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The Power of Polish Women | 12 Polish Women Worth Celebrating

28 Feb 2024

While a wikipedia entry on ‘Polish women’ begins with the sentence “The character of Polish women is shaped by Poland's history, culture, and politics,” the inverse is just as true: Polish women have shaped the history, culture and politics of Poland.

Revolutionary badass Emilia Plater, depicted here riding sidesaddle with a skirt on, leads peasants armed with scythes against Russian forces in the November Uprising (1830-31).
From the stereotype of the ‘Matka Polka’ (Polish mother) dedicated to domestic family life, to the pioneering women who have broken barriers and shattered stereotypes to pursue their passions and achieve greatness, the power and influence of Polish women should not be underestimated. The Polish women listed below are just a few examples of those who have earned a place in history via their own strength, resilience and resolve, showing us that women can be leaders, innovators and heroes just as readily as men.
So influential the French tried to claim her as their own, Marie Skłodowska Curie discovered two new elements, won two Nobel prizes and pioneered research in the field of radioactivity.
Their contributions to science, art, politics, and humanitarian efforts are a testament to their tireless spirit and determination to improve the world around them. Let’s honour their legacy, part of which, in addition to their personal accomplishments, should be the inspiration and further empowerment of women everywhere.

From warrior queens to Nobel Prize winners, here are 12 famous Polish ladies worth lauding:  

 

1. St. Jadwiga, 'King' of Poland (1384-1399)  

Jadwiga of Poland reigned as the country’s first female monarch (formally holding the title of ‘King’) from 1384 to 1399. She was known for her intelligence, piety, and compassion, and was beloved by her people. She was also a patron of the arts and funded numerous cultural and educational institutions. She was canonised as a saint in the Catholic Church in 1997.
Queen Jadwiga of Poland as depicted by Marcello Bacciarelli.

See Jadwiga's miraculous footprint in Kraków.
 

2. Emilia Plater (1806-1831)

Born into the ethnic-Polish nobility in Vilnius, (then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under partition), Countess Emilia Broel-Plater wrote her own legend as a leader of the November Uprising (1830-31) fighting against Russia's occupying forces. A 'maiden warrior' who rose to the rank of captain, she vowed to continue fighting even after other insurgent armies had conceded, but became ill and died at the young age of 25. Known as the 'Polish Joan of Arc,' she was venerated in numerous works of art and literature and is today a national hero of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.
Emilia Plater, seen here embodying Polish patriotism, leads her insurrectionists against the oppression of the Russian Empire.
 

3. Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934)

Born in Warsaw, the woman known to the rest of the world as Marie Curie was a trailblazer in science and academia. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different fields (physics and chemistry). Her discoveries in radioactivity revolutionised the field of medicine and paved the way for future generations of scientists. To learn more about her life and influence, watch our video below.
Visit the Maria Skłodowska Curie Museum in Warsaw.
 

4. Helena (Chaja) Rubinstein (1870-1965) 

Helena Rubinstein was a businesswoman and philanthropist who founded one of the world's largest cosmetics companies. Born in Kraków, she emigrated to Australia with nothing, launched a line of face creams and built a global cosmetics empire, becoming one of the world’s richest women. She was also a patron of the arts and a collector of modern art.
Helena (Chaja) Rubinstein - A cosmetics entrepreneur, later industrialist and once one of the world's richest women!
See Rubinstein's birthplace in Kraków.
 

5. Irena Sendler (1910-2008) 

During World War II, Irena Sendler was a gentile nurse who risked her life to save over 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Working with the Polish Underground Resistance and Polish Council to Aid Jews, she smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, placed them with Polish families, and kept meticulous records to reunite them with their families after the war. Despite being caught, tortured, and sentenced to death, she never revealed the names of the children or their hiding places. Escaping on the day of her scheduled execution, she survived the war and lived to be 98 years old. In 1965 she was honoured by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.
Irena Sendler - Saviour of over 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII


6. Michalina Wisłocka (1921-2005) 

Wisłocka was a Polish feminist, gynecologist and one of the country’s first sexologists. She fought for the reproductive rights of women during the communist era and is most famous for writing the controversial book ‘The Art of Loving’ (Sztuka Kochanie). The book encountered many problems during the publishing process: the puritanical mentality of the communist censors made it difficult to publish almost anything about sexuality, let alone something that could be considered a sex manual. Despite this the book became a massive bestseller in 1978, inspiring a more open discourse about the sexual lives, needs, desires and habits of Poles.
Michalina Wisłocka - A name synonymous with Polish sexology! Photo by Mateusz Opasiński / Wikicommons
 Visit the lakeside resort where a 1970s romance inspired Wisłocka to write 'The Art of Loving.'

7. Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012) 

Wisława Szymborska was a Polish poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. Her work was characterised by its wit, irony, and philosophical depth, and she tackled themes such as love, death, and the human condition. She was also a vocal critic of authoritarianism and censorship, and her work continues to inspire readers around the world today. Her strong connection to the city of Kraków played a major role in it being name the first UNESCO City of Literature on continental Europe.
Wisława Szymborska - Polish poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996.
 Visit Szymborska Park in Kraków.

8. Anna Walentynowicz (1929-2010) 

Anna Walentynowicz was a trade union activist and a key figure in the Solidarity movement in Poland. She worked as a crane operator in the Gdansk Shipyards and was fired for her activism, sparking a strike that helped lead to the downfall of the Communist government. She died in a plane crash in 2010, but her legacy continues to inspire activists around the world. 
Anna Walentynowicz - Trade union activist and a key figure in the Solidarity movement in Poland. Photo by Tadeusz Kłapyta.
 Explore the Gdańsk Shipyards with our video series.

9. Wanda Rutkiewicz (1943-1992) 

Wanda Rutkiewicz was a mountaineer who became the third woman (first European woman) to summit Mount Everest in 1978 and the first woman to summit K2 (the world’s second-highest peak) in 1986. Over her career, she reached the peaks of 8 (possibly 9) of the world’s 14 8-thousanders (peaks over 8000 metres above sea level). She disappeared while attempting an ascent on Kanchenjunga in 1992 at age 49, but her legacy as a pioneering female mountaineer lives on. 
Wanda Rutkiewicz - Mountaineer and first European woman to summit Mount Everest (1978).


10. Agnieszka Holland (1948-) 

Agnieszka Holland is a Polish film director and screenwriter who has made a name for herself in Hollywood. Her acclaimed filmography as director includes "Europa Europa," "The Secret Garden," and "In Darkness." She is known for her gritty realism and social commentary, and her work has been recognized with numerous awards and nominations. 
Agnieszka Holland - Internationally-renowned Polish film director and screenwriter.
 

11. Olga Tokarczuk (1962-)  

Olga Tokarczuk is a Polish writer, activist, and public intellectual. She is one of the most critically acclaimed and successful authors of her generation in Poland; in 2019, she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Polish female prose writer for "a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life." As a result, many of her books have been translated into other languages and even adapted into films. “Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead” is perhaps her most popular novel with foreign readers. Her (somewhat tenuous) connection to the city of Wrocław was no doubt instrumental in it being named a UNESCO City of Literature.
Olga Tokarczuk - Polish writer, activist, and public intellectual.
 

12. Iga Świątek (2001-) 

Tennis pro Iga Świątek is the first player representing Poland to be ranked world no. 1 (a rank she still holds as of this writing in Feb. 2024) and the first Polish player, man or woman, to win a major singles title - a feat she has so-far accomplished four times, having won the French Open in 2020, 2022 and 2023, and the US Open in 2022. In 2023 she was included on Time Magazine's list of 'The 100 Most Influential People in the World.'
Iga in action at the 2023 US Open; photo by Hemeltion.

Read more Polish Herstories from across our website.

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