
Let us dare to be free, let us learn our strength!
Translation by Zuzanna Ładyga.
Source: Ster 1907, No. 7, 8.
Also: “Polityczne stanowisko kobiety (referat wygloszony na Zjeździe Kobiet Polskich w Warszawie)”in Chcemy całego źycia. Antologia polskich tekstów feministycznych z lat 1870-1939, ed. Aneta Górnicka-Boratyńska, (Warsaw: Fundacja Res Publica), 1999, pp. 228-245.
Also: Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States: Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770-1945) Texts and Commentaries, ed. Ahmet Ersoy, Maciej Górny, Vangelis Kechriotis (Budapest: CEU Press), 2010, pp. 133-139.