Polish women gained voting rights 100 years ago

On November 28, 1918 Polish women gained both active and passive voting rights by the decree of Chief of State Józef Piłsudski.

100 years ago, world was told about Polish independence

At midnight, November 19, 1918, a dispatch was sent from Warsaw informing foreign governments about Polish independence.

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The decree was passed a mere ten days after Poland regained independence.

Poland was one of the first countries in the world to grant voting rights to women. The first in Europe was Finland which allowed all women to vote in 1906, regardless of their status.

Piłsudski’s decree was a confirmation of the bill passed on November 7 by the provisional government formed under Ignacy Daszyński, before Poland officially regained independence. The bill read: “The Parliament will be assembled based on a common, equal, direct, secret, and proportional voting, regardless of gender. Both active and passive voting rights will be granted to every citizen, male and female, above the age of 21.”

Following Piłsudski’s decree, eight women were elected to the Parliament during a first popular election 1919.

However, historians point out that laws are more easily changed than people. Iwona Dadej of the Polish Academy of Sciences described the voting rights as “a milestone” for women’s rights in Poland, but said that it was hard to suddenly alter “people’s perceptions of women’s intellectual capabilities and their role in society”, especially regarding access to high education.

Polish suffragettes

Polish women’s struggle for equal rights was long and arduous, reflecting the global one. It started gaining appeal in the 19th century, at the time when Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. One of the most important aspects of the struggle were voting rights and access to high education, which at that time on the Polish lands was limited to men

To counter that, clandestine patriotic organisations, such as the Flying University, were launched to educate women outside the authorities’ control. Double Nobel Prize winner, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, was involved with the Flying University as a young student.

With the first gatherings of suffragettes taking place in secret, by early 20th century the movement gained in force. In 1917, a conference of Polish women from all three partitions was organised, during which representatives for negotiations with the government, later with Józef Piłsudski, were elected.

Among the most eminent emancipation advocates were writers Maria Konopnicka, Eliza Orzeszkowa, but also a great number of social reformers and feminists, such as Paulina Kuczalska-Reinschmit, Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka, Narcyza Żmichowska, and many others.