Gesine Fuchs

Polish women's organisations during democratization (1997-2001)

Polish women's organisations during democratization (1997-2001), doctoral dissertation

While there are substantial research results for the relevance of institutional and procedural minima for democratic consolidation in the Eastern European transition countries, considerable less attention has been paid to the question which social and political processes actually form the basis for this consolidation or have a positive impact on it. Shifting gender regimes lie in the core of Eastern European transformations. Do women now become full citizens, that is, can they in fact participate in decisions about themselves? Do they have equal chances for participation? This may be seen as a litmus test for democracy itself. This study asks, how in Poland – the largest Central Eastern European country with strong traditions of social self-organizing – women got hold of an organizational base, which cleavages emerged, which interests and conflicts they could set on the political agenda and by which strategies and methods women pursued these interests. How do their NGOs as part of the civil society contribute to substantial democracy?

A qualitative sample of six women's organisations has been thoroughly researched. Expert interviews, participant observation in the feminist environment and the analysis of literature and grey material constitute the main sources of this study.

One may conclude from the results that, contrary to previous assumptions, civil society is not demobilised. Rather civic associations in Poland find themselves in a "basis phase", where they handle concrete social problems, but are hardly integrated in a network for interest and conflict negotiation. Out of the feminist environment, a small social movement emerged after 1997. The seizing of political opportunities such as the debate on abortion and the Women's World Conference in Beijing has been decisive for this process. The problems posed to Polish women in the transformation period are the main factors for all the topics and formulated interests in this movement and the women's organisations: work, employment and qualification, violence, reproductive rights and health, rights and the rule of law. Practical gender interests – social assistance, counselling and training – are connected dialectically to strategic interests such as the popularization of autonomous women's identities, the demand for equality and the implementation of rights. By this, the organisations gain a special credibility in the public. Rights do have a special meaning in their strategies and activities. Legal counselling, legal literacy and lobbying for actual equality before the law are seen as essential instruments to individually and collectively empower women. Larger organisations use and exploit a common social frame; by "framing" their own contested demands with European and international human and civil rights and treaties, the organisations can gain political legitimacy for their demands and free them from taboos.

Polish women's organisations as part of the civil society contribute to democratic consolidation. Their impact can been seen in three areas: Firstly, by information, monitoring and making political claims the organisations control state actions, inform individuals about their rights and empower them in relation to the state. At the same time, they also strengthen the state because they demand the implementation of its own decrees, e.g. the rule of law. Thus, the region's fatal antagonism between state and society is weakened. Secondly, women's organisations may be schools of democracy as they offer civic education, make political demands and cooperate with each other for these demands. Therefore, they combat political alienation and point to the inevitability of political rights. Thirdly, women's organisations articulate and aggregate social interests, because they develop their political demands in close relationship to social needs. Gradually they enhance the legitimacy of female political activism. Ongoing discussions in the feminist environment sharpen these positions. Negotiation of interests between civil and political society, and generating opportunities for political influence on all levels of governance, is hardly covered. The integration into the policy process would provide a sharp weapon against populism, undemocratic goals of civic associations and alienation. Their connectivity of political positions, networking and social pressure make further political successes of the Polish women's movement possible.



Book publication: Die Zivilgesellschaft mitgestalten. Polnische Frauenorganisationen im Demokratisierungsprozess, Frankfurt/M., Campus 2003 (Reihe "Politik der Geschlechterverhältnisse 21").

Related publications in English: 2006/07 Women's NGOs in EU Governance