Kazimierz Ślęczka’s Feminism. Ideologies and Social Conceptions of Contemporary Feminism 

(Feminizm. Ideologie i koncepcje społeczne współczesnego feminizmu, Ed. Książnica, Katowice 1999, p. 511)

 A Book Review by Anna Sobieska

          There are not many books about feminism in Poland. The movement is still something marginal to Polish culture and few Polish women identify with it. Among the many reasons for this the most important seem to be the strong Catholic tradition and our history: the specific nature of the Polish nobility and the long absence of independence. This mixture created a myth of “Mother Pole” which ascribed to Polish woman one principal role: of giving birth and bringing up a good Catholic and Polish patriot struggling for a free country. She was to be a spiritual and patriotic inspiration for everyone around. The image of “Mother Pole” is deep-rooted in polish culture. Famous during the Solidarity period song “In order that Poland may be Poland” known by everybody and sang then also in the churches, portrays fighting men and their sisters, wives and mothers busy with embroidering the words “God, Honour and Fatherland” on Polish flags[1].

Before the end of communism Poles, both female and male, felt obliged to concentrate on different problems. Although there were people interested in feminism before 1990, they were either busy with what then seemed more important or could not publish because of the censorship. Women’s organisations were controlled by the party[2]. In these conditions few books and articles connected with this topic were published before 1990 and the ones which were, were usually communist-biased and concentrated only on the field of work. One exception was No One is Born a Women – an anthology of extracts from foreign feminist texts edited by Teresa Hołówka, which was published in 1982 in a limited edition[3]. The popular view of feminism was created by the media who showed it either as rich women’s fancies or as a proof of the injustice of capitalism.

          The situation started to change in the 1990’s when women began establishing independent organisations and centres, publishing articles, newsletters, periodicals and also books. In 1993 the Dictionary of Feminist Theory by Maggie Humm was translated[4], and in 1996 From Matriarchy to Feminism by Maria Ciechomska was published [5]. Names of feminist authors like Maria Janion[6], began to be better known at least to educated Poles. Recently one of the most popular Polish newspapers “Gazeta Wyborcza” started a Saturday supplement for women where, among cosmetics and fashion, feminist articles are regularly published.

In spite of all these changes we can still say that feminism is feebly known in Poland, misunderstood and unappreciated. Famous feminist books published abroad were, with the exception of some extracts and two major works[7], never translated into Polish and are still available only for those who know English in a few feminist centres and some of the biggest libraries. Even for people interested in the subject it is difficult to get access to the information. At the same time aggressive attacks aimed at feminism and gender studies continue to appear in the press[8]. In this situation a compendium of knowledge about feminism available in Polish was badly needed. This need was met by Kazimierz Ślęczka’s “Feminism”.

Professor Ślęczka is a philosopher, africanist and geologist, actively involved in European issues head of the Social Philosophy Department at the University of Silesia. His interest in feminism began in the 1980’s when he recognised it as one of the most powerful social movements of our times. This recognition led him to a ten-year study of feminism and the writing of this book. In the preface he says modestly that his compendium is but an introduction to further studies. In spite of this modesty the book reveals a huge amount of work, especially reading, completed by the author. It is well-written, comprehensive, quoting and discussing the most famous feminist texts, aiming to show both the history and the overall picture of the feminist movement and its different trends and inner conflicts. Moreover Ślęczka is trying to be objective, although this could sometimes be questioned. An additional strength of the book is its last chapter “Bibliographical advice”, which is a thorough, well-ordered review of important feminist books.

Ślęczka’s book was warmly, but not uncritically, welcomed by Polish feminists. The three main objections outlined by Sławomira Walczewska[9] were: first that the book omits first-wave feminism, second that it concentrates only on the American movement and third that the author overestimates the socialist influence on feminism (still a touchy subject in Poland).

The book concentrates on American second-wave feminism, perceived by the author as fundamental, of the greatest theoretical importance and as something almost separate from previous women’s movements. This perception is problematic in two ways. Firstly, many feminists protest against the presentation of feminism as mostly an American movement and argue that feminism is present world-wide, moreover some of its biggest victories were achieved in Europe. Secondly, while feminists themselves stress deep connections between first and second wave feminism, Ślęczka seems not to see this connection at all[10]. He identifies feminism only with contemporary movements and argues that looking for the roots and history of feminism in previous centuries (marked by using the term’s “first-wave feminism” and “second-wave feminism”) is only an ideological operation.

Ślęczka’s principal goal, stated in the preface, was to reconstruct the main feminist ideologies. He devotes the third, and main, part of his work to this. The first two parts – “The sources of feminism” and “Feminist history”  – are meant by the author to be an introduction to the main subject. The fourth part, acting as a summary, attempts to find common ground between different feminist currents, but in fact finds little, and predicts the future of the feminist movement.

At the beginning of the book the author says that feminism is a protest movement and a programme to remedy an evil. His search for the sources of feminism is a sociological one. He seems to agree that there is still a need for some changes and blames the conservative culture and laws with their restrictive sex roles for the less than perfect situation of women. At the same time in the chapter “Women reluctant towards feminism” he shows that the traditional woman’s role can be perceived as worthy of envy. He finishes the first part with the conclusion that feminism was born out of affluence, not out of poverty.

In the second part Ślęczka follows feminism history. After mentioning first-wave feminism and the 1920-1963 period (including the “Fear of freedom” chapter), he concentrates on the American 1960’s-1990’s period. This part of the book was the most favourably received by Polish feminists. It is a thorough survey of events, actions and books providing a whole picture of American second wave feminism in place of most readers’ random or non-existent information. Long extracts from famous feminist books are translated, quoted and discussed (among others Friedan, Mitchell, Firestone, Rich, Chodorow, Daly, Wolf), which is especially valuable because it is difficult to find them in Poland. The objection can be made here that too great a stress is put on the spectacle of feminist arguments and infighting (chapter “Against each other: sistercidal fights”).

The author divides feminism into liberal, radical, socialist, cultural and power feminism. In the main part of the book, preceded by analysis of the notion of “ideology”, he describes these five types of feminism, each time paying attention successively to their ideology, their most important books, social theory, axiology, organisation, methods of action, aims and programmes. The descriptions are thoroughly done and very informative, although we can clearly see the author’s preferences. Ślęczka shows liberal feminism in the most favourable light and the radical one in the least favourable. The reader can get the impression that the poor media image and unpopularity of feminism is all due to the radical movements, its lack of common sense, emotionalism and aggressiveness. The way the author describes the radical approach to some issues (for example: pornography and sexual harassment) and his use of quotes from feminists criticising radical movement seems to be tendentious. On a few occasions he seems to feel personally offended by radical opinions and worried about their lack of concern for male welfare. Nevertheless Ślęczka shows connections between liberals and radicals and does not hesitate to stress that many liberal feminists’ battles were won thanks to radical feminist actions.

The fourth part has the title “Feminism or feminisms?” and the content is an answer to this question and looks into the future of the movement. The author does not find much in common in the different currents of feminism. He believes that types of feminism vary so much that the only thing they have in common is the conviction that women’s situation is bad and that it must be changed. All these can be agreed on or not, but it seems that Ślęczka stresses differences too much. Feminism assumes plurality and this can be perceived as the power of this movement, not only as its weakness. What is even harder to agree with is the author’s hypothesis that feminism will soon not be needed any more. Ślęczka says that “under feminism pressure, but not necessarily with its direct participation”(p. 487) women’s situation in democratic countries has changed radically and that these changes already influence other countries. He is prone to believing that soon women will not have any more reason to feel oppressed and in this way feminism will quietly die. His point of view on women’s oppression seems to be more optimistic than realistic.

Summing up Ślęczka’s “Feminism” is very informative, well written, comprehensive and thorough. Though sometimes the feminist reader may feel like reproaching the author for his lack of objectivity and somewhat ironic style, it should be remembered that feminism does not believe either in objectivity or in the division between personal experience and scientific research. This can help to recognise and accept the author’s subjectivity of the interested well-meaning male Polish observer. Whatever the shortcomings, Ślęczka’s book was badly needed and is well worth reading.

[1] For the historic impact of lack of independence on Polish women’s emancipatory struggle see S. Walczewska, Damy, rycerze, feministki. Kobiecy dyskurs emancypacyjny w Polsce (“Ladies, Knights and Feminists. The Women’s Emancipatory Discourse in Poland”), wyd. Efka, Kraków 1999.

[2] At the same time communism, with all its totalitarianism, had its ideas about women’s equality. On a practical level these ideas resulted in easy access to education, work, abortion and free day childcare. Law was better than practice, but still in some respects (especially abortion law) the situation of Polish women worsened after the fall of communism. Connecting feminism with communism (with well-remembered posters of women as tractor drivers), is another aspect of Polish perception of this movement.

[3] T. Hołówka (ed.), Nikt nie rodzi się kobietą, trans. T. Hołówka, wyd. Czytelnik, Warszawa 1982 (Polish titles in the text are given in the English translation).

[4] M. Humm (ed.), Słownik teorii feminizmu, trans. B. Umińska, J. Mikos, wyd. Semper, Warszawa 1993.

[5] M. Ciechomska, Od matriarchatu do feminizmu, wyd. Brama, Poznań 1996.

[6] See especially M. Janion Kobiety i duch inności (“Women and the Spirit of Otherness”), wyd. Sic!, Warszawa 1996.

[7] The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (trans. M. Leśniewska, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1972), and quite recently, Of Woman Born. Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich (trans. J. Mizielińska, wyd. Sic!, Warszawa 2000).

[8] See for example Agnieszka Kołakowska “Brvgady poprawności politycznej” (“Brigades of political correctness”) “Rzeczpospolita” 29.01.2000, where feminism is called “a disease, which attacks the brain causing complete and definite loss of common sense and ability of rational thinking”.

[9] See a review in “Zadra” “no. 1 (1999), p. 48-49. “Zadra” ( “A Splinter”) is a feminist periodical published since 1999 by Fundacja Kobieca “eFKa”(Women Foundation ‘eFKa”) in Krakow.

[10] K. Ślęczka Feminizm. Ideologie i koncepcje społeczne współczesnego feminizmu, Wydawnictwo “Książnica”, Katowice 1999, p. 14, 55.