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Over My Shoulder #30: Shana Penn on the women who built the Polish dissident press, from Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland (2005)

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from the introductory chapter of Shana Penn’s 2005 study, Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland (ISBN 0-472-11385-2). Penn is discussing what she found when she went to Poland to research Solidarity, the worker’s opposition movement that played a decisive role in the collapse of martial law and the Communist regime itself in Poland during the 1980s.

The prisons and internment camps made up another major locus of dissent. After the imposition of martial law, defiantly irrepressible intellectuals such as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuro@@c5;201e; communicated from their jail cells, appealing to the nation to stop living lies and, instead, to live as if we are free. The imprisoned writers penned dazzling essays that were smuggled to the illegal press for publication.

It was the opposition press, which flourished illegally for most of the 1970s and 1980s, that was the third of the major, nonfactory sites of resistance. That enterprising, albeit clandestine, industry, brought people together on the same page, so to speak, to get real news, not state propaganda, and to debate what an open society might look like. The illicit newspapers, magazines, bulletins, and books it published were called bibu@@c5;201a;a, the Polish term for illegal papers produced during periods of censorship. Analogous to the Russian word samizdat, to self-publish, bibu@@c5;201a;a had the advantage of being a Polish word.

It was the illegal press that provided 1970s oppositionists with a practical vehicle to activate and coalesce support from the three, very different social groups that were fundamental to making change: the Intelligencja (a nineteenth-century way of saying public intellectuals and a term that continued to be used through 1989); the Workers, with a capital W (a purely communist term that the opposition brilliantly appropriated to argue for free trade unions); and the Polish Catholic clergy, the spiritual leaders most tolerated in the antireligious Soviet Bloc. (The political restraints on their power made the clergy unusually tolerant. They turned their backs on abortion and divorce, and they assisted women activists, even those who were single mothers, such as several of the protagonists of this story.)

Significantly, the illegal press was the chief playing field on which women were able to carve out distinctive, influential roles for themselves in the opposition. They distinguished themselves as editors, publishers, journalists, and communications strategists long before the world beyond Poland’s police-patrolled borders had begun talking about the Information Age. Much of my research leading to this book was to take place in the realm of the opposition press, but I had no inkling of that when I began my journey.

Arriving in Warsaw in the summer of 1990, I was aware that women made up approximately 50 percent of Solidarity’s ten-million strong membership–proportional to women’s presence in the labor force. However, their political representation in the formal solidarity structures was significantly smaller. As one rose in the Solidarity hierarchy, the numers of women diminished. Only 7.8 percent (69) of the 881 delegates to the Solidarity Congress [in September 1981] were women; only one woman sat on the National Executive [Committee], reported U.S. historian Barbara Jancar.

As I began collecting Polish women’s stories, I kept the following questions in mind: If Solidarity’s political leadership was male dominated, in what ways, then, had women participatd? Were there particular issues or activities to which they gravitated? Did they demonstrate special organizing styles? Were there unsung heroines among them or any forgotten events?

The first clues surfaced when several women I interviewed in the summer and winter of 1990 made statements such as the following:

A group of women in Warsaw managed the Solidarity Press Agency after Solidarity was created; then they organized Tygodnik Mazowsze [Regional Weekly] during martial law; and after 1989, they created the first free press, Gazeta Wyborcza [Election Gazette].

When martial law was declared, woemn started the underground in Warsaw.

Men thought they were in charge, but women pulled all the strings.

Listening to first one woman’s memories and then another’s, I heard a subject (a group of women), a place (the Warsaw underground), an occupation (the media), and a date (after the Decemer 13 declaration of martial law) repeatedly linked. Alerted to the possibility that something of consequence might connect the individual stories being told, I formulated a new core interview question: Where were you when martial law was declared, and what did you do? The following picture emerged:

After Solidarity spent sixteen months flexing its newly legal political muscles, the government declared martial law and immediately arrested some ten thousand activists–around nine thousand men and one thousand women. With most of the male leadership either imprisoned or driven into hiding, a core group of women rose up to reconnect Solidarity’s nationwide network of contacts, to protect the leaders in hiding from the secret police, to arrange meetings, and to smuggle money and equipment into the country. By January 1982 a uniquely all-female team based in Warsaw had pulled together unions and volunteers, moved typewriters and printing presses into attics and back rooms, and begun producing Tygodnik Mazowsze, which became the voice of the Solidarity underground.

Working as a team, the women possessed the management skills, confidence, and media savvy to organize a large-scale, illegal publishing operation that served the entire nation, mobilized hundreds of thousands of individuals in support of Solidarity, and enlisted the help of thousands of supporting players–from reporters and printers to distributors and smugglers. The paper thus bolstered the growth of civil society under the repressive conditions of martial law, when it was humanly and technically almost impossible to coordinate nationwide activity.

Like nearly everyone else, the secret police were unaware that the leading newspaper of the 1980s underground was a female-run enterprise and that the thousands of people who helped produce and distribute it took their instructions from an all-woman editorial team. Blinded by sexism, the secret police hunted diligently for the men they assumed to be behind the newspaper–Solidarity men in hiding whose names had appeared in bylines. Keen to arrest and silence the paper’s key personnel, the police completely overlooked its editors and publishers–Helena Luczywo, Joanna Szcz@@c4;2122;sna, Anna Dodziuk, Anna Bikont, Zofia Bydli@@c5;201e;ska, and Malgorzata Pawlicka. They also overlooked Ewa Kulik, who coordinated the operations of the Warsaw underground in collaboration with Tygodnik Mazowsze. These seven women called themselves Damska Grupa Operacyjna (Ladies’ Operations Unit), or simply DGO, and they form the core group of this study.

Most of these women could trace their roots as oppositionists back as far as high school; many were involved in the brutally suppressed student protests of 1968; and by the mid- to late 1970s the majority had already anchored their activism in the arena of illegal publishing, which was just becoming a mainstay of the growing democratic opposition. When Solidarity became legal, many of the DGO women ran the Solidarity Press Agency, called AS, communist Poland’s first uncensored news service and digest. During martial law they made Tygodnik Mazowsze a reality. And when it was time to clear the political ground for democratic governance in 1989, they founded the first postcommunist daily, Gazeta Wyborcza.

Beginning with their work at AS, the women shaped illegal publishing into an instrument of civic activism. They made a point of building up their communication channels so they could be used to foster a well-informed society. They planned media strategies on the premise that knowledge is power and communication is the underpinning of action. By December 13, 1981, they were already skilled at publishing and distributing newspapers, organizing protests, and petitioning the government, and when martial law craced down, they reacted immediately. Determined to outmaneuver the military junta, these women were poised to lead the telerevolution.

Martial law was not a time for spectacular actions, for demonstrating, for organizing public events, or making speeches. To throw a bomb against [the authorities] would have been suicide, Polish émigré author Irena Grudzi@@c5;201e;ska-Gross told me in 1991. The road to salvation [was] in thinking and creating. … Without Tygodnik Mazowsze, the underground could not have existed. It was a form in which political opinions and declarations could be made. It was a link among people in finding sympathizers in a dangerous time when people were dispirited.

In a 1999 interview that appeared in Media Studies Journal, Polish-born journalist Anna Husarska confirmed what Irena and several Solidarity women had told me years earlier. The media and especially the print media were Solidarity. All right, Solidarity was a trade union and the workers had demands and the intellectuals supported the workers, but the civil society in Poland was built through the underground press. Almost everybody was involved in either the writing or the printing or the distributing or the transporting or even the producing of the ink. Everyone felt involved. What Husarska did not note or explore, either in this article or in her 1989 piece in the Book Section of the Sunday New York Times, were the identities of the women behind the underground press she described and analyzed.

In 1985 Barbara Jancar published an essay that discussed women’s role in the Polish opposition in the 1970s and 1980s. She concluded that Solidarity’s leadership was male dominated and that its reform agenda did not consider women’s interests outside the family. She also characterized women’s activism at the time as having been spontaneous, symbolic, and endorsed by men. While her essay remains an important introduction to gender dynamics in the Polish opposition, it does not uncover the identities or the roles of women spearheading the opposition press, who were intellectuals, not working-class women. Jancar’s main focus was on women workers because Solidarity was regarded as a working-class phenomenon. There was no indication in her findings that some women had already begun to institutionalize their distinctly female methods of operation at locations outside the realm of workers’ strikes.

The view from inside the movement looked wholly different from what those outsiders had recorded. It came as a great surprise when I listened to Wroclaw activist Barbara Labuda characterize women’s role in the underground during our first interview in 1991. Men didn’t have the skills to manage the underground. Women were the brainpower, she declared. The women chiefs, as she referred to the regional activists, rebuilt the communication channels, organized secret meetings, arranged for the transfers of money, found contacts at Western embassies, spoke to the press, and developed relations with local and foreign clergy. When Solidarity members needed aid, they came to the women. When Western reporters requested interviews, they met with the women. I gave a lot of the interviews but not in my name. I wrote all of the men’s speeches, Barbara admitted. My women friends in other regions share experiences similar to mine–we had to protect our own identities.

In order to protect their identities from discovery by the government or the secret police, the Tygodnik Mazowsze editors insisted on anonymity when speaking to the Western press and perpetuated the myth of working-class men as the superstars of resistance. They worked behind the scenes as invisible organizers in order to publicize the words, deeds, and leadership of their male colleagues. Strategically, they felt that this was the way to gain popular support and to rebuild the splintered movement. And they succeeded.

–Shana Penn (2005): Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland, ISBN 0-472-11385-2. 7–12.

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