by Peggy Simpson

The fight to regain reproductive rights

The scaffolding covering the Chopin Palace in Warsaw didn’t hide the electricity inside, as reproductive rights activist Wanda Nowicka was nominated as Poland’s Woman of Europe, contending for a Brussels-based European Community prize. The moderator, Krystyna Kofta, a novelist and magazine writer, professed amazement: “You have a husband and three sons and yet you call yourself a feminist…. Isn’t this inconsistent?”

Nowicka, cofounder and executive director of the three-year-old Federation for Women and Family Planning, brought cheers from the standing-room crowd when she said, “I hope this stereotype about feminism is not the only one that is shattered by my selection. I’m a living example of that stereotype not being true.”

In honoring Nowicka, the jurors – who come from academia, the media, and political parties – validated Poland’s besieged and marginalized women’s rights activists as credible political players. That’s a sea change.

It has been a wipeout four years for women, at least on reproductive rights issues, since shortly after communism fell in Poland in 1989. The church has won everything it wanted, from regaining property to putting religion back in school to moving against legal abortion and raising political and professional risks for doctors who perform them. Its current crusade is to get “life begins at conception” language into the new constitution, as proposed by the Solidarity Union. Solidarity, meantime, has worked closely with the church; in 1990, the union muzzled members who defied the union’s crusade to make abortion illegal.

Nowicka, a former language teacher, is a leader of the grassroots movement to fight back. Until last summer’s UN Population and Development Conference in Cairo, when she made news in Poland and abroad by warning delegates not to expect the Vatican to compromise on reproductive issues such as contraception and abortion, she was known mostly to insiders. Deputy Barbara Labuda, head of the Parliamentary Caucus on Women’s Issues and the nation’s most visible abortion-rights defender, says she “fought like a tiger” for Nowicka to get the award.

One juror who was persuaded was Rychard Holzer, a top editor at a Warsaw daily newspaper, Super Express: “Family planning and abortion are crucial issues in Poland. The polls show that the majority of people oppose the anti-abortion law. What we did was show the public this person who is fighting that law. This is not an anti-church or pro-church position. We didn’t talk about the church. We said this is a good woman.”

Consciousness-Raising Can’t Begin at the Top

The struggles women in Poland are having are a lesson in the dangers of top-down equal rights. In the past, “equality” was an official policy of the Communist party, although many now say it was more rhetoric than reality and never gave women real power. Women emerged from communism with minimal political clout in either the Communist parties or the Solidarity parties, where women had played a pivotal part in keeping underground Solidarity afloat. Women also emerged saddled with the same formidable work/family burdens they’d wrestled with before – and with no conversations among themselves (let alone with their husbands or as public debates) about burden-sharing.

In 1990 and 1991, few Polish women wanted anything to do with anything connected with the “women’s movement.” Like women in many parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, they associated it with communist manipulation of the people, and they knew it didn’t bring equality. It was an awful time for a learning curve. But there was no way to jump-start a grassroots women’s movement from the top. Nor could it be done by outsiders, although their help can be valuable. It has to be done by insiders who know what is viable and when. That foundation is being laid today, brick by brick.

“What we have been going through is the necessary process of getting consciousness about women’s issues in general,” Nowicka says. Western feminists fought for their equality, but “we took it for granted,” Nowicka explains. “If you forget about communism – and forget how limiting it was – the fact that we got so much, so easily, had a paralyzing effect: that there is no need to fight for anything more, that we are equal.” She grew up in the late 1970s, never doubting that she was equal to her brother. “There were so many appearances of equality, like the possibility of work, access to the university, being a professional. Many women around me made careers. It was only very recently that I realized very few women could get far in terms of their career.”

The wake-up call for Polish women, she says, was the collision on reproductive rights (see The Handmaid’s Tale, Polish Style, p. 39): More women now realize that “what was easily given can be easily taken away, so now is the time to struggle, to strengthen ourselves, to mobilize. I truly believe that eventually we will win. But I’m afraid it may take years.”

An Unlikely Revolutionary Nowicka doesn’t look the part of a revolutionary. She has a radiant smile and dresses with simple elegance. She overcame shyness to become a strong public speaker, but still ducks her head when praised. Originally she was studying to be a Greek and Latin scholar when, at 22, to her parents’ dismay, she married philosopher Swiatoslaw Nowicki. She became a Latin teacher instead and spent most of the 1980s rearing three sons, not as a Solidarity activist risking jail or worse in the tumultuous confrontation with the Communists.

Nowicka dates her first political action to poll-watching in the 1984 elections that Solidarity boycotted to make sure voter turnout figures weren’t inflated. Taking her son Florian in a stroller, she watched a mostly deserted election center for hours – then bolted when a Party official began to ask why she was there and to demand her ID.

When the Solidarity government took over in mid-1989, Nowicka was focused on parents’ moves to improve education. She wasn’t political in the larger sense. That changed when the first Solidarity government announced in August 1990, when most people were on vacation, that religion classes would be put back into public schools weeks later. At the time, she had just begun three years of teaching English in a parent-controlled high school.

Nowicka helped start Neutrum, a group advocating separation of church and state, which monitored complaints both from parents whose children were ostracized if they weren’t in religion school, and from those who were manipulated if their children were. For example, the Friday before the first free parliamentary elections in 1991, some priests sent home names of approved candidates and told first graders they wouldn’t get First Communion if their parents didn’t back the church ticket. Earlier that year Neutrum had expanded its agenda when anti-abortion laws were proposed. That’s when Nowicka met women from the Polish Feminist Association (PFA). It was a turning point for her.

The PFA proposed her, rather than one of their own, for a summer 1991 political training workshop in Washington, DC, sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice. Nowicka, who had been baptized as a Catholic, wanted to act on her anger – and wasn’t as exhausted as the PFA veterans, recalls ex-PFA activist Barbara Pomorska, now New Zealand’s honorary counsel and trade representative in Warsaw.

She came back energized, and in late 1991 Neutrum helped found the nine-group Federation for Women and Family Planning. Nowicka became its president in 1992. The next year, she left teaching to work part-time at the Federation. In 1994, she resigned from its board to take the newly created job of executive director.

Unlike many Polish women, Nowicka has had her family strongly behind her growing involvement. Her husband works out of their home, translating the German philosopher Hegel into Polish, and does much of the shopping and cooking. “My husband is not a traditional Polish man with these patriarchal expectations. He understands because I’m outside doing this sort of job and he works at home, that somebody must do this work. He’s really very supportive, now that he realizes I’m really busy and tired, and he takes on more than he used to,” she says. All three sons – Florian, now 14, Michal, 12, and Timoteusz, 10 – cook, with specialties such as soups or baking. “And we cook together. We’re also not fussy about this,” says Nowicka. Her husband and sons have given her a secure emotional base from which to tackle the extraordinarily difficult job of tying together Poland’s polarized and fragmented women’s community.

Building Coalitions out of Mistrust Finding common ground after decades of political polarization and distrust is a problem many grassroots groups in the former Soviet bloc must tackle.

The Federation is one of the few organizations that has succeeded in getting old and new political groups to work in tandem. Members besides Neutrum include the Solidarity-based PFA; Pro Femina, a grassroots feminist group of women once linked to the Communist party; the Polish Women’s League (the former official Communist party association); the YWCA; and the existing affiliate of International Planned Parenthood Federation, called TRR.

Nowicka gets much of the credit for brokering this arrangement. Nowicka’s “personal skills…and diplomacy” were assets in the Federation’s success in linking Solidarity groups “and old groups like the Women’s League, which, because of its communist past, was not really ‘accepted,’ says lawyer Urszula Nowakowska, who is starting an office to monitor policies affecting women, modeled after the two-way linkages she saw in the U.S. Congress on a 1993 – 94 fellowship sponsored by the Women’s Research and Educational Institute.

Nowicka’s apolitical profile also helped, points out Malgorzata Halaba, a former Russian-Polish translator now working on a master’s in business administration. “First of all, she didn’t have any political past. She was not a controversial person. She also is not a person who evokes conflict, but somebody who rather solves conflicts.

“Wanda is a person who can pick up what is most important to everybody and put it together. She doesn’t take sides. She’s able to see the global picture,” says Halaba, who is Neutrum’s person on the board. “What makes her effective is that she’s not emotional but she knows what she wants. She doesn’t make a lot of fuss about it, she just does it. She’s also a brave person. She’s not afraid to tell what she thinks: It’s one thing to say something among your friends and quite another to say this at an international conference like in Cairo.”

Making decisions and making them stick, without one group or another having second thoughts a week later, has been a serious problem. This was rooted partly in the isolation from what outsiders might think are routine “Robert’s rules” processes of running a meeting. But not making decisions was characteristic of the past system. There was an intrinsic assumption that “information is power, so hoard it,” rather than the operative premise for grassroots organizing: that “information is power, so share it.”

Nowicka has shown that sharing information can strengthen an organization. One early Federation activity that has paid off is a hotline set up in 1992 to get and give information. That helps the network monitor on the ground realities of every aspect of legal and illegal abortions. New services include sex education programs in two dozen or so schools outside of Warsaw, begun late this summer, and training programs for their teachers.

Early support – both financial and in workshops where experts from Ireland or the United States were brought in as political-training resources – came from Catholics for a Free Choice and IPPF. The Federation also cosponsored a working conference with Norway’s Equal Status Council on shaping laws and enforcement mechanisms to guarantee women’s rights, and a subsequent one with Norwegian experts and Polish nurses who teach sex-ed classes. And fellowships to study outside Poland have also helped both Nowicka and attorney Nowakowska gain the perspective that let them create change. But it’s also important to note that the generosity of outraged feminists in the rest of the world can be a mixed blessing for groups like the Federation. Unsolicited gifts included tens of cartons of condoms or oral contraceptives with no way to distribute them to users, and roomfuls of comic books on sex for Polish teenagers, which got high marks for candor and humor but still were hard to get to teens.

The Future There is a far more sophisticated grassroots women’s movement here than even a year ago. Some are Polish affiliates of international groups, such as the Association of University Women and the Association of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (which has 200 women in seven clubs). An association of rural women entrepreneurs, directed by Elzbieta Dec, is Women’s World Banking’s first central European affiliate. Maria Anna Knothe’s Center for the Advancement of Women is a major resource for training and women’s economic initiatives. Key funders and nurturers for the movement are Dagmara Baraniewska, a senior executive of the Batory Foundation, and Joanna Regulska, director of Russian, Central and East European Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a Polish emigre who commutes between the United States and Poland and is a key link for grants and programs abroad.

And conflict has spurred consciousness-raising among academics. Three veteran professors are in the second semester of a groundbreaking gender-studies course at Warsaw University: law professors Eleonora Zielinska and Monika Platek and sociology of law professor Malgorzata Fuszara, who also heads a research unit on women and work issues.

Meantime, Nowicka’s visibility has soared. After being nominated for the Woman of Europe award, she was interviewed on the radio and in newspapers. Her views became well known, for the first time, to many people. The reproductive rights center also was publicized through the focus on Wanda. And the criticism she had levelled at the Vatican during the Cairo conference got second-round exposure.

The limelight has its hazards, however. At a two-day conference on “women and family life” sponsored by the Parliamentary Caucus on Women’s Issues, held in Parliament on Nov. 12-13, the more than 200 delegates were leafleted with a petition protesting Nowicka’s nomination that was signed by 18 women, some of them well-known public figures such as sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis. Nowicka’s criticism of the Vatican and of Polish-born Pope John Paul II at the Cairo population conference was “shocking and disgraceful,” they said.

Nowicka’s own inclination was to defend what she had said (which sounded much harsher in translation from English to Polish) and to make sure that the context was clear: She was criticizing the Vatican, and the pope, on its stand on population issues such as contraception and abortion. She was not criticizing the pope in general, especially as a former Solidarity-era dissident who knew full well that the resistance probably could not have succeeded if it had not been for the protection of the church. She never made the clarification, having been persuaded by her peers that all it would do was make her appear on the defensive.

And that’s not all that happened. Within a week of Nowicka’s being honored as Poland’s Woman of Europe, the reproductive rights office began getting threatening telephone calls. On Friday, November 25 – Nowicka’s 38th birthday – they escalated into more serious trouble. “A man calling himself Mr. Markowski said he had a telephone appointment with me. I didn’t remember that, but when I came to the phone he started yelling at me, ‘You bitch, you Jew,’ ” she recalls. “Of course I put the receiver down, but he called again and again. Finally, our hotline people talked to him. We recorded the calls. We wanted to call the police at that time, but we didn’t.”

They probably should have. Later that night or early on Saturday, the reproductive rights office was broken into and totally cleaned out – of two computers and printers, a VCR and television, payroll money due to be paid to hotline workers (about $3,000), and three telephones. “They didn’t just unplug the phones and take them – they cut the wires, as if they would disconnect us from the world. An ordinary robber would have just unplugged them,” says Nowicka. Not the least of the impact was the fact that a newly computerized list containing names of more than 800 activists was taken, along with hundreds of other files. Some of that can be replaced, but for a while “we’re really out of business,” says Nowicka.

Given that two Polish women had previously won the Woman of Europe competition, no one was surprised that Nowicka did not win this year. Receiving the national prize had done its job of making both her and the cause for which she is fighting better known across Poland. The hate mail and threatening phone calls – and the burglary – are testimony to that. “What we wanted to do was to be known,” she said. “And these are partly the costs of that. I hope the last ones.”

Peggy Simpson has been in Poland covering the economic psychology of the political changes for the past three years. She teaches about U.S. news media at Warsaw University, and has reported on national economics and political news for the Associated Press for 30 years.