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The Women who Defeated Communism in Poland

A review by Jo Freeman posted on Seniorwomen Web in June, 2005.

Solidarity's Secret: the women who defeated Communism in Poland, Shana Penn,
University of Michigan Press, 2005, 372 pages

On December 13, 1981, martial law was declared in Poland. Ten thousand opponents of Communist rule were arrested. Most were associated with Solidarity, the first and only free trade union movement in Eastern Europe. For sixteen months Solidarity had lived a precarious co-existence with the Communist government while creating the institutions of a civil society, that space between the family and the state which is largely eliminated by totalitarian governments in their desire to control everything. Most of these institutions -- political clubs, adult education programs, newspapers, magazines, and cultural groups -- were crushed when the military took control, cut the phone lines, sealed the borders, restricted travel and arrested anyone known to oppose the government who could be found.

Only ten percent of those arrested were women. Because women's work as the support staff of the men who made the speeches and signed their names to articles was largely invisible, the military paid little attention to them. Two days later seven women who had escaped arrest met to start Solidarity over as an underground organization. This book tells their story -- as well as the stories of some of the other women whose contributions, large and small, led to the dissolution of Communist control in the summer of 1989.

A year later Shana Penn came to Poland, one of many "political tourists" who wanted to learn about the revolution from the inside. A feminist, she concentrated on women, and soon learned that the Western press, which had covered Solidarity sympathetically for years, had missed a major part of the story. After fifteen years of interviews, researching and writing, Penn has given us this engaging book. In its pages the reader feels the fear and the boredom, the dedication and the sacrifices of the women who created the underground -- the networks that kept Solidarity in the public eye, in touch and alive, even though all the "important" leaders were in jail.

Communism's defeat began in 1968, with a series of student protests that resulted in arrests, prison, expulsions, and emigration. The students thought their demands for reform were crushed when the workers failed to support them after the government successfully labeled them as "Zionist lackeys" and "agents of international imperialism." Instead they gained the experience and connections to do a better job next time. That time came in August of 1980, after a decade of protests and strikes, when an outspoken, middle-aged, female crane operator, much loved by her co-workers, was fired from the Gdansk shipyard for her constant criticisms of the authorities. As strikes spread across the country, workers, students, intellectuals and Church leaders, men and women, came together to form Solidarity. By the end of August, the government had acceded to all 21 of its demands and Solidarity was legal.

A few months later several people with experience putting out illegal newsletters formed the Solidarity Press Agency, to collect and provide news stories to the growing independent press, as well as to foreign publications. Most of the seven women who met after martial law was declared came from this agency. Their first impulse was to create a newspaper to reassure the Polish people that Solidarity was not dead or defeated; it would be the voice of Solidarity underground. Production took place in "floating offices", largely private apartments and the attics of private houses, which moved every few weeks. Volunteers housed the editors, typed the stencils, ran the presses and distributed the publication. They did this for almost eight years.

This network formed the core of the underground, which vastly expanded with time. Women became the "handlers" of the male leaders, hiding those who were not in jail, deciding whom they could meet, escorting them when they had to travel, acting as couriers, as well as publishing the thoughts of those both in and out of prison. When moving in public, they often wore disguises to look like a variety of "ordinary" Polish women. Above all, they kept their identities private, never signing their names, never revealing their role. They took advantage of the fact that the police did not see women as organizers, as leaders, or as a threat.

Although these women were not in prison, they paid a heavy price. Many gave up their family lives, sending children to live with grandparents, sometimes breaking up with husbands and boyfriends. Careers were stopped, or not started, and studies interrupted. When the Communist government admitted it could no longer run the country, Solidarity resurrected its male-dominated hierarchy. The women who had held it together were largely ignored, neither thanked nor included in the opposition government. Instead abortion was banned in 1993 and women were encouraged to leave the labor force to tend to their homes. Not until 1999 did a feminist consciousness emerge to legitimate a fight for women's rights.

That year Solidarity's secret -- that women were the backbone of the "patient revolution" which undermined Communism in Poland -- provoked a national debate in the Polish media on women and political power. Until then, the fact that women were the secret weapon during martial law was "the national secret" -- known to those involved at the time but never talked about and not part of the official history. It remains to be seen whether that history will be revised to include them.

Solidarity's Secret is no surprise to students of women's history in the Western world, who have discovered that women usually create and staff the infrastructure of movements for social change. The fact that women's work is rarely acknowledged while the men take the credit is also not new; nor is the fact women rarely question their invisibility and when they do are usually ignored. Women's contributions are like sand castles, seen at the time but swept away by the tide of history leaving only the rocks of men's achievements. It's not women's absence from politics but their invisibility that regularly requires that the wheel be recreated and heralded as something new. Until women are accepted and acknowledged as full contributors to the making of history, their fate will be like that of Solidarity's women -- to be largely excluded from the subsequent "democratic" government, their issues ignored and their rights retrenched, while their men resume the privileges of patriarchy.