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International Trends: An Update of the Polish Election: What Did It Mean for Women? Peggy Simpson The September 1993 election in Poland revolved in part around issues such as abortion and the influence of the Catholic Church in politics. The big winners were three left-of-center parties. Two of them had pledged to amend the strict anti-abortion law and to work for church-state separation —the former Communist Party, in a coalition called the Democratic Left Alliance or SLD, and a breakaway group of Solidarity socialists in a coalition called Union of Labor or Unia Pracy. The Peasants' Party took no stand on the issue. Nine months earlier, they had spearheaded an unsuccessful petition drive to get a national referendum on the issue of outlawing abortion, rather than leaving it to the Church-dominated Parliament. More than 1.3 million Poles signed the petitions and by the time the drive ended the opinion polls showed that 75 percent of the voters favored a referendum rather than an up-or-down vote by Parliament. They also opposed the Church's proposal for a near-total ban on abortion by the same margin. The referendum drive, in retrospect, proved a valuable organizing drive for left-of-center politicians. They used this to rout not just the Church-linked politicians but also the leading free-market reform parties which had accomodated the Church's economic and morality agendas. Ironically, however, the post-1989 Solidarity-era women's rights groups failed to use that referendum drive or the election issues related to them to greatly strengthen their own ranks or to broaden the public debate on "women's place" in society. On one level, the September 19 vote would seem a victory for women's rights activists who had criticized the Church's conspicuous clout on issues such as abortion, divorce, government support for contraception, and the role of women. A defeat for the Church and a victory for left-of-center parties, however, do not necessarily translate into a victory for Polish feminists. The jury is still out on that one. There is much cynicism about the former communists, whose equality rhetoric was widely seen after the fall of communism to have been just one more manipulative tool to control the population. Women were used as political tokens, having no real influence. They never made it into top jobs. They were saddled with formidable labor-intensive double burdens. And they bore the brunt of the © 1994 Journal of Women's History, Vol 6 No. ι (Spring) 68 Journal of Women's History Spring policy consequences of state socialism which meant virtually no service sector, outdated health care methods that forced reliance on multiple abortions due to lack of access to contemporary contraception, and a "shortage economy" that meant hours of standing in lines to buy the day's basic food supplies. It now is put up or shut up time for the newly victorious left-of-center politicians. However, they have little grass-roots pressure from autonomous women's groups to keep their feet to the fire, to monitor what they do versus what they say. And there are few linkages in place between women and men from the Left and the "democracy" groups to talk about "women's place" in Poland. The Left clearly benefitted from society's anger about the Church's muscular political role in society, in a backlash vote that proved to be a rout for the Solidarity reformers who had pushed free-market economic reforms but also accomodated the Church's demands. The final straw came last summer, after President Lech Walesa disbanded Parliament and called new elections, and Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka signed a secret Concordant with the Vatican. The Concordant, which awaits action by the new Parliament, would reiterate the near-total ban on abortion and would set out new procedures for Church and civil marriages. Critics see these procedures as a back-door vehicle for curbing divorce, by giving discretion to priests to register Church weddings with civil authorities. Izabela Nowacka, the first elected president of the Women's League, which served as policy arm of the Communist Party for a half-century until...


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