People are calling it a revolution. Since October 22nd, hundreds of thousands across Poland have been protesting—in five hundred and eighty cities and towns, by one organizer’s count. In some places, including the town of Kościerzyna, population twenty-four thousand, more than ten per cent of residents have taken to the streets. The umbrella term for the protests is “Women’s Strike,” though it’s not just women participating, and it’s not exactly a strike. The demonstrations were sparked by a decision in the nation’s Constitutional Court, in Warsaw, that would have further narrowed access to abortion in Poland. The government has since delayed implementing the decision, yet the protests go on. The goal now, it seems, is to bring down the government of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has been in power since 2015.
Abortion is allowed in Poland only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is affected by severe congenital defects. The recent court decision, on October 22nd, eliminated the last of these three conditions from the list. Klementyna Suchanow, a prominent feminist and author, told me over Zoom, from Warsaw, that, at first, some activists felt conflicted about calling for demonstrations, for fear of exposing people to the risk of coronavirus infection. Still, on the 22nd, Suchanow, who is forty-six, made her way to the courthouse and found others gathering outside. “I felt there was so much anger there it was about to erupt,” she said. Protesters undertook a spontaneous march from the courthouse to the headquarters of the ruling party, and then to the house of the Party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. As word spread on social media, thousands more people joined the march over its three-hour duration.
Marches, protests, and acts of civil disobedience have continued ever since. Suchanow and two other women, Marta Lempart and Agnieszka Czerederecka, have become the public faces of the protests, but, as Lempart told me over Zoom, they are acting not so much as leaders as they are the “help desk to people who want to organize protests.” They supply visuals, suggest hashtags and slogans, and help raise money. “Basically, my job now is this boring office work,” she said.
Lempart, who is forty-one, is a former government employee who became an opposition activist after the Law and Justice Party came to power. In 2016, when a ban on abortions in almost all circumstances was proposed as a bill in parliament, Lempart called for a protest in which Polish women marched through the streets of many cities and towns wearing black. (It was modelled on a women’s strike staged in Iceland in 1975, when women stopped both paid and unpaid work.) Lempart’s idea and subsequent organizing efforts drew thousands of people who had never been involved in political activism into the streets, in what became known as the “black protests.” The demonstrations were large enough to prompt the parliament to table the bill, although they were nowhere close in scale to this year’s actions.