Amina Saddiq tuned in to the Radio 4 Women’s Hour special on Poland.
From the half dozen times I’ve managed to catch it, Radio 4 Women’s Hour seems pleasant, if not particularly earth-shattering. The general tone is a sort of leftish liberal feminism, with quite a bit of politics if you’re willing to sit through presenter Jenny Murray sounding like she feels a bit naughty as she discusses how to make plum gin or whatever.
The 5 April Women’s Hour special on the lives of women in Poland wasn’t entirely free of this sort of problem, but it nonetheless made extreme interesting listening.
Jenny Murray, it turns out, lived in Poland when her father was an engineer there between 1964 and 1966. She begins the programme with what for socialists, too, is the central event of modern Polish history: the rise of Solidarnosc in 1980. She points out that the sacked worker in solidarity with whom the strikes which created the union first took place was a woman, Anna Walentynowicz, and discusses with Walentynowicz the reality of lives for women workers under Stalinism as well as both the important role women played in the union and the limitations of it.
Unfortunately, the programme does not build on this promising opening, going on to emphasise not class struggle but religious fervour as the driving force behind the overthrow of Polish Stalinism. This includes an extensive but largely uncritical discussion of the commitment of many tens of thousands of Polish women to the cult of the “Black Madonna” which has played a large role in Polish Catholicism for generations.
On the other hand, Murray is too much of a feminist to ignore what the growing influence of the Catholic church has meant for Polish women. In the mid-1990s abortion, which was at least in theory available on demand under the Stalinist regime, was made extremely difficult, with the result that even women faced with severe threats to their health or whose foetus have major abnormalities are denied access.
One of the most interesting sections of the of programme is a discussion about abortion rights between a representative of the League of Catholic Women and a woman from a pro-choice organisation — not least because the latter appeared to be fairly left-wing and stressed that the denial of abortion rights impacts most heavily on working-class women (to which the smug middle-class god-botherer has literally no reply!) Murray stresses that under Poland’s new ultra-conservative government, the threat to women’s rights is likely to grow rather than recede.
Unfortunately this kind of serious discussion was interrupted fairly frequently for segments about how delicious Polish dumplings are, etc. — but even here there was some attempt at social analysis, for instance by looking at the “double shift” of cooking and housework which, even more than in Britain, remains the lot of most Polish working women. Unfortunately, however, since Murray and the producers are not socialists, there was little recognition of how all these apparently disparate issues are shaped and determined by class, with many hints and suggestions that were not really followed up.
The situation which exists in Poland, with the dominance of Catholic reaction and the withdrawal of many women into religious devotion in place of an active fight for their rights, is, of course, a result of the defeat of the Polish workers - first by Stalinism and then by triumphant capitalism. The struggle for women’s liberation in Poland will see many more Anna Walentynowiczs before it is victorious.