Women of Central Europe

Free Women, Free Country

Publication: 10 March 2023

NO. 34 2019



It was the struggle for a free Poland and for suffrage that had united the Polish women’s emancipation movements active in each of the three partitions, and it is to the credit of Polish women activists and their decades-long efforts that the decree of 28 November 1918 issued by the Chief of State – that “every citizen of the state, regardless of sex, is a voter” – did not cause much controversy.

Voting rights

In 19th-century representative democracies, a census-based electoral law was in force; property ownership and payment of appropriate taxes entitled one to vote. Such a state of affairs meant that at most a small percentage of the population could participate in elections. Women were excluded mainly for economic reasons, but indirectly also on account of their sex, as the law treated them like minors. Paragraph 30 of the Austrian Association Act of 1867 states: “Foreigners, women and minors cannot be admitted as members of a political association,”[1] the Napoleonic Code in the Russian Partition deemed women to be “forever underage,” deprived of legal capacity without their husbands’ permission.[2] The socialists had begun to demand universal suffrage, but it is worth noting that the concept of this right did not initially include women, and it was in this form that the concept was introduced in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1907, which further mobilised women emancipation activists to carry out awareness campaigns that “Voting is universal only when women also vote!”[3]

As a matter of fact, it was in the Austrian partition that women emancipationists began to demand suffrage earliest. In Galicia, which enjoyed autonomy since 1867, and where the official language in schools as well as in administrative and judiciary bodies was Polish, the most favourable conditions were in place for taking action. The Sejm of Galicia and Lodomeria in Lwów (current-day Lviv) was the representative body, with self-governing organs including local and municipal (or city) councils. In the Habsburg monarchy, women did not have political rights, and thus had no voting rights, could not be active in political parties or found political associations. In Galicia, a census-based voting law was in force including (not all) men as well as owners of large assets, real estate or enterprises. Women, however, could only vote through male authorisation. In 1891, for the first time, Galician women emancipationists filed a petition with 4000 signatories demanding the abolition of this practice. The action was organised by Maria Turzyma, who later was the editor of “Nowe Słowo” [“New Word”] and the creator of Women’s Alliance Association. At the beginning of the 20th century, rallies and demonstrations for women’s suffrage took place regularly.

In the Russian partition, women – like men – were deprived of political rights. The first informal group of women emancipationists in the Kingdom of Poland were the Enthusiasts, active in the 1840s. Centred around Narcyza Żmichowska, they demanded full rights for women, including political rights. In the 1870s, a public debate concerning the so-called “woman question” began. One of the pioneers of the emancipation movement was Eliza Orzeszkowa. Under her and Maria Konopnicka’s patronage in 1886, the secretive Women’s Circle of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania was established. It was a patriotic organisation that was mainly involved with clandestine instruction. Its members also organised conventions for activists from the three partitions. The first of such meetings took place in Warsaw, 1891, when 25 years of writing by Eliza Orzeszkowa was being celebrated, and it gathered two hundred delegates.

Women’s political activity was forbidden in the Prussian partition until 1908. Bound by the Act of 1850, women could neither form nor belong to any political organisation, and they were banned from participating in demonstrations and public assemblies. Under such circumstances, they mainly carried out national, educational and assistance activities. The most important women’s organisation was “Warta,” the Society of Friends for Mutual Instruction and Care of Children, who primarily tasked themselves with clandestinely teaching the Polish language. The “Warcianki” [as members of “Warta” were called – L.S.] did not demand equal rights, but Aniela Tułodziecka, long-term chairwoman of the Society, kept in touch with women’s organisations from other partitions and represented Greater Poland in tri-partition women’s conventions. Together with her sister Zofia – creator of the Association of Female Personnel in Trade and Industry as well as the Dress Workshop (the first women’s labour co-operative) – she also organised women’s rallies in Poznań. Such rallies also took place in smaller towns and greatly contributed to the political independence of the female inhabitants in the Prussian partition.

In 1905, the first public, tri-partition Polish Women’s Congress was held in Kraków, which appealed to political parties to include equal rights in their platform. The Congress also adopted a resolution that called to advocate for “universal, equal, secret, direct, active, and passive suffrage regardless of sex.” From that moment on, Polish women emancipationists acted in the name of common demands, the most important of which were: cooperation in regaining independence and universal suffrage regardless of sex.

In Warsaw, 1907, Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit founded the Polish Women’s Equality Alliance (ZRKP). Setting up organisations in the Russian partition became possible due to the Russian Revolution of 1905. Kuczalska-Reinschmit was the undisputed leader of the Polish women’s emancipation movement, and was called “Helmswoman” and Commandress. Together with Józefa Bojanowska in the years 1907–1914, she also published “Ster” (“Helm”), the press body of the Union. ZRKP was the most influential women’s emancipation organisation, and had branches in Radom, Lublin, Sieradz, Płock, Białystok, St. Petersburg, Kiev and Odessa. It was also the only Polish feminist group to demand that political rights be granted to women regardless of their aspirations for independence. The members of the ZRKP organised rallies, issued appeals and distributed leaflets “On women’s suffrage.” The activists in the Kingdom of Poland called for “the imminent introduction of a wider municipal and regional self-government based on democratic principles, i.e. giving active and passive suffrage to all mature persons regardless of sex, religion and property.”[4]

Meanwhile, the Lviv Committee for the Equality of Women announced in 1908 the candidacy of Maria Dulębianka to the Sejm of Galicia and Lodomeria in Lviv. Dulębianka dropped out due to certain issues with formalities, but managed to conduct an election campaign which she used to advocate for women’s suffrage and to win the support of the people’s party. In 1911, for the first time in Lviv, Kraków and several other Galician cities, International Women’s Day was celebrated. Women emancipationists in Kraków staged a demonstration involving several thousand people for women’s suffrage. The issue became a subject of public debate.

Free Pol(s)ka[5]

In the Russian partition, the Women’s League of Military Readiness was formed in 1913, an independence organisation which primarily tasked itself with fighting for a free Poland and the political equality of women. It was the first mass organisation of Polish women. Its founders came from different backgrounds and movements, including activists from educational, socialist and emancipationist backgrounds associated with the national camp. Iza Moszczeńska became its president. She described the League’s tasks as follows: “prepar[ing] labour and resources to meet the needs of volunteer Polish units fighting against Russia for the liberation of Poland.”[6] It admitted that although “the activity of the [League] was not dictated by any feminist calculations, but resulted from pure-water patriotism […], it was clear that it could become a very strong lever for the issue of women’s equality in the Polish state”.[7] From 1915 in the Austrian partition, the Women’s League of Galicia and Cieszyn Silesia was active with Zofia Moraczewska as its head. During the First World War, both leagues combined counted 18,000 members affiliated with almost 300 circles which operated in larger and smaller towns. In addition to assisting legionnaires by caring for the wounded, aiding families, organising clothing and food drives for soldiers, and raising money for the military, the leagues’ activists were engaged in pro-independence campaigning. In April 1917, a delegation from the Galician Women’s League presented a petition to the members of the Polish Circle in Vienna demanding active and passive suffrage for women to parliament and municipal councils. There were 10,000 signatories. The political pursuits of the League’s activists were condemned by the episcopate, which in May 1917 issued a pastoral letter calling for the organisation’s eradication due to its political engagement and socialist sympathies. However, the activities of both Leagues, in the Kingdom of Poland and Galicia, had a very large impact on the society’s acceptance of women’s political equality. In 1918, the organisations merged to form the Polish Women’s League.

Polish women fought for a free country not only in the way traditionally attributed to them, i.e. by providing nursing and care as well as educational and charity work, but also by participating in conspiracy and armed struggle. Already in the years 1905–1908, women played an important role in the Combat Organisation of the Polish Socialist Party. They participated in securing rallies, demonstrations and strikes, smuggling weapons and carrying out attacks on tsarist officials and military personnel. From 1908, in the face of imminent armed conflict, many paramilitary and military bodies were formed, preparing for battle. In 1909, the clandestine Polish army of the Organisation of Independent Youth “Zarzewie” was established. From the very beginning, women were members on a par with men. In 1911, the first female division of the Polish Rifle Teams was founded in Lviv, headed by Janina Zakrzewska. Women participated mainly by serving in auxiliary units: sanitary, supply and communication. In 1912, the Officers’ Council of the Rifle Associations allowed the creation of female troops fearing that the ladies otherwise defect go to the Polish Rifle Teams. In Kraków, a female branch of “Rifleman” was established, where women took part in sanitary, subversive and intelligence-courier services. In August 1914, in connection with the departure of the First Cadre Company, female troops were mobilised along with the merged formations of the Polish Rifle Association and Polish Rifle Teams under the command of Janina Antoniewiczówna.

In the Polish Legions, there was no place for women formally, but roughly 130 women served as nurses, as well as on the front – disguised as men. They included Wanda Gertz, who served in the 1st Brigade of Polish Legions as Kazimierz “Kazik” Żuchowicz, and Zofia Trzcińska-Kamińska as Zygmunt Tarło. The most important work was performed by 46 women serving in the Intelligence Division of the 1st Regiment and the 1st Brigade of the Polish Legions. Nearly half of all women couriers were decorated “For faithful service,” seven were awarded the Cross of the Order of Virtuti Militari, and 17 the Cross of Valour. Among them were Maria Turzyma, Zofia Zawiszanka and Aleksandra Piłsudska.

The participation of women in the Polish Military Organisation (POW) was also significant. In 1916, the Female Branch was established under the command of Maria Kwiatkowska-Stefanowska, followed by Jadwiga “Brzeska” Barthel de Weydenthal and Maria “Mirska” Gieysztor, whose members carried weapons and explosives, served as couriers, distributed letters, searched for apartments to use as offices and accommodation, and organised fundraisers. Irena “Sowa” Wasiutyńska, and later Jadwiga “Brzeska” Barthel de Weydenthal, directed POW’s intelligence unit which was especially deserving of praise.

The Act of 5 November 1916 announced the creation of an independent Kingdom of Poland. Formed in January 1917 by the German and Austro-Hungarian occupational authorities, the Provisional Council of State developed a draft constitution and electoral code. Despite the enormous effort made by members of the League in supporting legionnaires and their families, and despite the significant participation of women in the armed struggle, there was no room for discussing suffrage for both sexes. This drew a strong reaction from the activists.

In 1917, the subsequent Women’s Congress established the Central Committee for the Political Equality of Polish Women, which was authorised to speak with the government of the state being formed. The Committee organised rallies, meetings and lectures, and sent petitions demanding women’s suffrage to the Regency Council, the President of the Council of Ministers and to the City Council of Warsaw. The document filed on 10 December 1917 to the Regency Council reads: “In a truly democratic country that Poland is to become, the limitation of civil rights based on sex is an obsolete and glaring injustice, especially in view of the broadly outlined draft of the future constitution. This draft grants the right to vote for every citizen who is 25 years of age, not excluding even illiterate persons, but refuses to grant this elementary civil right to the most educated and talented women. The Executive Committee of the Congress, together with the Alliance of Polish Women’s Associations, representing 15 organisations, appeals to the Most Illustrious Regency Council with this memorial, hoping that this call will be taken into account and that appropriate amendments and changes will be introduced. Deeply convinced of the justness of our demands, we have the right to request their fulfilment, all the more so that during the many years of our nation’s captivity, Polish women sacrificially and bravely fulfilled civic duties, and even in the darkest hours cultivated our nation’s spirit through several generations.”[8]

On the night of 6 November 1918, the Provisional People’s Government of the Republic of Poland was formed in Lublin with Ignacy Daszyński as head. He issued a manifesto in which he announced equal rights for all citizens; Irena Kosmowska served as the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Welfare.

Immediately after Józef Piłsudski’s return from Magdeburg and his takeover of power, the demand for active and passive suffrage for women in a free Poland was presented to him by Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka. A separate delegation asked Piłsudski to allow women to take part in forming the government. Women activists presented Zofia Daszyńska-Golińska and Zofia Moraczewska as ministerial candidates. This demand, however, was not met and no woman took part in subsequent governments during the interwar period. As a result of talks with women activists, on 28 November 1918 the Chief of State nonetheless signed a decree which included the entry: “The voter of the Sejm is every citizen of the state, regardless of sex, who is 21 years of age before the announcement of elections.” It should be remembered that electoral rights for women were then in the political interest of the ruling party: women constituted a significant portion of the electorate, which could determine not only parliamentary victory, but also victories in regional elections that decided which country some territories would be part of.

The First Female Deputies

The first female deputies were 129 women elected in November 1918 to the Polish District Sejm in Poznań. It represented the Polish population in Germany, not only from the Prussian partition, but also from other German areas. Authorities allowed it to convene on the condition that it would not adopt any resolution calling for reuniting the Prussian partition with Poland. On 14 November 1918, the Commissariat of the Supreme People’s Council issued a proclamation announcing the convocation of the Sejm and a resolution determining the manner of electing delegates. This document, for the first time in the history of Polish parliamentarianism, granted active and passive suffrage to women. The elections took place from 16 November to 1 December and were universal in character: all Poles who were 20 years of age could vote. 1398 delegates were chosen. Poznań was represented, among others, by the “Warcianki” including Aniela Tułodziecka and Zofia Rzepecka, and Bytom was represented by Janina Omańkowska. Among the delegates were also two future members of the Polish Legislative Sejm: Zofia Sokolnicka and Franciszka Wilczkowiakowa. The District Sejm was in session from 3 to 5 December 1918 in Poznań. Three weeks later, an uprising broke out which established that Greater Poland belonged to the Polish state.

Election to the Legislative Sejm took place on 26 January 1919. In the electoral campaign, political parties often referred to women as an important part of the voters. However, on the candidate list, women accounted for only 12%, most of whom resided in distant places. In the first elections in independent Poland, a unicameral parliament was put in power. The turnout was very large, ranging from 60 to 90%, and women went to the polls en masse. The Legislative Sejm elected eight female deputies, also called “the deputesses”: Gabriela Balicka, Jadwiga Dziubińska, Irena Kosmowska, Maria Moczydłowska, Zofia Moraczewska, Anna Piasecka, Zofia Sokolnicka and Franciszka Wilczkowiakowa.


Translated from the Polish by Tomasz Bieroń

[1] The Law on Associations of 25 November 1867 quoted from: A Collection of Major Acts and Administrative Regulations (General and District) in force in the Republic of Poland, ed. Stanisław Czaputowicz, Tadeusz Sikorski, Warsaw 1925, pp. 121-125.

[2] Marta Sikorska-Kowalska, “‘For women’s suffrage’: A History of Political Emancipation”, [in:] Iza Desperak, Grzegorz Matuszak, M. Sikorska-Kowalska, Women Emancipationists, Textile Labouresses and Silent Heroines: Disappearing Women, or Our History’s Blank Spaces, Pabianice 2009, p. 4.

[3] The slogan of the Polish Women’s Equality Alliance (ZRKP), which from 1910 appeared on the title page of Helm as part of its vignette. ZRKP also issued postcards with the slogan.

[4] “Ster”12 (1911), quoted in: Anna Żarnowska, “The Private Sphere of Family Life and the Outside World of Public Life Barriers and Penetration (At the Turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries)”, [in:] Woman and the World of Politics: A Comparative Study of Poland in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, ed. by A. Żarnowska and Andrzej Szwarc, Warsaw 1994, p. 18.

[5] Translator’s note: If you remove the “s” from “Polska,”, the polish word for Poland, it reads “Polka,”, Polish woman.

[6] Iza Moszczeńska, “The Non-Adjectival League of Women”, Polish News 1917, No. 118, p. 5, quoted in: Joanna Dufrat, “The Women’s League of the Kingdom, Galicia and Silesia”, [in:] Social Activists, Feminists, Citizens… The Self-Organisation of Women in the Polish Lands Until 1918 (A Comparative Study), ed. Agnieszka Janiak-Jasińska, Katarzyna Sierakowska and A. Szwarc, Warsaw 2008, p. 119.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Journal of the Women’s Congress in Warsaw in 1917, ed. Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka, Warsaw 1918, p. 166.

About authors

Ewa Furgał

Educator of women’s history, editor of the book “Women’s Trails: A Guide to the Women Emancipationists’ Poland” and five volumes of “The Kraków Women’s Trail: A Guide to the Women Emancipationists’ Kraków”. She works in the Women’s Space Foundation and runs the Women’s History Archive.


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