Women Were Key To The Opposition's Victory In Poland — Don't Forget Us Now
Poland’s historic parliamentary election had a record turnout of 74%, with an opposition coalition ousting the ruling conservative party, PiS, from power. With women voting in greater numbers than men, their votes were crucial in securing these results. Now, the opposition owes them policies that they demand.
Ahead of the Oct. 15 national elections in Poland, much of the public debate described women as disengaged, and predicted that half of all young Polish women would not vote at all.
The result of this was an unprecedented outpouring of pro-turnout campaigns flooding the Internet — especially on social media. Some campaigns were apolitical, while others directly encouraged people to vote for the democratic opposition and unseat the ruling party, which, like no other in the history of Poland, has trampled on women's rights.
The history of women’s rights violations under the Law and Justice (PiS) party were countless. Not only did they deny women the right to abortion and safety in maternity wards, but also humiliated teachers while they were on strike, disregarded domestic violence and chose to fight the recommendations of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women.
The party also didn’t address the gender wage gap, tried to hurt single mothers with tax changes in the Polish Order and to deny them their monthly 500+ child benefit payments (which ultimately failed) and pushed Polish women into the kitchen and the cradle to restore the mythical ideal of the Polish "traditional family."
The turnout of women in these elections undoubtedly had an impact on the outcome. Exit polls from the last elections showed that if only women had voted, PiS would not have held onto power. And, compared to the discourse about electoral passivity that claimed that Polish women would be passive in this year’s elections, women voted in even greater numbers than men this year.
Electoral data shows that 73.7% of female voters exercised their right to vote in the elections on Sunday, compared to 72 percent of men. But this is nothing new, because it is not the first time that Polish women turned out to be more mobilized than their husbands, brothers, fathers and grandfathers.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, 61.5 percent of women voted, compared to 60.8 percent of men. We had an even greater gender gap in the 2020 presidential elections: 71.1% of voters that year were Polish women, a wide gap compared to the 64.4% of men.
Even though women in our culture are brought up to be quiet, not to express their own opinions and not to make too much noise or stir up controversy, they have been more active Polish citizens than men have for years.
More progressive than men
In addition to this, in all of these previous elections, as in the latest ones, women were inclined to vote more progressively. If these last elections were up to women alone, the far-right Konfederacja (Confederation) party would have only gotten 3.4% of the vote, below the 5% margin necessary for them to enter the Sejm (the Polish House of Commons).
All of this data shows that Polish women have long been ringing the alarm that PiS was doing damage to the country, and that they are more inclined to have free and democratic values. This was also seen in the frequency with which they boycotted PiS’s anti-migrant referendum, which was invalidated due to low participation. While 42% of men participated in the referendum, only 38% of women did the same.
The political engagement of women wasn’t just limited to the voting booth. Between election cycles, women organized the “Women’s Strikes” against PiS’s near-total restrictions on abortion. These were the largest demonstrations throughout the country since the times of the "Solidarity" movement and the fall of the communist government.
If Polish women sound the alarm again that things are going wrong in Poland, listen to us.
What I'm getting at is that it was the Polish women who threw the ruling party out. Of course, they were not alone — I do not want to marginalize the role of men who also rejected the regime and supported democracy and freedom. But it is the attitude of women that the democratic opposition, which has a parliamentary majority and will probably form a new government in some time, should always keep in mind.
Because of this, I implore our newly elected representatives in the Sejm and Senate to accept that women know what they are doing. If Polish women sound the alarm again that things are going wrong in Poland, listen to us. If we point out to you that our laws are not doing well, respond to our demands.
The sad truth, however, is that our issues as women were swept under the rug of every opposition party but the Left (Lewica), right up until Polish women started dying in maternity wards and in hospitals.
This was the final straw moment, when politicians began at last to speak openly about abortion, and began preparing policy briefs about women’s rights.
Women protesting PiS’s near-total restrictions on abortion, in Warsaw, Poland
Opposition: "Listen to us"
To the democratic opposition: we did a lot of work for you, but we are not willing to give up any more of our lives to the Polish government. Enough women have already died as a result of Poland’s strict abortion laws. For now, we hope that your election promises will not remain empty promises. You have tangible, numerical proof that Polish politics must radically change and undergo a real transformation.
The basis of that transformation must be that issues relating to women — mothers, wives, single women, retirees and workers — will become a permanent part of your agenda. That they will be present in your platform alongside the "big issues" stereotypically associated with politics. The issue of equal pay, nurseries and kindergartens, reproductive rights, transport exclusion and many others will be as important to you as internal security, arms or the “macro” economy.
It is us, women, who have given you, democratic parliamentarians, the benefit of the doubt. We will also give you time, because we know that reaching an agreement in the coalition will be difficult, and that not everything can be done with the snap of a finger. But we don't want to feel again that our issues are less important, or that they lie somewhere on the margin.
We hope that the way PiS won with 500+ has taught you that if social policy is ignored by the opposition — which is especially important for women, because they bear most of the responsibilities related to care over children and old and sick family members — someone will appear who will cynically take advantage of it and proceed to dismantle our state.
The list of women’s issues is well known, but I will briefly mention its most important points. The hottest issue is, of course, abortion, which is where it all started. We know that liberalization of the law will be difficult because President Andrzej Duda will stand in the way, and we are bound by the past judgments of the Przyłębska Tribunal. However, there are still options, such as following the German model of lex imperfecta, in which abortion is illegal but not punishable.
In pre-election polls, when asked about issues important to them, many Polish women mentioned domestic violence as a major problem. It's time for radical changes in this area, including a new legal definition of rape in line with European standards.
There is also the issue of child support. One million young Poles do not receive child support money, which is due to both faulty allocation mechanisms and the fact that it is socially acceptable for men not to give their ex-wife or partner, the mother of the children what they call "money for perfumes and handbags.”
The wage gap disgrace that must end
Speaking of single parents, it's time to finally take care of them. According to the last census, there are 2.3 million single-parent families in Poland, which constitutes nearly a quarter (23%) of all families. The number of single fathers raising children has increased as well (up to 7% of all families), but still as many as one in five Polish families is a family with a single mother.
And we have numbers that show that for most women, the breakdown of a relationship and independent parenthood means a deterioration in their living conditions and that of their children, often resulting in them sliding into poverty. Luckily, large families are supported by the Large Family Card, which entitles them to many discounts. Rightly so, because many children bring on a lot of expenses. However, there remains much room to grow.
The 2020 protests awakened the fighting spirit and a wild desire for freedom among our youth.
The fact that women fall into poverty because of divorce, but also because of retirement, is due to wage inequality. Polish women are much better educated than Polish men (36% of women have higher education compared to 16% of men), and yet they continue to earn less.
The earnings of most Polish women are between 2,500 PLN (562 euro) and 4,000 PLN (900 euro), while most men earn between 4,000 PLN (900 euro) and 7,000 PLN (1,575 euro). And no, it's not just because women choose professions that earn less, and there are many other factors contributing to this. Besides, I don't know why we should take it for granted that a teacher earns less than a mid-level programmer.
Protesting in Wroclaw on Sept. 6
Polish youth mobilize and vote
On the topic of education, there’s also much work left to be done by the opposition. How long kindergartens and school clubs are open determines whether mothers can work and develop, and therefore determines how much they are able to earn. The quality of education and after-school programs determine whether they will not have to choose to buy their child shoes for the winter, or pay for additional tutoring services.
Perhaps most importantly, the issue of education is vital for children and young people being educated. Look what happened on Oct. 15: there was so much complaining that young people would not vote, that they were passive, that they were lazy, and yet they went to the polls in droves. And they didn't, as many expected, vote for the extreme-right Konfederacja.
According to experts commenting on the last elections, most of these active young people, often voting for the first time, went to the polling stations because of their previous participation in the Women’s Strikes in 2020. At that time, we all saw crowds of girls and boys on the streets of large cities who did not agree with PiS oppressing women.
In videos on social media, we also saw teenagers from small towns and villages protesting, even though such political declarations are risky in small rural communities.
The experience of these demonstrations was formative for many of them. They were able to express their anger, in accordance with the democratic right to demonstrate. Thanks to this, the seed of agency was sown in them — the feeling that they had influence.
At the time, I remember how much mockery there was that these protests achieved nothing, because they didn’t lead to the measure being overturned. In fact, we had to wait for the effect. They did not make PiS change its mind on abortion, but they awakened the fighting spirit and a wild desire for freedom among our youth.
Patriarchal rules and PiS’s social politics have assigned child-rearing duties to women for years, in which mothers must bear most of the care and upbringing responsibilities. We listened to them , and raised kids who protested these restrictions.
We raised them to take to the streets and the polls. Last Sunday, instead of partying in clubs or playing video games, they stood in long lines in the cold for hours in order to cast a vote. Therefore, now the issues of women, children and youth must be taken seriously by the political class.
What’s next for the opposition
I implore the opposition to start breaking down the door of the supply closet, where PiS tried to hide Polish women to be nothing but mothers and wives. Take upon the issue of paternity leave, which PiS had to introduce because it was bound by an EU directive, but it did so by financially discriminating against men for whom it simply would not be profitable to stay at home with their children.
This deprives them of the opportunity to have an important life experience of fatherhood in the first months of the child's life, and deprives women of the opportunity to be professionally active and, consequently, financially independent.
It cannot be that a Polish woman does not have a nursery that she can get to because all her bus connections have been canceled, or that she cannot send her child to a kindergarten because there is none, or that she must pay a hefty price for private options.
We, women, are fed up with being second-class citizens.
It can no longer be the case that a Polish woman, after raising children, falls into the role of a nurse for her elderly parents or in-laws and no one, absolutely no one helps her, and when she finishes working for everyone around her, she becomes a feeble, dependent grandparent in her old age, because her pension forces her to buy nothing but sliced meat and bread.
We, women, are fed up with being second-class citizens whose issues always have to wait until the political class deals with what they consider to be more important and urgent. The pandemic has shown that the country largely stands on the shoulders of women.
It was teachers, saleswomen, nurses and mothers working from home with their children who pulled us through this difficult time. Our entire social order rests on women's unpaid domestic work, thanks to which we experience relative stability day after day in spite of continued economic turmoil.
Economist Ewa Rumińska-Zimny estimates that the average domestic work of a Polish woman is equal to 30 percent of our GDP.
So, dear opposition, remember all this. Go to work, new MPs and Senators. You have a long list of things to do. Don't let us down; remember how many of us there are, and how much we have done for Poland. We ourselves know well how many of us there are and how powerful we are.
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