Immediately after World War Two, the Communist government mobilised Polish women to participate in the job market. They were expected to contribute to the post-war reconstruction of the country, as well as to their home budgets. Due to lower overall wages, many men could no longer act as sole breadwinners. Even though from that moment on, the majority of women in Poland held jobs outside their homes, they were never treated equally.
In the 1940s, the Communists in power were happy to push Polish women to ‘jump on the tractors’, but they soon turned their backs on such a hard line of female emancipation. Neither the Stalinist propaganda nor the equal rights article in the Polish Constitution from 1952 managed to erase conventionally established views of womanhood and manhood.
Social opposition to the Communist model of femininity gained its momentum after the death of Joseph Stalin. Traditional patriarchal roles and Catholic models of motherhood resurfaced in a new patriotic light. Now they were seen as a public backlash against earlier Sovietization.
The encouragement of women to assume male jobs that in the Soviet Union was viewed as a promotion of gender equality, in Poland was met with resistance. The masculine girls on tractors from Soviet propaganda posters became the laughing stock of the nation.
Expected to display conventional femininity through their appearance and behaviour, Polish women still kept both their jobs and the legal guarantees of equal rights. At the same time, they were treated with traditional courtesy. Men often complimented on their appearance and expressed appreciation and respect for their hard work.
However, given only minimal help from male partners at home, women had to assume most, if not all, domestic responsibilities.This return to traditional Catholic principles of the masculine and the feminine justified the subservient position of women by ‘natural difference’, but it also doubled the load of women’s work, who now had duties both inside and outside their homes.
To satisfy Polish cravings for a separate and distinct national identity in the Eastern Bloc and to solve problems with the declining birth rate in the country, the Communist Party also engaged in the promotion of motherhood. The first wave of such propaganda swept through the media in the 1950s and then with a redoubled effort in the 1970s. Thus, Polish mothers with babies and toddlers in their arms replaced the Soviet women on tractors.
The formation of two separate ‘natural’ gender identities was erected on two cornerstones of seemingly incompatible ideological premises of Communism and Catholicism. Their intersecting goals of reproducing the nation suppressed self-investment and social mobility of the female. Although the Communist Party always rather enthusiastically invested in propagating women workers who were also able mothers, promotion of women as leaders was a distant reverie.
Many Polish women experienced discrimination even at lower levels of professional hierarchies. For example, according to Polish sociologist, Anna Titkow, in the 1980s on average a woman’s earnings still accounted for only 66-67% of a man’s salary. Rarely discussed in public, such pay differences were again socially accepted and justified through references to biological functions of women. It was difficult for women to fight their corner because the official discourse muddled up any potentially useful lines of resistance against gender oppression.
Not finding gratification in their professional careers, discouraged from self-investment, many women turned to find satisfaction serving as caretakers for their families, as well as for all others in need. Their public roles were seen as an extension of their private lives as successful wives and mothers. Motherhood also became one of the dominant references for women in the job market. Their professional pathways, just like those at home, were fixed in anatomy.
Such a model of womanhood was passed on to the young generations at schools, where among mandatory readings one could find the literary masterpieces from the 19th century, which cultivated ideological confluence of national identity and religion. Assigning special responsibilities to women, they elevated the figure of the Polish mother as the selfless servant to the nation. The post-war female was educated to assume a similar role.
Nonetheless, because of her contribution to the family budget, the authority of the woman at home significantly increased along with her participation in decision-making over domestic matters. In their private lives, this awarded women with a sense of agency over their own fate, as well as that of their families.
Men could exclusively aspire to leadership positions in all sorts of environments, apart from their homes where women managed households by extension of their social function to guard their families and support the patriarchal collective through their reproductive abilities.
The home became the primary domain in which the managerial skills of the Polish woman shined and where her personal goals found fulfilment. When the female population accepted their politically and socially constructed gender identities, the private matriarchy silently supported the more vocal public patriarchy.
This is not to say that women were entirely withdrawn from getting ahead in public life. There were many high achievers in traditionally female jobs, those that somehow went in line with the myth of the Polish Mother. Ambitious women worked as doctors, nurses, teachers, schools’ and cultural centres’ managers, academics, local politicians, journalists, architects, artists, etc.
However, the highest authority positions, even in some of these fields, were still mostly occupied by men. To get to the top in any profession, women had to make at least twice as much effort as their male counterparts.