In 2006 March edition, we talked about Important Women in Early Polish History. Before XIX century women had to be born in the royal or aristocrat family to become influential. The Enlightenment ideas of XVIII century that postulate the education of lower class citizens and women changed it. Through the XIX century there were so many women who became publicly known, mainly in the fine arts: actresses, painters, pianists, writers, as well as in the social and patriotic activities that I cannot list them all here. Women became famous for what they did rather than where they have been born or whom did they marry.
In the literature of XIX century Poland, women-writers are very prominent. Initially women-writers directed their stories mainly to children and young readers, but soon they influenced Polish society as the whole. Two most prominent names are Maria Konopnicka and Eliza Orzeszkowa; both were friends since they attended a private school for girls in Warsaw run by nuns. Both became known not only for their literary contribution but also for their social and patriotic work.
Eliza Orzeszkowa was born near Hrodna, now Belarus in 1841. Maria Konopnicka was born one year later in Suwalki, now northeastern part of Poland, near the border of Lithuania. Both died in 1910. Both represented, so called, Positivistic period in Polish literature created after the disastrous uprising of 1863. The Positivism argued that Polish independence must be build gradually from the foundations through "organic work" among all classes of the Polish society, by creating a material infrastructure and educating the public. Positivism postulated rights for women, assimilation of Jewish minority, defense of Polish population against attempts of germanization and russification. Polish Positivism also found a new very important role for women as guardians of the patriotic upbringing of the children.
Eliza Orzeszkowa was known for a series of powerful novels that dealt with the social conditions of the poorest, not only Poles but also Belarusians among which she lived and Jewish minority. She was for unity and understanding among peoples of different classes religions and origins. She was very close to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in the literature. She ultimately lost to another famous Polish writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz. Orzeszkowa was also appreciated for her organic work among the poor, and still as a young woman she established the school for peasants in her property.
Maria Konopnicka was not only a gifted poet and novelist, but she was known for her patriotic and social work. Her poetry has great inspirational and patriotic value. She wrote a famous Rota, which gained a status equal to the national anthem. This poem was originally written as protest against German oppression of Polish population under Prussia. It was first sung publicly during a patriotic demonstration in Austrian-occupied Krakow in 1910, during the 500th anniversary of the Polish-Lithuanian victory over the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald. Rota became popular instantly throughout partitioned Poland, eventually serving as an anthem of Polish Scouts. Konopnicka was also very sensitive towards the fate of Polish immigrants in America. She had strong bonds with Polonia, especially with Polish-American women organizations. Still, a couple of months before her death she was planning to go to the US and do the research which will let her to write a similar novel which she wrote before which refer to the fate of Poles in South America entitled "Mister Balcer in Brazil".
Maria Konopnicka also became a main editor of the journal for women which was so progressive in its views that it became a source of the attacks from the Church and the government. Konopnicka was amazingly courageous woman. She mainly raised her six children by herself. She was also working outside of the house as a teacher, translator, social worker etc. She was also a popular writer of children books. Her funeral became a huge patriotic manifestation.
Women were also represented among the actors, pianists and painters. Olga Boznanska (1865-1940) was a famous Polish painter and the representative of the impressionism (one of her famous paintings: "Girl with Chrysantemus on depicted on the right) . She became more known abroad - in the saloons of Paris and Munich, before her fame reached Poland. In 1895 the Berlin journal Bazaar included Boznanska among the twelve women painters in Europe.
The last but of course not the least famous Polish woman of the XIX century is Maria Sklodowska-Curie (1867-1934). Maria Sklodowska had to leave Poland since because of the Russian reprisals following the Polish uprising (1863) and since she was a female, she was denied the admission to the regular university. She was the only woman to receive two Nobel awards in 1903 and 1911. She never forgot her home country and donated money and her prestige for a development of science in Poland.
XIX century was a time when women finally were recognized by their own achievements. Some received significant level of education. Women role in the Polish family was enormous, as mothers and the guardians of Polish values. Some women were able to become independent from their families or husbands. The change in the position of women in XIX century was important for the future successful fight of women for equal rights in XX century. Read the article about Women in Polish Early History.
The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 by Aileen S. Kraditor