“Feminism jest trendy, tak?” an amplified voice coming from a megaphone is asking and the addressed crowd is shouting back: “Taak!” Feminism trendy? This is hard to believe. Feminism in contemporary Germany is totally out of fashion, sexist jokes have regained popularity and sexist advertising is winning awards. Just recently there have been wide public discussions stating that women should once again turn to their “natural” role and contribute to society by raising the birth rate.
Feminists in Germany – peculiar relicts of ancient times
“Women’s issues,” on the other hand, are a rather outdated concept. Programmes on the advancement of women and gender mainstreaming have made feminism superfluous. Those, who still fight the discrimination against women in society seem like peculiar relicts of ancient times, captivated in a time-loop not conscious of times changing, or they are deemed as ideologically confused altogether. Moreover, they are made responsible for the decline of the “German nation,” having generated a generation of young, powerful women who don’t feel like becoming good German mothers, but are rather troubled by identity problems and career concerns – careers, however, that can only be followed as long as men “pave the way.” Is feminism then really out-dated?
Women in Germany: Satisfied with quasi-liberation
Women in contemporary Germany are still limited within the rather narrow borders of their female social roles. Of course, in the past decades female empowerment has taken place. Thanks to feminism and the women’s liberation movement women’s agency has expanded. Yet women’s agency is still monitored by men who are in the position “to let them in” or “keep them out.” Thus, women’s freedom is still defined by the boundaries of male concerns and often dependent upon men’s goodwill to promote them, to share everyday household tasks with them or to take a paternal leave.
Most of the young, self-confident women, surprisingly or not, are satisfied with this quasi-liberation from traditional roles, embracing an apparent “possibility of choice.” At the same time the idea of the “old feminists” is being contested. Young women often feel “restricted” by their female fellows who are still pointing to inequality and discrimination. It seems as if many young women feel more restricted and relegated by feminist demands than by male rule(r)s. Hence, feminism has become just another ideology that seems long overcome.
Feminsim in Warsaw, on the contrary, is becoming trendy
Feminism in Warsaw, on the contrary, is becoming trendy, even though, it is yet but a small group that writes feminism in capital letters. Since the year of 2000 the group has constantly been growing, reflected by the increasing number of participants at the yearly MANIFA (from “manifestacija”) – a protest march on International women’s day, organized by the informal women’s network, “Porozumienie Kobiet”.
Call for a “Violet Revolution”
On a cold early March day a colourful crowd of approximately two thousand people is moving through Warsaw’s prominent Nowy Swiat down from Plac Trezch Krzyźy to Plac Zamkowy in the Old Town. An icy wind is blowing, yet their banners state heatedly: No more nice girls, Dziewczyny potrzebne są czyny (Girls, deeds are necessary), Moja babcia była lesbiką (My grandmother was a lesbian), Awanse dla kobiet, komplementy dla mężczyzn (Promotion for women, compliments for men). People are carrying little violet flags in their hands that call for a “Wioletowa rewolucija” – a Violet Revolution.
This is the first time that the informal network of lesbians Porozumienie Lesbijek is the co-organiser of Manifa, calling for “Praw lesbijek, prawam kobiet.” The Greens 2004 are here to remind the public of the poor condition of the elderly: “little is their pension”. An association of single mothers reinterprets SLD, the short cut of the left democratic party (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej), as “Skuteczna Likwidacja Dochodów”: “effective cut of the support for single mothers”. Even the chief constable of Warsaw seems to have paid a contribution to the Manifa-procession: the protest march is mainly protected by female police.
Maybe the constable thought that his female employees have a reason to be there – even without banners. The demonstrators of the Manifa tough are not only fighting for women’s rights, but they are protesting against misgovernment and the deplorable state of affairs in Polish politics and society. Once more, it is women who fight for the rights of various groups that are silenced, marginalised and discriminated within Polish society and politics.
Feminism becomes a “life-style” compromising informal networks and practices and men
While in the 1990s the dream of freedom seemed to have come true for many, in the past years a new restrictive anti-abortion law was introduced, subsidies for contraceptives were cut, and the introduction of sexual education in high schools delayed. Conservative parties draw upon pre-war traditional female and male social roles, in order to emphasize their anti-communist character and the return to a “natural order.”
The crowd of demonstrators not only encompasses feminists, but also gay and lesbian activists, young families and men.
While the term feminism was hardly ever used in the 1990s, it has now started to play a new role in the strategies of women’s informal networks. Feminism today in Warsaw is becoming a “life-style” which comprises a whole set of notions and practices, such as the possibility to not marry, to not have children and to be open about homosexuality. Feminism is linked to practices such as demonstrations, conferences, lobbying and consciousness-raising. In this sense, the associations with feminism undergo a profound change. Feminism has been taken up as a kind of synonym for democracy and freedom, associated with conscious citizenship and equality, not only for women, but also for men: an informal group of “male feminists” (feminiści) was organized in November 2005. Moreover, feminism is seen as a form of resistance against “cultural scripts” and increasingly associated with education, independence, following one’s own path and setting up one’s own goals. T
The majority of the Manifa participants are only between 25 and 35 years old. An explanation for the absence of the older generations might be their memories of an installed nominal gender equality under communism. For them the term emancipation remains associated with the socialists’ proclaimed “solution of the women’s question” – a slogan politically instrumental and hypocritical at the same time. This alleged gender equality under socialism is associated with slogans such as “Kobiety na traktory” (women on tractors) and the prudish de-sexualisation of society. Back then, the term feminism became linked to irrational and meaningless political activity.
Feminism blamed for being a “Western” ideology by nationalists
In the early 1990s in contrast, feminists were blamed for a rather peculiar alliance: their ideology was as much seen as an ideological fashion from the West (an American import) as they were blamed for being post-communists. Hence, in the political debate, women’s groups and feminists were deemed anti-Polish and anti-national, while “the Polish woman” was idealized as the preserver of the Polish nation.
International Women’s Day thus, is often perceived – particularly by the elder generations – as a communist relict, installed by the Soviets. Wanting to return to a “natural” order after the collapse of communism, gender equality, in this logic, seems like something “unnatural”.
International Women’s Day and the elder generation: “Russian holiday”
Agata (59) finds International Women’s Day totally superfluous. She calls it “Russian holiday” and rejects the old tradition of celebrating this day. She twists her face into a grimace remembering the overabundance of cakes, flowers and presented stockings. Agata does not share the demands of the young feminists at the Manifa.
Agata has lived a rather independent life. She had studied English and was working for a Western embassy even before 1989. She enjoyed privileges, others could only dream of. In the early 1980s, when Poland was going through a black and difficult time, she was living in the United States, while her unemployed husband stayed in Poland and took care of their children. Maybe Agata would not have returned to Poland, if her family had only been with her then. Today, Agata is unemployed. She gives private English lessons and still tries to find a job, but it is difficult in her age.
Agata, once independent and emancipated herself, feels almost alienated by the demands of the young feminist. She looks at the movement as a post-communist “ideological synchronization”. Moreover, it is the left-oriented women’s organisations, feminists and informal networks that dare to contradict and criticise the Catholic Church. Even though Agata hardly ever attends the Sunday mess, she is a believer and she is particularly grateful for the Church’s stand during the socialist era.
Against this background, to many people of her generation it seems impossible to criticise the Church or to recognize that its position in contemporary Poland forms a huge contrast to its former. While under communism the Church was a shelter and hoard for those who thought “differently” (namely, the democratic opposition), today it is the greatest opponent for those who think (and feel) “differently” – those, that officially did not exist during communism: homosexuals and women, who demand freedom of choice and equal rights in all spheres of politics and society.
Poland’s EU ascension carried the hopes of many women’s organisations, thinking their government and politicians would be taught gender democracy. They expected that European law would be a guarantor of gender justice. In fact, what they are learning now is not so different from the experience, they made under communism: gender equality from above does not necessarily create gender equality on the ground. To reach this goal in both politics and every day practices, it is still a long way to go. As the “Western” European countries clearly show, neither democracy nor gender mainstreaming have brought “gender equality”, instead, we all rather live in male democracies. Welcome!