Women's Day in Poland | Celebrations & Shortcomings

28 Feb 2024

International Women’s Day is observed around the world on March 8th, including Poland, where ‘Dzień Kobiet’ (Women's Day) has a long history and was even a public holiday for many decades.

A day for expressing love and gratitude towards the women around us, Women’s Day is also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in society, raise awareness and take action on a range of women’s rights issues, including gender equality, reproductive rights, and domestic abuse. Poland’s Dzień Kobiet celebrations have traditionally focussed on the flowers and chocolates of the former, and are only now beginning to confront the broader challenges women face in a country that still has some distance to go on women’s issues.
The dichotomy of Dzień Kobiet.
The popular contemporary representation of Women's Day in Poland.
International Women's Day demonstrations in Kraków, 2020. Photo by Jakub Hałun.

The History of International Women’s Day

Today a celebration of womanhood most associated with progressive democratic societies (and virtue-signalling corporations), Women’s Day actually has its roots in socialism. The first Women’s Day celebration was organised in New York City on February 29, 1909 by the Socialist Party of America. Soon after, at the International Socialist Women’s Conference, organised in August 1910 in Copenhagen, the establishment of International Women’s Day (IWD) was adopted by unanimous vote. Though no specific date was set, the following year saw the first commemorations of IWD in many European countries, including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary and Denmark, in March 1911. The socialist movements behind these Women’s Day demonstrations had one primary focus at that time - women’s suffrage, or gaining the right to vote in elections for all women.
Women protesting on March 8, 1911 in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). These protests resulted in Russian women winning the right to vote and March 8th becoming a national holiday in most communist countries.
In Russia, the first Women’s Day was celebrated in 1913, and annual demonstrations gradually grew in strength until 1917 when Women’s Day protests on March 8 (February 23 in the Julian calendar) sparked the February Revolution, resulting in the abdication of the Tsar just seven days later and women immediately achieving the right to vote under Russia's new provisional government. Because of its massive role in the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks made Women’s Day an official holiday and it stayed that way throughout the Soviet era, when Women’s Day on March 8th was primarily celebrated as a public holiday in communist countries, and recognised by communist movements worldwide.
Soviet 'International Women's Day' stamp from 1949.

In 1975 the United Nations also officially adopted March 8th as International Women’s Day and today the date is celebrated globally with annual themes, hashtags and corporate initiatives. In the United States, Women’s Day grew into Women’s History Week, and since 1987 March has been observed as Women’s History Month in many countries, particularly the USA, UK and Australia.
In an attempt to distance Women's Day from its socialist roots, some claim the date was chosen to commemorate the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirt Factory in New York City on March 25, 1911, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them young women. This period cartoon criticises the anti-union stance and reckless policy of the factory owners who kept the factory doors locked during work hours. As tragic as the fire was, and as much as it did lead to labour reforms, it doesn't change that the date of International Women's Day is directly tied to Russia's February Revolution.

Women’s Day in Poland

The first Women’s Day celebrations in Poland date back to the interwar period - a time when the role of women was primarily in the home, raising children and running the household. During this period the archetype of ‘Matka Polka’ - the ideal ‘Polish Mother’ raising her children to love their country and fight for its freedom (often while their husbands were off doing exactly that) - was a strong social myth. ‘Matka Polka’ was a heroic figure ready to make sacrifices for her nation, and remaining faithful to the Polish language and culture. There was also a strong Catholic element to this social myth, with an inherent equivalence between ‘Matka Polka’ and ‘Matka Boska’ - the Holy Mother.
Matka Polka - the strong, silent type. Seen here in a 19th-century image by Artur Grottger.

As socialist movements around the world were fighting for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, Poland was no different. In fact, the strong activity of Polish feminists helped the suffrage movement succeed as early as 1918, making Poland one of the first countries in Europe to give women the right to vote.
Kraków suffragettes demonstrating way back in 1911.

Women’s Day really came to prominence, however, during the time of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL), and is still most associated with the communist era in Poland today. As was the case in the USSR, ‘Dzień Kobiet’ was an official public holiday during the communist era in Poland, but it was not a day off work. On this day men were expected to give well wishes and small gifts to the women in their lives, and the celebrations largely took place in the workplace with food and vodka. In addition to family members it was customary for men to greet women in shops and even strangers on the street with wishes, and to give female colleagues flowers or other tokens of appreciation, particularly items that were difficult to acquire under communism like nylon tights, coffee and chocolate.
Red carnations (pictured) were the official flower of Women’s Day during the PRL era, but because of their associations with socialism and communism, they are ‘flower non grata’ in Poland today. Tulips and roses have replaced them as the flowers of choice.

In the post-PRL era (since 1989), Women’s Day is still celebrated, but no longer an official state holiday. Over the decades it has become increasingly commercialised, and now features special sales, promotions and discounts aimed at ladies, encouraging them to pamper themselves with spa packages or get together for a big night out on the town. For some men it’s not unlike another Valentine’s Day (just three weeks later), with pressure to spoil their partners in some special way. At the same time, Women’s Day still adheres to the chivalrous traditions of yesteryear, with men expected to give flowers, open doors and bestow wishes upon the women around them.
The Matka Polka archetype remained during the PRL era, but evolved as the patriotic Polish Mother was now expected to work and manage the household and actively participate in demonstrations against the regime. Anna Walentynowicz (middle, left of Lech Wałęsa) perhaps most typified the new Matka Polka of the PRL era.

Celebrating Polish Women

Although it’s been largely men that write the history books, Polish women have obviously played a huge role in shaping Polish society. However, it hasn’t all been the suffering and sacrifice that the Matka Polka stereotype suggests. Polish women have been leaders and revolutionaries, literary giants and artistic geniuses, scientific innovators, entrepreneurs and world-class athletes. It was a Polish woman, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, who was the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize, and remains the only woman to have won it twice - a feat which she accomplished in two separate fields of study. In the spirit of Women’s Day, we’ve made a list of just some of the extraordinary Polish women who deserve to be celebrated for their influence and accomplishments, and you’ll find more Herstories across our website.

Read The Power of Polish Women: 12 Polish Women Worth Celebrating.


Challenges Facing Polish Women Today

As society celebrates women each March 8th, it is important to acknowledge not just the challenges they have faced in years past, but also the challenges they still face today. Polish women have particularly suffered throughout a history of occupations, revolutions, wars, genocides and oppressive regimes. Although the 21st century has been a period of relative peace and prosperity for Poland, women continue to face an uphill battle for equality in Polish society.
Women's Day March in Kraków, 2021. 

In 2015, the Law & Justice political party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) rose to power in Poland on a right-wing populist platform that did much to perpetuate gender inequality, even going so far as to denigrate women in both official comments and behind the scenes. In 2020 PiS passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, leaving Polish women without fundamental reproductive rights and putting their lives in danger in some cases. The new abortion laws incited massive protests and demonstrations across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Although these protests failed to force the government to change the law, Polish women - who make up 52% of the population today - succeeded in voting PiS out of power in the 2023 election, proving once again that they are a force to be reckoned with and capable of overcoming adversity through a variety of means. Legislative change should soon follow in 2024.

Where Polish Women’s Day Falls Short 

While gifts and flowers are certainly a nice, appreciated gesture on Women’s Day, what about actually empowering women and improving their situation and position in society?

In Poland, Women’s Day should not just be a one-day occasion to thank the women around us with small gifts and gestures, but could also serve as a catalyst for further discussion about women’s rights in Poland. More in line with much of the west, Women’s Month could be an opportunity to educate, inspire and motivate all of Polish society to stand against sex-based discrimination, fight unfair salary disparity, demand change to legislation that infringes on women’s rights and endangers their well-being and take up other causes for women. The month of March could be a time to not just celebrate the current station of women in Polish society, but take steps to improve it. To not just give flowers, but plant the seeds that will grow and bloom into the next generation of strong, confident, equal and enabled Polish women.

Maybe this is the year?


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