2019 Had a Woman’s Face

Greta Thunberg, Zuzana Čaputová, Olga Tokarczuk. It was because of them that last year had a woman’s face. Each of them in her own way became a symbol of hope for a better tomorrow—in the world, in Europe and in Poland. It is no accident that there is not a single man among these emblematic figures.

“Person of the Year” by Time magazine is one of the most important media awards in the modern world. A glance at the list of nominees in 2019 was enough to notice that something was wrong with this world. Among the ten contenders for the honorable title there were five men, including as many as three connected with the investigation into the impeachment of US President Donald Trump: himself, the former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani and the anonymous whistleblower who reported a suspicious conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The other two candidates—the Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the head of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg—could also be the main protagonists of a political thriller. None of the five men, with one exception, stood out as positive. The exception is the man who was forced to hide his identity because he dared to reveal the dirty deeds of the American President.

The More Progressive Half of Humanity

How different are the female candidates for the prestigious weekly award in comparison with the male ones. They include the environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (for her stance after the Christchurch mosques in March 2019), the American footballer and LGBT rights activist Megan Rapinoe, and the House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, involved in Trump’s impeachment. Four women who fight for climate protection, social peace, human rights, rule of law and democracy.

It came as no surprise to anyone, except the right-wing misogynists, that the less than 17-year-old Greta Thunberg finally appeared on the cover. It was because of her that the threat of a global climate disaster became the most discussed topic of the past year, influencing international politics and decisions made in dozens of countries of the world and the European Union.

No less important is the example that the young Swedish woman gave to millions of girls around the world. “The Strength of Youth” from the Time cover can be understood literally—women are today the more progressive half of humanity. They are also generally better educated and aware of the need for change. It is they who demand it most loudly and point in the desired direction. It is no coincidence that, according to Forbes, countries ruled by women—from Taiwan, through Germany, Denmark and Iceland, to New Zealand—are best placed to deal with the covid-19 pandemic.

The Unfinished Revolution

If something does come as a surprise, it is only the astonishment aroused by the increasing presence of women in male-dominated spheres of life, such as new technologies, politics or… literature. After all, the feminist revolution has lasted for over 100 years. The concept of feminism itself was created in the 1880s in France, the homeland of human and civil rights.

Initially, it meant supporters (both female and male) of solving the so-called woman issue. This euphemism concealed one of the greatest paradoxes of the Enlightenment and the bourgeois order that was its offspring. In this order, founded on economic and political freedom symbolized by private property and electoral rights, only men had civil and property rights one hundred years after the Great French Revolution. The situation was similar in all European countries and in the USA.

The woman issue, as well as the Jewish question and the attitude towards homosexuals, were symptoms of the unfinished bourgeois revolution, which brought plutocracy and the wealthy bourgeoisie to power in place of the demolished feudal order and aristocratic rule. The new bourgeois social hierarchy “cast the woman as a parasitic slave who does not earn and should not earn money”, wrote the German literary scholar Hans Mayer.

This only concerned of course women from so-called good homes. From the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution, women from the peasant and working classes were victims of capitalist exploitation on a par with men (and children). For them, material and social progress was one and the same.

Western European suffragettes, generally well-off women from the upper and middle classes, had different aims. Above all, they demanded equality with men in terms of electoral rights, believing that in this way they would gain influence over the government policy towards women. This goal was achieved in most democratic countries between 1918 and 1945, coming earliest in the newly emerging Eastern European countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia immediately after the First World War. This was due to the participation of women in the local patriotic movements, as well as the significant influence of socialist parties, traditionally supporting the demands for equality. It soon turned out, however, that this was not enough. Women voted, like men, for parties dominated by men, who were also the vast majority of MPs and ministers.

This state of affairs prevailed under communist rule, despite real progress in many other areas, including women’s access to education, professional work, divorce and family planning methods. In the political sphere, the Polish People’s Republic in the Władysław Gomułka and Edward Gierek era petrified social relations.

These times even brought about a relapse compared to the changes taking place in the West at that time. In the 1980s, however, in the era of the first ‘Solidarity’, Martial Law and the end of communist Poland, the alliance of the democratic opposition with the Church contributed to the marginalization of even the most politically active women. But it was not only in Wałęsa’s team that men overwhelmingly dominated in the first ranks. It was similar in the team of Václav Havel. Central Europe had a moustachioed man’s face.

Finland Sets an Example for the Visegrad Group

And that is how it largely looks up to now. Although it may seem unbelievable, the average percentage of women in the parliaments of the Visegrad Group countries is almost the same as in the Arab countries, and it would be even lower if it were not for … Poland. In 2016, female MPs made up just over 27 percent of the Sejm, with a global average of 22.8 percent. Meanwhile, the average for the Arab countries is 18.4 percent, and for Hungary it is 9.6 percent.

Poland is the only Visegrad country where gender quotas are obligatory when drawing up electoral lists (women must make up no less than 35 percent of candidates). The number of women occupying the post of prime minister in the Czech Republic and Hungary after 1989 is zero, in Slovakia— one, in Poland—three (compared to 13 male prime ministers).

In the Czech Republic there is only one political party headed by a woman, but this grouping has only a moderate chance of surmounting the electoral threshold during the next elections. How does that compare to Finland, where 34-year-old Sanna Marin has formed a coalition government of five parties, each headed by a woman?

This dramatic difference in the participation of women in politics in Eastern and Western Europe is the result of the different experiences of the last half-century. In the West, a new generation of feminists has emerged since the 1970s and have set themselves the goal of changing the culture and fighting for real and not just political equality for women. Women’s rights, the fight for equal access to professions and equal pay, the fight against sexual violence, access to legal abortion, change in gender stereotypes and social roles were put on the banners of the movement.

Non-feminine War Games

The importance of the latter issue is demonstrated by the example given by Dita Přikrylová, head of the Czechitas Foundation, which supports women interested in working in the IT industry. In the 1980s, women accounted for 35% of IT students; today, it is only 29 women per 1000 students. The relapse began in the mid-1980s with the emergence of the first personal computers, initially treated by many as a device for installing computer games, a favourite pastime of adolescent boys.

This is perfectly illustrated by one of the first Hollywood films showing the phenomenon of geeks, namely War Games of 1983. The teenage protagonist accidentally breaks into the Pentagon network and almost triggers off a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The boy manages to save the world from extinction with the help of a brilliant scientist and a pretty female friend, who, of course, is the only one of the three who does not have the slightest idea about computers.

In reality, however, the program used in the first ENIAC computer (the prototype of the rebellious electronic machine from the film War Games) was the work of six outstanding female mathematicians working for the American army. What would the modern world look like if there were a widespread awareness of their achievements? It would probably look a bit different from the world in which every success of a woman is still treated as a major event and an irregularity.

The countries of Central Europe will not become a fully-fledged part of the West as long as women are treated here as in the East. It is a question of a cultural choice in which there is an open society on one side, not discriminating against anyone on the basis of gender, race, social background, class position or sexual orientation; and on the other hand, a closed society in which the careers of a few are only an exception to the prevailing rules.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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