The Populist War on Women

By Slawomir Sierakowski

WARSAW – Jarosław Kaczyński and Donald Trump, two politicians who have shocked the world this past year, have mostly gotten away with their outrages. But not anymore.

When Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power last year, it immediately seized control over key Polish institutions, including the Constitutional Tribunal, the state prosecutor’s office, public media and enterprises, even state-owned horse stables. Because the PiS government inherited a sound economy and strong fiscal position, Kaczyński hasn’t seen the need for a finance minister, so the post was recently liquidated.

Trump, too, has been engaging in behavior that under normal circumstances would be politically disqualifying: attacking the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in combat, mocking a disabled reporter, and impugning Senator John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War (he was held and tortured for more than five years). Everyone was outraged, except for Trump’s voters.

This state of affairs might have continued. But both Kaczyński and Trump have recently been confronted by a political force that neither reckoned with: women.

Before last year’s parliamentary election in Poland, the far-right organization Ordo Iuris had proposed a blanket ban on abortion, one that would go beyond Poland’s current legislation, already among the most restrictive in Europe, by forcing women to give birth even in cases of rape, incest, health risks, and serious fetal defects. But, at the same time, another legislative proposal was put forward to liberalize abortion laws, introduce sex education into schools, and guarantee insurance coverage of contraceptives.

Although PiS solemnly promised that the Sejm (parliament) would not reject the latter bill in the first reading, the legislation criminalizing abortion was advanced to a parliamentary vote, and the pro-choice proposition was rejected. Women spontaneously took to the streets en masse.

For nearly two decades, Poles believed that the country’s abortion laws could not be changed, owing to the power of the Catholic Church and the subordination of the political class to religious authorities. But the actress Krystyna Janda, who starred in Andrzej Wajda’s film Man of Iron, called on Polish women to launch a general strike. On Oct. 3, instead of going to work, women across the country turned out to protest, following a model established by Iceland’s women in 1975, when 90% did not go to work and effectively paralyzed the country. The demonstrations occurred even in small towns, and despite dismal weather. Women also congregated outside PiS headquarters, the true seat of power in Polish politics. In solidarity with Polish women, women from Kenya to Berlin took to the streets dressed in black.

For the first time since PiS’s return to power last year, Kaczyński was frightened. The next day, he had his party vote to reject the anti-abortion proposal. Never before had he acted in a similar manner.

In the United States, Trump’s presidential campaign began to crumble only when it was revealed that he boasted about sexually assaulting women. Soon, women who had endured his attacks began to come forward and describe what had happened to them.

Trump’s spell was broken. Independent voters – and many Republicans – bolted. Michelle Obama delivered an emotional address  about how Trump’s behavior had shaken her, speaking in a way that Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, cannot because of the complicated history of her own marriage. Support for Trump, particularly among suburban women, crashed. According to recent polls , his backing from women plummeted from 39% to 29% over the course of a couple of days.

And yet, neither Trump nor Kaczyński seems willing – or perhaps able – to reverse course. After withdrawing his support for the Ordo Iuris proposal, Kaczyński couldn’t leave the issue alone. “We will strive to ensure that even pregnancies that are very difficult, when the child is doomed to die or is seriously deformed, are brought to term so that the child can be baptized, buried, and given a name,” he announced on Oct. 13. Women have called for another general strike on Oct. 24.

Perhaps Kaczyński has always been inclined to self-destruction. As prime minister in 2007, he handed power to his opponents on a silver platter, by attacking his coalition partner, the Samoobrona party, and calling for an early election. Once again, it appears that Kaczyński is his own greatest nemesis. This time, Kaczyński (who holds no official government position) first united the political mainstream (whom he dubbed “the worst sort” of Poles) against him by attacking liberal democracy. Now, by pressing his war on women, who form a majority in Poland, he has united the mainstream with the left and politicized and galvanized the country’s youth. Immediately after Kaczyński’s latest comments, women began to gather in front of his house, warning him: “You want to peer into our beds? We’ll peer into your home.”

According to an opinion poll by the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, 69% of Poles support the so-called “black protest” that women have mounted. If the Oct. 24 strike is larger than the spontaneous demonstrations of Oct. 3, support for PiS will surely drop significantly for the first time since it assumed power, and Poland will find itself in a new political situation. Trump, too, has doubled down on sexism, blaming the media for his travails and calling one of his accusers “that horrible woman,” adding, “Believe me, she would not be my first choice.” And, appealing directly to his many white-supremacist supporters among the so-called alt-right, he has also begun indulging a classic anti-Semitic trope , accusing Clinton of meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.”

But Americans aren’t buying it; nor are Poles. And it is only fitting that Trump, and possibly Kaczyński, will be defeated by those whose dignity and equality each refuses to recognize, with women in the lead.

This article was originally published in Project Syndicate.

Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.


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