How does a woman who adamantly refused to call herself a feminist and was vehemently “anti- communist”, who was a passionate Roman Catholic and held Pope John Paul II as one her heroes, and later friend, herself become an inspirational hero for socialist feminists?
For starters, she does so by being astonishingly courageous; by challenging the crushing Stalinist, anti-working class bureaucracy in her workplace over two long decades; by organising an underground workers’ group, and, in doing so, becoming the subject of constant harassment and risking imprisonment.
Anna Walentynowicz was the crane operator in the Lenin Shipyard, in Gdansk whose sacking on August 7, 1980 famously sparked a strike for her reinstatement one week later on August 14. By August 16 management had caved into the workers demands and Lech Walesa and other men on the strike committee declared a return to work.
According to most eyewitness accounts, it was Anna Walentynowicz along with Alina Pienkowska (a 30 year old nurse and trade unionist at the shipyard) and Henryka Krzywonos (a transport workers’ shop steward who famously used her tram to bring the city to a total standstill), who argued with Walesa to keep the strike going. It was Henryka Krzywonos who shouted from the floor of the mass meeting “If you abandon us, we’ll be lost. Buses can’t face tanks”. The strike continued and spread and took on the demands of other strikes on the Baltic coast.
By 21 August Walentynowizc and Walesa were co-leading the new Solidarnosc movement that within weeks was a movement with a million members and by the first anniversary (August 1981) had ten million workers in its ranks. In just over three week of the strike starting the newly formed Solidarnosc forced the Stalinist authorities to sign an agreement, a 21 point workers charter that included the following demands: free and independent trade unions, the right to strike, the freeing of political prisoners and for a free, uncensored media.
Solidarnosc was one of the first free trade unions in the Eastern Bloc and was the beginning of the end for the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe.
Anna Walentynowicz was just five months off retirement in August 1980 having worked in the Lenin Shipyard for thirty years. Once recognised as a "Hero of Socialist Labour", or a Stakhanovite, for her hard work and productivity she increasingly became disillusioned with so-called "communist" rule in Poland and was a vocal champion for justice for workers in the shipyard. And so instead of retiring at the end of 1980 she became a central figure in one of the most significant working class events of the twentieth century.
Anna Walentynowicz's work as a trade unionist deserves consideration, a leading woman with two decades of experience she was part of a movement that within the first few weeks of its existence had a membership that was more or less fifty/fifty women and men while women made up 30% of the manual workers in the Lenin shipyard. And though massively underrepresented in the leadership of Solidarnosc these women played a vital role in building this movement.
And they did so despite carrying the double burden of hard wage-slavery for very poor pay and conditions while being valorised as mothers and homemakers. When women were not working they were queuing, in long, long queues for basic food items often at highly inflated prices. Indeed these highly inflated prices were the catalyst to a wave of strikes and oppressive reaction in Lodz in 1971. These class battles galvanised many workers including Anna Walentynowizc and she others worked in underground workers groups until the founding of Solidarnosc is August 1980.
Gender inequality in Poland was and is influenced and bolstered by the Catholic Church; by traditional nationalist values about women, motherhood and Matka Polka; and by Stalinism and the glorification of the family and a mother’s role within it. Despite the role played by women such as Anna, Alina and Henryka; and despite the solid support and involvement of millions of women in Solidarnosc there was much sexism within the movement. The top leadership of Solidarnosc included a president, two deputies, a presidium of 10 and a council of 100 and there was not one woman to be seen.
Yet Polish women were among the first to get the vote in 1918, they had restricted legal abortions rights from 1932, and full abortion rights from 1956 (indeed women from Sweden and Germany travelled to Poland to make use of this opportunity). And Poland is the only post-Stalinist country that has developed anything like a women’s movement. But this movement developed as a direct response to anti-women policies around abortion in 1990 when the post-Stalinist government attacked abortion rights and now Poland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. That same year Solidarnosc established a women’s section in less than a year it was closed.
As the complexion of Solidarnosc changed over that decade a new kind of feminism developed. As Nancy Fraser points out, it was during this period Poland saw a wave of feminism that not only failed to criticise neo-liberal capitalism, but moved from a feminism based on more egalitarian ideas to more individualistic meritocratic and entrepreneurial feminism.
Encouraging women to “lean in”.
Just two days after martial law was declared, after the tanks had rolled on to the streets and class fighters were shot or arrested, Helena Luczywo, a journalist in the Solidarnosc movement, cautiously but courageously left her apartment in search of others to set up a much needed free and independent underground press. What she and others did over the over the next 9 years was in many ways astonishingly impressive. But today Helena Luczywo is one of Poland’s wealthiest and most powerful people. Over that decade the politics of the Lenin shipyard lost out to a much more bourgeois liberation movement against decades of Stalinist oppression.
As Workers’ Liberty said at the time, Stalinism was never socialism. But the revolt against it was socialism in the embryo. And having the freedom to organise, to think freely and independently, to make and fight for our independent class interests is the beginning of human emancipation.