100th Anniversary of Women’s Rights


100th Anniversary of Women’s Rights

By Agnieszka Gajewska

“Whoever in a high-flown manner talks of democratic slogans and manifestos, yet passes over women’s equal suffrage with silence, is but a liar and a political and social fraudster”, firmly declared the Women’s League in their published statement on the situation of women in the newly re-established Polish state in October of 1918.[1] The League had previously put forward the issue of women’s suffrage to the Polish representatives at the Vienna assembly of the Imperial Court, yet what turned out to be essential for the change to take place was the 1917 Women’s Convention, where a Central Political Committee for Women’s Equal Rights was established.[2]

Polish women gained political rights on 28th November 1918. However, as the after-war border conflicts continued, it took the entire term of office for the first parliament to form and both male and female representatives of some the regions, e.g. Suwalszczyzna, Białostockie, Bielskie, Wielkopolska, would join the parliament only within a course of a few years. Pomerania joined in 1920 and the representatives of the Vilnius Constituent Assembly of Lithuania took part in the Legislative Sejm only in March 1922.[3] Moreover, Polish women gained most from the state declared equality, especially those who reached adulthood shortly after World War I; it was the Belarusian women who struggled hardest to achieve the universal suffrage.[4]

The first election was, as Mariola Kondracka stressed, fully democratic, free and universal, as according to Polish equality legislation women could both vote and run for election when, alike men, they were over the age of 21.[5] To gain civic rights just days after the finished struggle for the state’s independence was indeed a hope-inspiring achievement for the suffragettes, especially in the light of previous events whereby Maria Dulębianka, a painter and social activist, was denied the right to run for MP in the Lviv National Sejm election only 10 years before. The suffragette movement expected Poland would become a country of great social and political change where women’s civic activity mattered. Unfortunately, the next election, under pressure from the government, proved that a change in civil, political and social conventions was by no means close, and women’s strife for equality was a complex matter involving constant struggle and effort.

The female MPs[6]

The first Sejm, which continued to work on the Constitution, housed 8 women, which amounted to less than 2% of all MPs. There were 4 women in the upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, which constituted over 3% of all senators.[7] Unimpressive as those figures might be, today, they are a reminder of a well researched sociological fact, namely, that without an organised legislative support, i.e. forced parity, half of a nation remains unsatisfactorily under-represented across main state institutions. The women movement activists were well aware of this, and advised women to  exercise their newly gained civic rights in the following manner: “If you should see a women’s name listed last, it means no other than they are after your votes, supposedly supporting women. While, in truth, they place her last, so that she does not get past the post”.[8]

Female MPs and senators did not take their seats in the first Polish Parliament by chance.[9] Prior to election they actively took part in the workings of the city councils, they ran social organizations and charity events and engaged in the activities of political parties. Most female MPs recruited from the 1870s and 1880s generations, which means they were in their 40s and 50s at the time; the oldest female MP was 68, while the youngest 31. Importantly, at the time, women did not represent the interests of other women, but were bound to a political party and enforced its manifesto as designated by the party officials. Additionally, they never objected to a ministerial position connected with affairs stereotypically associated with women such as welfare, healthcare or education. Also, they rarely voiced their opinions in public debates, although, as Kondracka reports, some female MPs did speak out, for example, as early as 5th March, 1919, Zofia Moraczewska and a few other left-wing MPs protested against several women civil servants being sacked from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[10]

Beyond doubt, when it comes to the level of activity in parliamentary debates Zofia Sokolnicka, an MP for Poznań, stands out. Her involvement in the underground activity before and during the World War I would make a script for a fine spy series, let alone the fact that she was also a well-known social activist, having supported the Polish community in Prussia. Closely linked to National Democracy movement, Sokolnicka co-authored 20 acts of parliament, spoke 18 times on the plenary sessions and proposed 26 motions and questions to the PM.[11] As a member of the Education Committee, she proved most effective in helping students, securing funds for researchers and academic societies or acquiring pay rise for academics; she is also known for her work on reorganising higher education and setting out professional standards for teachers.[12] No wonder Prof. Zygmunt Lisowski, the then rector of Poznań University, reporting on activities in 1924 thanked Zofia Sokolnicka for kindness and her effective support shown to the university and called her “a trustworthy friend and promoter of the University”, listing her name shortly after the primate of Poland, the bishop, the provincial governor and the city president.[13]

Exploring the minutes on parliamentary proceedings of the Legislative Sejm, Kondracka stumbled upon a few examples of cross party cooperation between female MPs, whose common projects aimed at enforcing the codified equality of women. Among their projects were: an annual cost-of-living bonus for female teachers, which legally could have been claimed only by the husband; a women’s right to retain her own citizenship, irrespective of her husband’s (the motion was denied); or women’s right to enrol in public societies. Owing to their determination and collaboration despite political differences, a two-years worth of work governmental draft was passed, which lifted legal limitations on women’s rights in the private, administrative and trial law codes.[14] Kondracka, however, states that there is no other record of any collaborative initiatives undertaken in the interest of women on part of female MPs of opposing fractions between the Sejm’s first term of office and 1935.[15] Although, she does point out Maria Holder-Eggerowa, an MP linked to National Democracy movement, who urged the Sejm to ratify international regulations on the well-being of the sick and wounded soldiers, to approve the activities of the Red Cross, and who proposed to adopt the convention countering women and children trafficking.[16] Kondracka concludes that too few female representatives, too many of whom were right-wing MPs, has adversely affected any attempts at women’s cooperation in the Sejm.[17] Out of 42 female MPs and 20 female senators who held their seats in 1920s and 1930s, the vast majority recruited from Piłsudski’s followers and the nationalist movement.[18]

Undoubtedly, WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution brought about changes in the common awareness with respect to cultural notions of gender, too. Initially, it was thought that women who seemed only temporarily to have stepped into men’s shoes would go back to the their pre-war duties and settle for the private sphere and lower wages. Yet, not all men returned, and those who did were scarred for life physically and mentally. Additionally, in the wake of the military conflict a group of women gained financial independence, which was not to be relinquished in favour of a man managing their entire estate. Social change could be seen in fashion and public space, ranging from female civil servants employed by the ministries to single women sipping coffee in a cafe all by themselves.[19] What ranks among the greatest alteration, and which might be considered a generational shift, was an awakening to educational aspirations, even though, not all could be realised.[20] Especially the regions formerly under the Prussian rule, remained true to tradition and sceptical of the change. Roman Wapiński stresses that in the western regions such as Wielkopolska and Pomerania the experience of war and the regained independence influenced the traditionally patriarchal family model but a little. He claims that high social standing of tradesmen, craftsmen and wealthy peasantry played a definitive role here.[21]

As an outstanding pioneer researcher in socio-economic change at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Anna Żarnowska, claims in her article on Woman Citizens of the Second Republic of Poland the slow pace of modernization, which is closely connected to women’s fight for emancipation, should actually be considered in the context of the then poor dynamics of Polish economic development. In the interwar period nearly 70% of women lived in the countryside. What is more, in the 1930s, many farms were afflicted by overpopulation, which resulted in high unemployment, especially among young women.[22] But at the same time, Żarnowska comments that the overall number of positions available to women on the labour market increased within the first decade of independence, particularly in industry, trade and public services (mind you that the social status of domestic servants remained considerable).[23] Furthermore, Żarnowska draws attention to the availability of universal education and a lack of formal hindrance to women’s education. This change was mostly visible in rural areas, where girls’ education had previously been underappreciated. The public debates of the 1920s and 1930s on the new penal code, various projects liberalising anti-abortion laws, a discussion on coeducational state schools – all that must have influenced the social transformation, although it is is hard to evaluate their impact on women’s everyday lives.[24]

Research on women’s strife for legal, professional and educational independence hardy allows optimistic conclusions regarding the influence of declarative formal equality on women’s real life situation. Although, to gain universal franchise along with the women’s right to run for office required several thousand pages of articles, calls and speeches as well as establishing a few women’s organizations, social change is a function of greater policies and economic growth. Thus,  legal declarations failed to shift the balance of power in most women’s private lives.


[1]    Women’s League appeal, Poland rises [Polska powstaje], October 1918, Archiwum Akt Nowych, Liga Kobiet Polskich, cat.no. 53.

[2]    Cf. A Petition by the Polish Women’s League of Galicia and Silesia to the Honourable Parliamentary Committee of the Polish Club in Vienna [Petycja Ligii Kobiet Polskich Galicji i Śląska do Prześwietnej Komisji Parlamentarnej Wysokiego Koła polskiego w Wiedniu], autumn 1916, Archiwum Akt Nowych, Liga Kobiet Polskich, cat. no. 53.

[3]    Mariola Kondracka, Parliamentary Activity of Female MPs and Senators of the Second Republic of Poland between 1919 and 1927 [Aktywność parlamentarna posłanek i senatorek Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej w latach 19191-1927], in: Anna Żarnowska – Andrzej Szwarc (ed.). 2000. Equal rights, unequal chances. Women in interwar Poland. [Równe prawa i nierówne szanse. Kobiety w Polsce międzywojennej], Warszawa, pp 49.

      [translator’s note] Sejm is a lower chamber of the Polish national parliament.

[4]    Cf. Roman Wapiński, Women and public life – generational shifts. [Kobiety i życie publiczne – przemiany pokoleniowe], in: Anna Żarnowska – Andrzej Szwarc (ed.). 2000. Equal rights, unequal chances. Women in interwar Poland. [Równe prawa i nierówne szanse. Kobiety w Polsce międzywojennej], Warszawa, pp 30.

      In a broader perspective this was a result of minority policy by the Second Republic, whereby Belarusians were being discriminated against the most. Cf. J. Tomaszewski. 1985. The Many Nation Republic [Rzeczpospolita wielu narodów], Warszawa pp 114-129.

[5]    Mariola Kondracka. Parliamentary Activity of Female MPs and Senators…, pp 49.

[6]    Mariola Kondracka emphasises that during the first years of independence the terms denoting female MPs as found in press were varied, including those that did not survive till present day Polish, e.g. posełki, posełkinie.

[7]    Ibid., 50. Consider also: “In the course of the first election for the one chamber Legislative Sejm (1919-1922), out of 442 MPs, 8 were women. They were: Gabriela Balicka (Związek Sejmowy Ludowo-Narodowy), Jadwiga Dziubińska (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe „Wyzwolenie”), Irena Kosmowska (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe „Wyzwolenie”), Maria Moczydłowska (Narodowe Zjednoczenie Ludowe), Zofia Moraczewska (Związek Polskich Posłów Socjalistów), Zofia Sokolnicka (Narodowa Demokracja), Franciszka Wilczkowiakowa (Narodowy Związek Robotniczy); and in by-election in 1920 additionally Anna Anastazja Piasecka (Narodowe Stronnictwo Robotnicze, Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe „Piast”)”. [URL: http://www.aan.gov.pl/index.php?c=article&id=211]

[8]    Weychert Szmanowska. A pamphlet To Rural Women on the Present Day [Do kobiet wiejskich o chwili dzisijszej] which contains information on the Sejm election, procedures and women voting rights, 1919. Archiwum Akt Nowych, Jędrzej and Zofia Moraczewscy Records, cat. no. 41, pp 13-14.

[9]    To learn more cf. Mariola Kondracka. Parliamentary Activity of Female MPs and Senators…, pp 50-51.

[10]  Ibid., 56, footnote 21.

[11]  Cf. the MP’s biographical entry at online history of parliamentarianism in Poland http://ipsb.nina.gov.pl/a/biografia/zofia-sokolnicka

[12]  Mariola Kondracka. Parliamentary Activity of Female MPs and Senators…, pp 56

      Poznań University Annual Report for the academic year 1923/1924 in the term of office of rector Prof. Zygmunt Lissowski and the opening ceremony for the academic year 1924/1925 by the new rector Prof. Stanisław Dobrzycki on 12th October 1924 in Poznań [Kronika Uniwersytetu Poznańskiego za rok szkolny 1923/1924 za rektoratu prof. dra Zygmunta Lisowskiego i otwarcie roku szkolnego 1924/1925 przez nowego rektora prof. dra Stanisława Dobrzyckiego w dniu 12 października 1924 roku] Poznań 1925, s. 2

      Mariola Kondracka. Parliamentary Activity of Female MPs and Senators…, pp 59-60

[15]  Ibid., 61.

[16]  Ibid., 62 (Cf. also pp 62, footnote 47).

[17]  Ibid., 63.

[18]  Andrzej Chojnowski. Women’s activity in public life [Aktywność kobiet w życiu politycznym] in: Anna Żarnowska – Andrzej Szwarc (ed.). 2000. Equal rights, unequal chances. Women in interwar Poland. [Równe prawa i nierówne szanse. Kobiety w Polsce międzywojennej], Warszawa, pp 40.

      [translator’s note] General Józef Piłsudski was a Polish revolutionary and right wing statesman, the first chief of state (1918-22) of the newly independent Poland established in November 1918. After leading a coup d’état in 1926, he rejected an offer of the presidency but remained politically influential while serving as minister of defense until 1935 (after Britannica Online https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jozef-Pilsudski)

[19]  Cf. e.g. Roman Wapiński. Women and public life – generational shifts. pp 26-27.

[20]  For a detailed analysis of statistical data see Ibid., 28-29.

[21]  Ibid., 30.

[22]  Anna Żarnowska. Women Citizens of the Second Republic [Obywatelki II Rzeczypospolitej], in: Anna Żarnowska – Andrzej Szwarc (ed.). 2000. Equal rights, unequal chances…, pp 293. Żarnowska draws on research by Włodzimierz Mędzrzecki here.

[23]  Ibid., 293.

[24]  Ibid., 295-296.

Agnieszka Gajewska
Agnieszka Gajewska

Agnieszka Gajewska (born 1977), Polish philologist and literary scholar, lecturer and a feminist activist. She wrote Holocaust and the Stars. The past in the prose of Stanisław Lem [Zagłada i gwiazdy. Przeszłość w prozie Stanisława Lema] published in 2016 and Watchword: Feminism [Hasło: Feminism] published 2008. In 2013, she edited an anthology of translations Subversiveness theories [Teorie wywrotowe]. Currently, she works as Associate Professor at the Institute of Polish Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. For a single term, she managed post-graduate courses in gender studies and now she heads the Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Gender and Identity Studies at AMU, Poznań.

Maria Dulębianka Alabanda coat of arms, (born 1861, Kraków – died 1919, Lviv), a Polish social activist, suffragette, painter, author and columnist.

„Jeśli zobaczycie na jakiej liście nazwisko kobiece na ostatnim miejscu, to znaczy, że aby mieć wasze głosy, chcą pokazać, że niby są za kobietami. Naprawdę jednak kobietę na takim miejscu napisali, żeby nie przeszła.”

Zofia Sokolnicka (born May 15, 1878 – died 1927), a social and political activist and member of parliament, born in Kraków to Stanisław Sokolnicki, a landowner from Częstochowa region, and Stanisława, née Stanisława Moszczeńska; the family settled in Poznań. Her sisters, Marianna Stanisława and Lucyna were teachers and social activists, too.

“Dzięki uporowi posłanek i ich współpracy mimo politycznych różnic, udało się po dwóch latach prac i starań uchwalić projekt rządowy, w którym znoszono ograniczenia praw kobiet w kodeksie prywatnym, administracyjnym i procesowym.

Maria Holder-Egger, née Maria Szreterów (born 1875, Krzemieńczuk – died May 13, 1941, Korytnica), a Polish social activist and a member of parliament in interwar Poland.

“Przemiany obyczajowe dostrzegalne były w modzie oraz w przestrzeni publicznej: od obecności urzędniczek w ministerstwach, do zasiadających w kawiarniach niezamężnych kobiet, pijących samotnie kawę.