The Women of Solidarity: How History Ignored Fifty Percent of Poland’s Solidarity Movement

The success of Poland’s Solidarity Movement to combat and rid the nation of its communist rule is a pivotal moment in world history. It stands as a testament to not only the power of grassroots-lead revolutions, but how quickly change can manifest across a nation and finally transcend borders. However, it was an arduous road. In 1981, still a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the leadership of the Solidarity Movement was arrested during the military coup. This leads one to question, who kept the Solidarity Movement active during the following months and years?

From the original firing of Anna Walentynowicz at the Gdnask shipyard in August 1980 to the all-female editorial team of Poland’s most influential underground paper, “Tygodnik Mazowsze”, one can’t help but question why the women of Poland’s Solidarity Movement do not get the credit they so justly deserve?

The firing of Anna Walentynowicz marked a historic shift in Poland’s resistance movement for it resulted in some of the most widespread strikes in the nation’s history. Soon, millions of followers stood up against the communist leadership of Wojciech Jaruzelski. This strike also marked the first, successful labor revolt in a communist country. Although sometimes referred to as the “Mother of Solidarity,” Ms. Walentynowicz’s contributions continue to be overlooked. Her activism began long before her firing, and goes back to the 1970 massacre of over 50 striking workers in Polish port cities. In 1978, she was arrested for publishing an underground newspaper that exposed the corruption of the shipyard’s leaders. She then went on to be one of Solidarity’s founders. Of the seven original founders, Ms. Walentynowicz stated, four were women.

In 1981, Ms. Walentynowicz, along with the other leaders of the Solidarity Movement, were imprisoned under General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s marshal law.  She spent seven months in a women’s prison. During this time, Ms. Walentynowicz also broke ties with the Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, because she believed he compromised too easily with communist authorities. She later refused three offers to work in his government due to this and her belief that he ran the Solidarity Movement in an autocratic manner.

During the imprisonment of Solidarity’s major leaders, the all-female editorial staff of “Tygodnik Mazowsze,” the most influential newspaper of the Solidarity Movement, was tasked with carrying on the revolution. Before the arrests, Helena Luczywo was already coordinating resistance publications, most notably “Robotnik,” and helped to leak information to foreign media outlets in order to give the movement international attention. On the night of the arrests, she began knocking on the doors of other women to ensure that the movement would continue. Three days later, she began working with six other women to plan a strategy. Joanna Szczesna, Ewa Kulik, Anna Dodziuk, Zofia Bydlinska, Malgorzata Pawlicka and Anna Bikont were tasked with spreading information and coordinating contacts under the newly formed military state. During this time, the government cut off telephone services, shut down public transportation, banned public gatherings and put the nightlife of the nation on curfew.

First, the women worked to coordinate the safety of male solidarity leaders that evaded arrests while simultaneously planning the inter-working of the underground newspapers. Within that first month, the first copies of the paper hit the streets and factory floors. The women coordinated over 300,000 Poles to agree to store newspaper copies in order to create pickup points across the country. The newspaper contained interviews with hidden Solidarity Movements and advised against the coordination of strikes in order to work against the chances of more arrests. Luczywo ensured that “Tygodnik Mazowsze” would be able to ensure the long haul of military occupation and built around it underground “Civil Society.” This helped to keep the movement and ideals alive before the intervention of western diplomats and donors in 1990.

Within the first year, circulation of the newspaper was up to 80,000. Over the next seven years, some 290 papers were published. Through her loosely-knit team of printers and distributors, she was also able to create safe houses for leaders avoiding arrest. Chemists worked to create ink in secret for the news and soon Solidarity’s “floating offices” spread across the country. The women were then able to evade arrest by simply being women. The Communist Leaders of Poland continued to look for the male leaders of the Solidarity Movement and ignored the possibility that the coordinators could be women. After the regime change, the leaders were astounded that it was women who kept the revolution alive.

After the revolution, Luczywo and Adman Michnik went on to publish “Gazeta Wyborcza,” and the parent publishing company, Agora, the strongest in Eastern Europe and one of the strongest in Europe. “Tygodnik Mazowsze” stood as the true start of free press in Poland and helped to usher in the new era of democracy in Poland.

Currently, Poland is standing at another cross roads. Caught between the western influence of the European Union and calls to return to the old governmental structures of Eastern Europe, the nation stuggles to find a new identity in the ever-changing world. Polish feminists are now just finding out about the female leaders of the Solidarity Movements and through the publishing of books, such as “Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland,” those stories are being told and spread. It’s important to remember the legacy of women such as Helena Luczywo and Anna Walentynowicz, who passed away in the 2010 plane crash alongside the Polish president at the time, Lech Kaczynski, for they not only played a pivotal role in the history of Poland but in history of our global community.

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Category: Feminism
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Currently an Fulbright ETA in Dnipro, Ukraine. Graduated from Seton Hall University, where Cynthia studied International Relations & Modern Languages. She has worked abroad in Nerekhta, Russia and participated as the United States Delegate to the 2015 G(irls)20 conference in Sydney, Australia. Cynthia has also studied in Lublin, Poland and in Freiburg, Germany. She has worked at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom: PeaceWomen and BRAC. In addition to being an Fulbright ETA in Ukraine, she is working as the Regional Lead for Europe at Girl Up of the United Nations Foundation.

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