Small-town feminist activism in Poland

On Monday, October 3, 2016 the landscape of social movements in Poland changed. What surprised many observers and academics was the distribution of protest events throughout the country.

Magdalena Muszel Grzegorz Piotrowski
5 January 2019

open Movements

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Rural feminist protest. Screenshot of detail of photo taken by Magdalena Muszel.All rights reserved.

On Monday, October 3, 2016 the landscape of social movements in Poland changed. Tens of thousands of people (mostly women) went out to the streets to protest against an attempt to tighten the already restrictive law on abortion in Poland. The campaign that culminated during “Black Monday” aimed at forcing the authorities to withdraw from advancing the radical pro-life proposal of a new law.

The electoral victory of the conservative Law and Justice party in 2015 (both in presidential and parliamentary elections; in the latter the party secured absolute majority in the parliament) had triggered new waves of protests, during which the number of registered protest events doubled compared to previous years (This was notable in the case of Warsaw). However, Black Monday was special for a number of reasons.

What surprised many observers and academics was the distribution of protest events throughout the country. Apart from demonstrations in big cities, numerous protest events were held in smaller towns in provincial Poland. This was a novelty as big cities are the usual arena of grassroots protests, sometimes seen as a characteristic feature for central and eastern European social movements. As Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (All-Polish Women’s Strike, one of the groups behind the described mobilization) wrote on their webpage:

“We are a grassroots, independent social movement of pissed-off women and rational men supporting us. We all went to streets on 3.10 to protest against the barbaric anti-abortion law. We struck all over Poland, protested in over 150 cities in Poland and over 60 abroad. 90% of protests in Poland took place in cities of less than 50,000 inhabitants and this was the greatest strength of the Women's Strike”.

Police sources indicated that 143 protest events were held during Black Monday with a cumulative participation of 98,000 people. In many smaller cities, this was the first street protest organized since the 1980s. According to the CBOS public opinion surveying agency, 3% of the population took part in the protest, and 52% supported it (58% among those, who have heard of the campaign)[1].

The hashtag #CzarnyProtest was the most popular hashtag on the Polish internet in 2016: according to Brand24 it had 44 million interactions. The fact that so many protest events took place in small and provincial towns is one of the most interesting features of this protest. It prompted further research into women’s and feminist activism in small cities. The aim of our study was to recreate the small-town environment in which activists operate and to capture the key characteristics that influence women’s and feminist activism there. The fact that so many protest events took place in small and provincial towns is one of the most interesting features of this protest.

Weak movements

Previous studies have described central and eastern European societies as demobilized, passive, and depoliticized. For some scholars, low levels of political and social engagement were a direct result of the experience of living under the communist regime. People of central and eastern Europe were forced to join associations and groups in communist societies, and as a reaction, have moved towards family and friendship networks that allowed them to overcome the problems encountered in these times. In its development the third sector, became ‘institutionalized’ and ‘NGO-ized’, becoming detached from both grassroots activities and the rest of political society (with some exceptions, cf. Saxonberg 2016).

Increasing conservatism

The other context often invoked relates to the 2015 elections (presidential and parliamentary) in Poland that not only shifted the politics far to the right (with no leftist party present in parliament), but also ignited a wave of hatred towards all kinds of ‘others’. This process of mainstream discourse can also be detected in the public debate on abortion. There is an observable shift within society towards more pro-choice positions with a simultaneous growing conservatism of the authorities that allow for more radical concepts and ideas to be discussed as potential new laws.  In 2018 around 46% of the population expressed support for the idea of broadly available abortion whereas 32% were against such a solution. At the same time a study from April 2018 found that 44% of society did not want any changes to the already existing law: 37% wanted to liberalize it and 11% wanted to restrict it even further. Clearly, how questions are formulated in public surveys is important. In the first case the questions were framed in terms of personal liberty: in the latter case, about legal solutions, people tended to be more restrained in their answers.

When it comes to women and feminist activists, there is little doubt that the discursive opportunities for this movement are narrow ones. Abortion (but also sexual education, or any issues connected to gender identity) has been an ideological battlefield since the 1989 systemic transformation, and much utilized in institutionalizing the growing conservatism. One of the first declarations of the second assembly of delegates to the Solidarność movement in 1990, soon after its re-legalization, was against abortion.

The current abortion law is the result of a ‘compromise’ between the Church and the post-communist government, allowing for abortion in situations of the threat to life of a foetus and the mother, or if pregnancy is the result of a crime (incest or rape). As a result of this strict law, legal abortion is limited to around 1000 cases per year.

Debates accompanying changes to the abortion law were always very heated and the catholic church (directly or through dependent pro-life organizations) became heavily involved in the discussion. Since then, several attempts at restricting the law further have been made and it was the proposal of 2016 that would practically have blocked all or any access to legally performed abortion that sparked the protests.

Anti-feminist discourse

The anti-abortion narrative is one of the elements of a more general wave of criticism aimed against feminist movements and feminist way of thinking as broadly understood. Over the years there have been numerous waves of e.g. anti-gender campaigns, where ‘genderism’ was dubbed an ideology and connected to the concept coined by John Paul II, ‘civilization of death’. ‘Gender ideology’ is said to have its roots in ‘cultural Marxism’ (without explaining the category in detail) bringing it into line with a broader anti-leftist narrative. Anti-leftism is connected to the rejection of communism that took place during the systemic transformation of 1989. ‘Gender ideology’ is said to have its roots in ‘cultural Marxism’ (without explaining the category in detail) bringing it into line with a broader anti-leftist narrative.

However, the growing dominance of right-wing parties and groups since the mid-2000s has made anti-communism part of the mainstream discourse, and this has resonated particularly well among young people. Nearly all activities that are not conservative or right wing are today labeled as leftist and feminist. Women’s rights issues are here no exception. As one of our interviewees said:

“Feminism has pejorative associations. Feminists are haunted women without a man who want to murder children. This is the message. So people who think this way, that is, they do not have the information they need, they are not interested and this is a huge barrier to cross.”

It is not the case that when feminist topics are raised they are usually met with a fierce reaction: in most cases they are simply ignored. The label ‘feminist activists’ is seen more as an insult rather than a neutral label. In a study from September 2018 for a Polish women’s magazine only 5.5% of the respondents characterized themselves as feminists and 18% admitted to knowing one. However, 9% support ‘all feminist claims’, 21% support a majority and 42% some feminist claims. Authors of the above-mentioned report stress, that in small and provincial towns there is even less self-identification as feminists and less support for their claims.

So against this background, the reality of small town activism, and particularly feminist activism, became the focus of our grassroots research project, in which we interviewed 24 organizers of the 2016 protests who have continued their activism up to the present day.

Characteristics of small-town activism

The smaller a city is, according to one report, the more hermetic the environment, with less understanding for otherness, but with a stronger sense of locality, and a greater attachment to traditional values and increased social control. The control is exercised through direct contacts, on the streets for instance through gossip. The same report, Small City Lights, stresses the strong position held by the church, and various relationships with local government. When it comes to political opinion, the attitude that "this does not concern us" is the prevailing one. This confirms the characteristics of a small-town environment as described by our informants.

One of the first things we asked them was to characterize the environment they are active in. Nearly all of them pointed out the ‘provincial characteristics of their towns’, listing their size in the first place, but also pointing to the changing and changed demographics, mostly the aging of the local community:

We have 28,000 people, mostly retirees, there are very few young people here, those young people who are still here are those who finish school, or those who have to decide what to do in adult life, and most of them go abroad anyway.

That results in limited audiences, smaller capabilities to recruit newcomers, and generally in a smaller scale of the movement, as one of an activist describes:

When I organize a protest, I don’t know if anybody will come. Last time in front of the court [a wave of protests against judicial system reform and politicization of courts in 2017] I was alone, because nobody showed up. I never know if anybody will come or not.

Connected to this is not only a lack of material resource, but also a lack of help from other activists. The small size of group functioning in provincial towns blocks an automatic internal division of labor from taking place in their movements. This also means that the activists need to use different methods of approaching target audiences in small towns, as most of the local media is closely connected to the local authorities (sometimes characterized as the local ‘chief man’ [kacyk]). As one of the activists said:

"The city pays the local newspaper, so this local newspaper is faithful to the local government. Of course, they came to the end of the protest as there were only 5 people left, they took pictures and wrote that no one was there."

But the small scale of the field in which activists operate sometimes works in their favor, as it is easier to build their own social capital, notably building on their families and personal connections:

The thing that made it easier for me to operate in a small environment is that my father in 1946 founded a photographic studio in my town. It was something unbelievable and this shop works to this day. He had a car as one of the first people in town and each of u s- four sisters - we are known, although we do not necessarily know everyone. It also changes the attitude of people, because even if I do not know someone, the fact that I'm the daughter of this photographer also gave me the green light for action.

Small towns require a different language when advertising their protests. These were the recurring themes in the interviews. As one of our informants told us, this affects not only the discourse used during protests but also the type of public events held:

In [name of town], these protests all have to take more the form of a happening, an informative action, and it must be distanced, more chilled out. (...) I come from the position that it is a small community and you cannot go for a big bang with such topics, because it is mainly a place of elderly people (...) If I went out to the streets with radical banners, then we would be just kicked out, smothered. The last year's protest on March 8, it was not hardcore, was simply a protest at what the government is preparing for us, and the girls were very penitent, because there was a wave of hate, and that's not the point. Therefore all actions have to be carried out more communicatively, thematically, in terms of information and education. Otherwise in small towns, it causes anger, shame too, and discouragement.

Compared to their counterparts in the big cities, small town activists take into consideration the fact that they have to de-radicalize their claims and their discourse in order to reach local audiences and make their claims communicable, as one of the respondents described:

I am aware that what is mediocre for me is difficult to accept in the local environment. I observed this with girls who are from here, they were born here, they grew up here, they live here and they are women between 30 and 60 years old, so a significant cross-section and in most cases they also avoid extreme wording, or the statements that typify raised voices. This is certainly the specificity of smaller towns, that we do not allow direct criticism expressed so sharply, because we know that more people are disgusted than we find allies.


In small towns, there is a dense network of interconnections between people. This applies not only to the family or friendship networks, but the connections often extrapolated in business relations. In this context, being an activist poses a threat when the boss is connected to the opposing political camp. This not only affects relations with the boss, but also the functioning of the whole companies, as one of the activists recalled:

"Once I was walking and a woman sitting on a bench, a stranger, got up and said that she works at Zakłady Azotowe and now is frightened to say anything in anti-government tone, let alone come to this type of protest. She said that they cheer for me, they observe what I'm doing but they are afraid to even give a like to a post on Facebook.”

Added to the issues described above, a key characteristic of small-town activism is the lack of anonymity. This becomes a burden for activists in various ways:

We bear a lot of responsibility for activities in such small communities. A huge social responsibility, because you cannot go out and tell lies, because people know you and you must have a clear and consistent message: we do this and that, and we do not agree. We must be credible. (...) In such small communities, unfortunately, you cannot hide a romance, similarly you cannot hide mishaps, so you must be reliable and consistent in all this.

The catholic church

As mentioned earlier, the catholic church in Poland plays an important role in the country’s life. It was very often stressed by the interviewees as one of the key challenges they have had to face in their activism. In Poland 94% of the population is baptized and – according to recent study of the Catholic Statistical Office – 36.7% attend the Sunday service weekly, a figure that is at its lowest since 1980.

Local activists also mention that priests often take advantage of their political position within the local community and propagate their conservative worldview making use of their high social status. The catholic-conservative worldview is transmitted and reproduced by groups of believers reinforcing the message.

The traditional gender roles stemming from the conservative setting of the Polish provinces, connected to the catholic church, were also mentioned by the respondents. Within the prevailing conservative gender roles, doing politics (street politics included) is not an occupation for women. This was a recurring theme in the interviews, for example:

A good woman should take care of her home more, not about politics. For example, a friend told me: "Leave the politics to men". Other example: "I respect you very much, but leave the politics to the guys. Why are you pushing yourself into politics?"


Regarding political activism, the environment of small and provincial towns overlaps with some more general trends observed in Poland. In a poll from March 2017, 58% of respondents in a CBOS study declared that they feel they should control their opinions and that they do not feel free to express their political views.

This is a major change as after the regime transformation of 1989, only 33% of the population shared this attitude. This forms an obstacle to political activism on the streets because it becomes a challenge for activists and potential supporters alike. However, as Cezary Obracht-Prondyński says (after Socha 2017) In Warsaw, a dozen or so people no one will notice, but here it's potential, on which you can build something - says Obracht-Prondzyński. - Because people get to know each other, they experience something together. Later it is easier because they know that they can count on each other. What has happened is the launch of certain resources. And every spark of active citizenship is the best way of breaching authoritarian rule.

There are also some challenges to the emerging movement that are more internal. These are mostly class divisions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminists, connected to the professionalization and NGO-ization of the feminist movement in Poland and the big Polish cities in particular. Another challenge that could be labeled external is the divisions between the big city and provincial activists that manifest mostly in lack of resources (although lack of resources is a common feature bemoaned by activists worldwide).



Howard, M. M., & Howard, M. M. (2003). The weakness of civil society in post-communist Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Jacobsson, K. (Ed.). (2015). Urban grassroots movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Farnham: Ashgate.

Saxonberg, S. (2016). Beyond NGO-ization: the development of social movements in Central and Eastern Europe. London: Routledge.

Socha R. (2017). ‘Jak się protestuje w małych miastach’. Polityka.

How to cite:
Muszel M. and Piotrowski G.(2019) Small-town feminist activism in Poland, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,5 January. https://opendemocracy.net/magdalena-muszel-grzegorz-piotrowski/small-town-feminist-activism-in-poland


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