- Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland by Malgorzata Fidelis
This book is a uniquely valuable contribution to our understanding of the reconfiguration of social inequalities in postwar East Central Europe. Fidelis placed under scrutiny an iconic topos of the communist egalitarianism: women’s industrial labor, and delivered an extremely nuanced and lucid history of social difference. Poland’s post-1945 nation-state, with its annihilated Jewish sztetls, ethnically cleansed territories, and ruthlessly eliminated anti-communist underground, represented a unique example of violently produced cultural homogenization. Taking this wartime social revolution as a point of departure, the book claims that gender remained “a primary way of demarcating and understanding social hierarchies in postwar Poland” (2). This means more than saying that gender matters in general and in particular as a programmatically unavoidable part of modern historiography. Fidelis does not just add a gender component to the well-established story of social and political divisions in the Soviet Bloc that were either ideological (“us vs. them”), or socio-economic (intelligentsia-workers-peasants). Instead, she demonstrates that gender was the very foundation for establishing and unwinding Polish stalinism.
Historically, the centrality of gender in postwar Poland has to be understood, so the book’s argument goes, as a result of the wartime social transformation, when the physical eradication of ethnical and racial, and to some extent class, difference shifted gender difference to the forefront of political tensions. Stalinist industrialization radicalized this process further by partial equalizing male and female wage work. While in the West the postwar conservative consensus brought women from the home front back to the sphere of domesticity and consumption, the socialist East celebrated women’s rights as a way to overcome economic backwardness and boost the regime’s political legitimacy. Fidelis draws upon this comparative framework, yet her analysis provides a much more complex and dynamic narrative about how the equal rights were understood by party-state leaders and ordinary people.
In fact, the reconfiguration of gender in postwar Poland was made out of tacit compromises and open confrontations between the communists and the Catholic Church, local party-officials and local communities, parents and daughters. Ironically enough, the politicization of women’s industrial labor profited from and reinforced fragmentation and frictions among women themselves. The book demonstrates that both the imaginary stalinist masculine heroines on the tractors and their real counterparts, whom Fidelis interviewed during her research trips, were one of the most alienated, disliked and eventually forgotten figures of/in the Polish postwar society. The liberalization of the political system undermined the idea of gender equality—as the latter was associated with the ideologically contaminated social engineering—not by removing women from the workforce, but by keeping them in the low-skilled and low-paid positions. Fidelis argues persuasively that the poststalinist “protection” measures towards female employees imposed a strict sex-segregated job market and excluded women workers from prospect of social [End Page 800] advancement until the end of the communist regime. On the other hand, while the year 1956 brought at the forefront the notion of motherhood, it also brought a significant relaxation of anti-abortion law. Fidelis claims that from the particular gender perspective this turning point should not be regarded only in terms of conservative backlash.
The major portion of the book deals, however, with the reconfiguration of gender as it unfolded in day-to-day interactions on the ground. The book examines three industrial centers, each representing a diverse historical setting, where women workers experienced postwar industrialization. Similar to Padraic Kenney’s path-breaking Rebuilding Poland: Workers and Communists, 1945–1950, Fidelis stresses the variety of labor cultures within the Polish nation-state, and by doing so, sheds light on the diversity of popular attitudes toward the communist policies of female employment. In Żyrardów, the old textile industry city and traditional site of female labor, noncompliant older women workers pursued their own notions of social justice and were not afraid to challenge strict and oppressive stalinist production measures.
For the second case study Fidelis chose a radically...