The Power of Polish Sisterhood: Now and Then

By Justyna Borusinska, Warsaw, Poland

"Black protests" in Many Polish Towns

“Black protests” in Many Polish Towns

The Polish parliament, under the leadership of an ultra-conservative government, recently put forth a new anti-abortion law that would practically forbid any pre-natal testing, in-vitro fertilization and the day-after pill. Abortion would not be allowed even in cases of rape, incest, deformed fetus, or danger to the mother’s life. [ed: since the writing of this article, the bill has been rejected by the Polish parliament.] The bill is clearly predicated upon the teachings of the Catholic Church – the only source of morality and a marker of Polish national identity. This offends me threefold: as a Pole, as a Unitarian, and as a woman. I know and I am proud of the history of the Polish Brethren – our Unitarian forefathers.

The Polish Brethren were the fifth largest religious community in Poland, active in the years 1562-1658. They were called Arians, Socinians, or Anti-Trinitarians. They had about 150 places of worship, for up to 100 to 150 members. At that time, the number of Anti-Trinitarian churches and believers in the Kielce region of Southern Poland almost equaled those of the Catholic. They professed religious tolerance, rationalism, pacifism, equality of women and men, and separation of church and state. Some, owners of estates, liberated their peasants from serfdom, since they were against human exploitation. Their biggest success was the Rakovian Academy – a university at the highest European level. The printing house in Rakow published Latin books and spread the teachings of the Polish Brethren to other leading universities and intellectuals all over Europe. Their main ideas, as laid out in the Rakovian Catechism, were among the major sources of inspiration for the American Constitution. In 16th– and 17th-century Poland, the beliefs of the Polish Brethren were very advanced.

Also remarkable were women of this religion. They were usually from the noble or middle class. They were highly educated and were allowed to preach in churches. As they came from the Calvinistic tradition, they followed Protestant virtues: modesty, education, and diligence. As mothers, they were the first religious teachers for their children. In some families there were at least three generations of active Arian women.

Unfortunately, due to the Catholic Church’s pressure to eliminate the growing religious competition, the Polish Brethren were expelled from Poland in 1658. Many Polish Arians went into exile, finding their new homes mainly in Transylvania and the Netherlands.

Katarzyna Weiglowa burned at the stakeHowever, the parliament forgot about Arian women, and for a few years women undertook church activities. In 1662, the banishment was extended to women as well. Many continued to practice their religion secretly, like Katarzyna Potocka (the wife of one of the main Polish poets at the time). The symbol of the determination of the “Polish Sisterhood” is Katarzyna Weiglowa. For 10 years, she refused to convert to Catholicism, and was ultimately burned at the stake.

At this writing, October 2016, women are organizing massive “black protests” in many Polish towns, demanding equal rights for themselves and discriminated minorities in Poland. The legacy of the Polish Sisterhood is still alive.

P.S. Since this article was written, Justyna took part in the massive protests against the proposed law to impose a virtually total ban on abortions, and sent us regular updates with pictures, which we posted on the IWC Facebook site. Here is her report: I’m happy to report that the massive protests in Poland have been successful! There were at least 100,000 protesters (estimation could be even up to 150,000 because of the rotation of the demonstrators in the heavy rain) on the streets and – apart from the protests – many Poles showed their solidarity by dressing in black. It was important also that the meetings took place not only in the main cities, but in midsized towns as well, and that many Catholic women participated. Such solidarity hasn’t been noted previously by the Polish women’s movement. The massive protests made an impression on political circles. In September, 267 MPs (of 460) voted for further proceedings on the total ban on abortion.  Two days after the protests, the draft of the law was considered again, in a hurry, overnight. The next day, on October 6, the parliament rejected the total ban on abortion. Only 58 MP’s continued to support it while 209 MP’s changed their mind. Poles have shown their power in solidarity. They have started to be more aware and they will not tolerate being ignored any more. I’m glad to be a witness to these changes.

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