Women and Polish Democracy – Does the Quota System Work? - European Integration

Image removed.

Agnieszka Grzybek

The struggle to implement mechanisms that could help increase the number of women in the election system lasted over 10 years. When the so called quota legislation was accepted in December 2010, guaranteeing at least 35 % of ballot positions to women, some members of the women’s movement saw it as a success, while others felt it was a failure. According to Professor Małgorzata Fuszara, who presented the legislation project in the Sejm, the quota legislation can be called the biggest success of the women's movement since their successful fight to win women’s suffrage in 1918. At the same time Professor Fuszara admits that it is "rather the beginning than the end of the process to end discrimination and achieve gender equality"[1]. The skeptics were afraid that the legal obligation to fill 35 percent of the ballot positions with women would limit women's political activity to this level and in the end wouldn't change much.

In any way, some people who worked on improving women's political representation had high hopes connected with this legislation. Last year's local government elections gave us a good foretaste of how this legislation could be put into practice. But the question of whether it can really change something was answered by this year's parliamentary election which was held on 9 October.

History of quotas in Poland

The trials and efforts to implement this reserved ballot position system started over ten years ago. It turned out very fast that Polish democracy is male in character. Professor Maria Janion already drew attention to that when in her introduction to Shana Penn's book Solidarity's Secret she wrote: "Women's rights were no more part of the rights that 'Solidarity' fought for. Women's energy to be active in society was muffled, rejected even. Polish democracy turned out to be a male-oriented democracy."[2] American scholar Shana Penn, who did research among former female dissidents during the nineties, drew attention to a certain phenomenon of Polish democracy: although women were the majority of Solidarity's[3] underground, they virtually disappeared from public life after 1989. Not many of them decided to continue their political careers. During the nineties only about 13 percent of the Members of Parliament were women. The situation changed dramatically only in 2001, when thanks to a few factors (for example a change in social attitude, increasing support for women in politics, media's interest in the subject and a steady rise of women running for elections) the number of female members of the Sejm rose from 13 to 20 % and from 13 to 23 % in the Senat. The reason for this was an intense campaign by Przedwyborcza Koalicja Kobiet (Pre-election Women's Coalition) – a coalition of dozens of women's organisations and individuals from the whole country, whose aim was to increase the political representation of women. The Coalition decided to back every female candidate, regardless of their political affiliation and their views – the most important thing was that there were more women in politics.

[1] Maria Janion, “Amerykanka w Polsce”. In: Shana Penn, Podziemie kobiet. Trans. Hanna Jankowska. Warsaw: Rosner & wspólnicy, 2003. P. 9.

[2] Solidarność, the Independent, Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity”

[3] Małgorzata Fuszara,  Bringing the reserved ballot positions to life is the biggest political success of women since 1918, http://www.kongreskobiet.pl/ (in Polish only)

The complete article can be downloaded by using the PDF button at the top of the page.

Agnieszka Grzybek is a feminist activist, journalist and gender equality expert who has been involved in the women’s movement in Poland since 1997. She is a graduate from the Polish Philology Department at Warsaw University and the Post-Graduate School of Journalism. 2002-2005 she was a member of the Programme-Consultative Council at the Governmental Plenipotentiary for Equal Status of Women and Men and the EQUAL Monitoring Committee. She is currently programme coordinator for Gender and Equality at the office the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Warsaw and a member of the National Council of the Polish Greens (Zieloni).