“Because the soup was too salty.” “Because she was looking too attractive.” “Because he had to find a way to decompress.” These were the slogans of the first Polish national campaign that aimed to end violence against women. “Stop domestic violence” was a campaign that began in 1997 and was distributed via radio, TV, and on billboards. It was organized by the “Blue Line,” which is a “hotline” established as a part of anti-violence activities of PARPA (Polish Agency for Solving Alcohol Related Problems). The campaign featured 538 billboards, 17,000 posters, and 5,000 educational packages aimed at raising consciousness about domestic and gender-based violence. Initial reactions to the posters were quite negative; organizers were accused of attacking the institutions of marriage and family, and billboards were claimed to be too drastic. Eventually, however, the campaign proved to be a success, bringing a 170% increase in telephone calls to the emergency line, and a rise of general awareness about the importance of the subject. It also set up the stage for further debates on feminism and women’s rights activism in the newly emerged democracy.
After 1989 feminist activism in Eastern Europe was shaped by various historical legacies: the legacy of communist and state socialist women’s emancipation on the one hand and the legacy of women’s involvement in the anticommunist opposition movements on the other hand.
In Poland, the main anti-Communist underground movement was led by the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “Solidarity,” established in 1980 at a shipyard in Gdańsk. Its most recognizable leader was Lech Wałęsa, an electrician who, ten years later, became the first democratically elected Polish president after the end of state socialism. Despite women’s contribution to Solidarity, their involvement in strikes and other forms of civil resistance against the Communist state, the movement presented itself as dominated by men and hence paid little attention to its female dissidents. Even though women managed the historic strike at the Gdańsk Shipyard that resulted in the creation of Solidarity, their contributions have been largely forgotten. Everyone has heard about Lech Wałęsa, but hardly anyone remembers about Anna Walentynowicz, Alina Pieńkowska, Ewa Ossowska, or Joanna Gwiazda, who were important figures of the labor unions in Gdańsk Shipyard, and strike organizers (see for example documentary film: Solidarity according to women)
Many also forget that, when male opposition leaders had been imprisoned in the early 1980s, it was women who developed a network of underground press and led the underground mobilization during the martial law (1981–1983), a moment in Polish history when the Communist government introduced a military junta and used militia and other forces to contain the Solidarity movement. As Communism in Poland neared its downfall, Solidarity leaders, Communist authorities, and hierarchs of the Catholic Church met to negotiate and debate the country’s future – but women were not invited. Held in 1989, this series of meetings was known as the Round Table Talks. Only 55 out of 700 participants were women and only one woman, Grażyna Staniszewska, participated in the Round Table’s plenary session.
The absence of women during the Round Table Talks was significant for what was about to come next. These talks initiated the transition from Communism to democracy in Poland – but the transformation was happening almost exclusively under male leadership. Forgotten by the state, which now turned democratic, women had to self-organize to make sure their voices were being heard.
It is best to talk not of one feminism, but of many feminisms, as they emerged across the diverse nations of Eastern Europe. Over the last thirty years, feminism in Eastern Europe developed in a number of intersecting directions, and it followed diverse paths. Mobilizations on behalf of women and marginalized groups were a direct response to political events, and social and cultural contexts in various locations in the region. Thus feminisms in the Czech Republic, Poland, the former East Germany, the former Yugoslavia, and other post-soviet states vary to a great degree – but they also have some things in common.
One of such similarities includes service organizations. These organizations relied on grassroots mobilization of women who came together to respond to the gendered dimensions of economic and political transformation, such as unemployment, decrease of social services, war in Yugoslavia, and the decline of reproductive rights. One of the main issues these mobilizations centered around was violence against women. Across Eastern Europe, a number of transnational, local, and national initiatives emerged to target domestic violence, war violence, and the sexual trafficking of women.
La Strada, a transnational network of women’s organizations working to stop sexual trafficking of women, has been active since 1989 and was one of the first in the region. With branches in Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, the Czech Republic, and Poland, to mention just a few countries, La Strada brought together activists, police officers, judges, and local government officials as well as parliamentarians and scholars in an effort to train a wide range of actors to combat human trafficking.
In Armenia, the Women’s Rights Center worked to tackle the issue of gender-based violence through a wide range of activities, including a hotline, a crisis center, and a women’s support group, as well as publications and collaborations with the media. They educated, advocated, lobbied, and conducted research.
B.a.B.e. (Be Active, Be Emancipated), a women’s human rights group from Croatia, focused on providing legal help for women, including legal counseling on divorce and on safety measures related to domestic and sexual violence. Hungary’s NANE, the Women’s Rights Association, was founded in 1994 with an aim to end human rights violations. Through advocacy, personal support services, and public education, they worked to eradicate the threat of violence against women and children.
Women’s mobilization during the transition was not limited to urban centers. An important feature of the work done by service organizations was their focus on issues that concern women in local communities. In Kosovo, Rural Women’s Activists, MOTRAT QIRIAZI, initiated by two Qiriazi sisters, focused on the education of women and girls. The organization’s main objective was to institute and maintain weekly meetings in villages to provide a forum for women and girls to exchange ideas and begin to examine conditions of their lives, including access to education, and work with issues such as self-esteem and personal development.
In post-1989 Poland, activism in rural women’s circles, which dated back to the 19th century, continued throughout both the communist period and the democratic transformation. Women in various locations across the country engaged in activities ranging from baking workshops to Internet courses. Such groups have worked mostly at the local level, where they maintained frequent contact with local authorities and public-service providers such as the police, courts, and hospitals. Ties to these networks increased the effectiveness of intervention centers geared toward preventing violence against women, as well as women’s rights centers and shelters. The work of such organizations often intersected with that of community-based institutions, such as the local police and local church groups.
Throughout transformation and the lead up to European Union accession, LGBTQ activism was an essential component of feminist struggles. Across Eastern Europe, several lesbian and gay groups have emerged to challenge discrimination and marginalization on the basis of sexuality. In Poland, Lesbians’ Alliance was established in 2005 and included a network of five branches. Their cooperation with “mainstream” women’s NGOs resulted in a yearly pride march – known in Polish as the Equality Parade – that takes place in several cities in Poland in June till this day. Its organizers and participants call for social justice and equality regardless of gender, sexuality, or social class.
These initial bottom-up activist initiatives were later replaced by more top-down, professional non-governmental feminist activism. This form of activism focused on providing information (often in the form of workshops and training), international lobbying, and evaluation of governmental policies. This “NGOization” of the feminist movement accelerated after 1995, in the wake of the 4th United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, when women’s NGOs emerged as experts in the area of gender equality, and gender mainstreaming as they helped to assess policies concerning women.
Early women’s activism in Eastern Europe focused mostly on preserving existing women’s rights—such as the right to abortion—and increasing women’s participation in political structures. Progressing professionalization of feminisms during the 1990s and early 2000s were often related to European Union accession and institutionalization of the movement. Incorporating gender equality issues into state policies and institutionalization of equality (through introduction of governmental offices responsible for equality, such as Plenipotentiary of Women’s Equality) were part of these processes.
However, this professionalization of women’s activism had one significant drawback. It de-radicalized the women’s agenda and eliminated the emphasis on marginal groups of women, such as lesbians or representatives of ethnic minorities.
Street activism accompanied the formation of institutionalized women’s movements in Eastern Europe throughout the 1990s. In former Yugoslavia, women protested against the war, and in Poland they advocated for legal abortion and fought on the streets against religious fundamentalism.
Towards the end of the 1990s, and in the face of the domination of “professional” and “expert” feminism, a younger generation of activists began questioning the (neo)liberal practices within feminism, and the institutionalized forms of “doing activism.” Although many members of informal women’s groups worked in women’s NGOs as volunteers and project coordinators, they preferred to organize their own activism outside the institutional movement. They often situated their actions in public spaces, such as streets, parliament buildings, and art galleries to challenge the hegemonic framing of social justice concerns. Unlike professional NGOs and grassroot service organizations, informal groups became sites of dialogue between various movements, different concerns, and political commitments. They brought together and advocated for older women, trade union members, gays and lesbians, and environmental justice activists. They often promoted rainbow coalitions that link formal feminist groups with wider communities.
A great example of an informal feminist organization and a rainbow coalition that brings together several marginalized groups is the Polish “March 8 Women’s Agreement” (March 8 is international women’s day). It was established in 2000 in response to the case of the police intervention in the private medical office during which police illegally arrested the woman supposedly undergoing an abortion (according to the 1993 law on Family Planning, only medical personnel, not pregnant women, can be prosecuted for illegal abortions) Initially the “Agreement” focused on organizing the March 8 street demonstration called Manifa (short for “manifestation”). The participation in marches across the country increased yearly, from the original 200 to 4,000 in 2009. Manifa demonstrations have also spread from Warsaw to many major cities across Poland. Each year, Manifa focuses on a particular issue related to gender equality – violence, equality in the labor market, reproductive rights, women’s political participation – and combines it with traditional activism such as speeches given by representatives of women’s NGOs and women politicians. It also makes use of festival elements, theatrical performances, and music. By employing a variety of persuasive strategies, Manifa was able to engage a broader and more diverse group of people and bring the public’s attention to issues related to gender equality.
In 2005, Manifa focused on the rights of lesbians. Together with the newly established Lesbian Alliance, it organized the so-called “equality marches” across the country. At the same time, members of the Agreement actively encouraged women workers’ organizations and unions to join the feminist march. The 2007 Manifa was called “March of Women’s Solidarity” (an allusion to the Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s), emphasizing the commonalities of women’s struggles across class, sexuality, and party affiliation. The 2008 Manifa demanded equal rights for women and men. In 2009, participants marched under the theme “Każda ekipa, ta sama lipa” (New government, same old crap), signifying disappointment with the lack of state and institutional responses to their needs and demands.
Since informal groups and coalitions connect women across identities, without requiring subscription to what is often perceived as organized and institutionalized l feminism, they became sites of mass mobilization for the younger generation of women. While informal feminist and women’s groups follow the rules of participatory democracy and take feminist ideas very seriously, they do not build the hierarchical structures characteristic of NGOs. Such an approach creates financial problems among informal groups, but it allows them to address the concerns of persons who usually remain outside of mainstream NGO feminist activism.
The history of informal organizing and the intersectional model of street activism in Poland, which emerged already in the early 2000, was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to the success of 2016 “Black protests” and the All-Poland Women’s Strike, as well as the massive wave of 2020 feminist mobilizations against the abortion ban.
Already at the beginning of 1990s women from newly established feminist organizations attempted to reach out to feminists from other countries within the region and outside of Eastern Europe. Throughout the decade, many Eastern European governments were firmly anti-feminist. l. At the same time, Eastern European feminists had a hard time connecting with the international women’s movement and reaching out to international organizations such as the United Nations. Consider, for example, the case of the 4th UN Conference on Women in Beijing, during which women from Eastern Europe were not granted the status of a “region”. In response to this omission, a group of activists coined the term “non-region” which was supposed to explain the dubious position of Eastern Europe within the transnational world. They stated:
“Our group of countries is a non-region because there is no recognizable political or geographic definition for the region composed of countries in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. We are bound by the common problems associated with the transition to democracy. In this difficult and uneven transition, the most serious problem is the consistent and drastic decline in the status of women (…).”
In the face of such marginalization, women’s organizations since the 1990s attempted to build a number of alliances that transcended international borders. The Network of East-West Women (NEWW), a transatlantic and transnational cooperation network, was founded in 1991 as an independent association. NEWW’s initial headquarters was in Washington DC, but it operated primarily throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and subsequently its offices were moved to Gdańsk, Poland. With thirty member countries, hundreds of individual members, and numerous institutional members, NEWW collaborates with numerous women’s and feminist organizations by focusing on economic empowerment, legal counseling, and information distribution, as well as other activities.
Another organization, the KARAT Coalition, established by East European feminists who traveled to UN Beijing conference by train (the trip took two weeks), emphasizes the need for women’s groups to retain regional identity. The KARAT Coalition brought together participants from Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as from EU member countries such as Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic.
In addition to NEWW-Polska and KARAT, which focused on building regional networks, several other organizations established connections and opened dialogue between women from the region and those from non-European locations. Groups such as Women in Development Europe (WIDE) and the Central and Eastern European Women’s Network for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (ASTRA) led these efforts. Established in 2004, ASTRA focuses on the quest for reproductive rights among women in Central and Eastern Europe and collaborates with organizations based in Africa and South America. WIDE brings together NGOs, human rights activists, and gender specialists. Since the early 2000s, WIDE has not only developed closer contacts with women’s and feminist NGOs in the region and, similarly to ASTRA, in South America and Africa. WIDE strives for “a world based on gender equality and social justice that ensures equal rights for all, as well as equal access to resources and opportunities in all spheres of political, social and economic life.”
These links between women’s organizations are important for the region’s position within the transnational context and play a role in achieving equality in the region. Internationally drafted documents (such as Beijing Platform, or United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) are the road map for governments and non-governmental organizations on how to implement equality. International institutions (such as, for example, The European Tribunal of Human Rights) may help to solve the tensions and conflicts between anti-feminist governments and women’s organizations regarding equality and discrimination. Finally, international funding bodies (such as United Nations Development Fund for Women) are a source of financial support for feminist activism.
Over the last thirty years, Eastern European feminisms have been represented, both in academic writing and in public debates, in a number of stereotypical ways – as non-existent or lacking, in-between, or delayed when compared to Western women’s movement. In the early 1990s, a number of Western and Eastern European activists and scholars asked, “Why there is no feminism after Communism?” assuming, largely falsely, that Eastern Europe is not a space in which various feminisms can grow and flourish. The conservative character of the 1989 transformation was often seen as the reason why feminisms could not exist in post-socialism. Some authors argued that it was the lack of political tradition of liberalism that was responsible for the “weakness” or “non-existence” of feminism after Communism. Eastern European women’s movements were also sometimes represented as movements located in-between the waves of feminism, fighting for the “second wave of feminism goals” (such as legal abortion and economic equality) with third-wave methods (street demonstrations, performance, and art). Many claimed that Eastern Europe, when compared to the West, is delayed when it comes to gender equality.
Scholars critical of such representations argue that, during the transformation, Eastern Europe experienced a push to develop a Western style of “cultural feminism.” This style of feminism framed social inequality mainly as a conflict between women and men (the so called “cultural feminism”) and did not take into consideration the experience of many Eastern European societies in which inequalities were based mostly on social class. . Many narratives about Eastern European feminisms misinterpret the communist times as a gap during which no progress in the area of women’s rights was made. They falsely assumed that the developmental path of Western feminism is a global norm. Consequently, they undervalue non-western styles of emancipation and portray Eastern European women as passive victims of the patriarchy.
New sociological and historical research on East European social movements, transformations, and democratization, invites us to recognize the diversity of emancipation trajectories. This approach acknowledges various intersecting trajectories of emancipation, often contradictory in terms of goals and strategies, which is something that happens both in the East and in the West. In order to untangle the complex relationships between historical legacies, cultural hegemonies, and current political processes that take place in Eastern Europe and in the West, we need to contest linear, chronological approaches to the history of women’s emancipation. The West should not be the major point of reference for debates on gender and feminism. Acknowledging Eastern European women’s history as a unique and valuable trajectory of emancipation is the necessary starting point for an equal and respectful debate on non-Western strategies of feminist resistance.