“I began to wonder what it would take to build a positive feminist identity. One that allows to celebrate femininity in all its textures and layers, and yet to acknowledge that the battle is not over yet. Far from over, in fact.”

Words: Olga Dziedzic

To celebrate the centenary of women’s rights, The Guardian published a survey on feminist fights for the upcoming one hundred years. The participants, ranging from artists to broadcasters, from MPs to sportswomen, named issues such as gender pay gap, body shaming, domestic violence, and harassment. Nodding in agreement I thought to myself: “Word, Sisters!” But once my enthusiasm dissipated, I realised the awful truth: in Poland, where I live, women are still fighting for their reproductive rights.

It gets worse—here, the very word ‘feminist’ stirs up negative emotions: anger, pity, disdain. Even the women who support the fight for women’s rights, are reluctant to call themselves feminists. They prefer to steer clear of this label. As if it were shameful, stigmatising. I began to wonder what it would take to build a positive feminist identity. One that allows to celebrate femininity in all its textures and layers, and yet to acknowledge that the battle is not over yet. Far from over, in fact.

To this day, in my country and in many parts of the world—even the more progressive ones—women experience discrimination and oppression. How they respond to these experiences reflects their stage of feminist identity development. Its model was proposed in 1985 by Nancy E. Downing and Kristin L. Roush. Over three decades later, I find it remarkably accurate. It gave a new depth to my own experiences in the land of feminism. I share its gist here, hoping you might find it helpful.

The first stage is passive acceptance. At this point you are not aware of the problem. You may think it is exaggerated or it does not apply to you...Do women really have it that bad? Are we really that oppressed? We have the right to vote, don’t we? Openly or not, you may think that traditional roles are beneficial for society. You carefully choose your experiences and people around you to align with your worldview. I remember that stage—in high school I used to prefer male company. Ladies were always trickier to befriend, talk to, even work with. With guys I could have a ‘no muss, no fuss’ kind of friendship. More honest, more straightforward. Once, I even wrote an essay about feminist attitudes pushing men into the background. I believed this to be true. In all seriousness.

Then comes revelation. More often than not, it is not just one eye-opening event that shifts your perspective, but a series of events. For my postgraduate studies, I moved abroad. I took courses in feminist and postcolonial literature—they really opened me up to the experiences of oppression and marginalisation.

When I was in my late twenties, the political climate began to change. New governments, old ideas. In my country, where abortion is partially legal, a group of politicians tabled a motion to make it entirely illegal. After several Black Protests, during which Polish women fought for their reproductive rights, this new law has not come into being. So far. Only last year women’s reproductive rights in Poland suffered another blow: due to new regulations, the morning-after pill is no longer available over the counter. You have to go to a GP or a gynaecologist first—but they can refuse to give you the prescription citing their religious beliefs. For the same reason pharmacists can refuse to sell the pill. Imagine the Kafkaesque ordeal women go through.

Uncomfortable facts are hard to accept. One such fact is this: a group of people is denied certain rights (e.g. the right to decide about their bodies or lives) based on their gender. Whether you like it or not, you are a part of that group. How do you feel about that? I know how I felt—really, really angry, and somewhat guilty. According to Downing and Roush such feelings are common at this point. Why was I so blind? So ignorant? So passive? I mulled these questions over and over. And girl oh girl, they really got me going—right into the next stage.

This is the stage of serious soul-searching. Its first phase, embeddedness, consists in connecting with similar-minded women. In other words, looking for a supportive environment where you can express, even vent, your anger. In this phase it is hard to stay on good terms with the dominant group. After all, they are to blame for your situation—and you see them as a monolithic group, no exceptions. There came a time in my marriage, when it became difficult for me and my husband to have a peaceful conversation concerning women’s issues. Despite his liberal views and his support for the movement, it seemed to me that he did not understand me. How could he? Truth be told, I even suspected that he secretly condoned the status quo. Of course, I was a little paranoid—a rebound from my ‘years of ignorance,’ as I came to perceive them. I yearned for action. And for the company of women with whom I could share all those confusing feelings.

Last year I moved back from abroad and an opportunity for action presented itself. In January yet another motion to ban abortion was put forward. My husband and I went to a pro-choice demonstration. It was freezing outside. I had my doubts: why not stay home, wrap ourselves up in a blanket and watch Netflix while sipping mulled wine? (One of those “I’m only human” moments I am not very proud of). It was my husband who insisted that we must go. He even prepared a banner. Seeing his enthusiasm invigorated me. And so we went and marched alongside other women and men, publicly expressing our discontent. It was then that I finally understood this: we are playing for the same team! Yes, we may have our differences, but we can work around them. Together. I stopped viewing men as that monolithic group, secretly happy with how things are or silently allowing them to deteriorate. Downing and Roush call this phase emanation.

The penultimate stop on this tour through Feminist Land is synthesis. The new, more positive and realistic identity has matured and is finally ready to solidify. You are aware of the discrimination that is still in place, but now you also realise that the picture is not so clear-cut. You are able to assess people based on their behaviour and merits, rather than gender stereotypes. All in all, this is a triumphant stage. Ready to channel your anger, you can finally focus on what’s important and act accordingly.

Downing and Roush emphasise that women ‘may recycle through these stages,’ as their perspective shifts with certain life changes (e.g. marriage, career, parenthood). For similar reasons, some of us remain in one stage or return to an earlier one. Personal context is key here. But once the positive identity is more stable, some women proceed to the final stage.

Active commitment. Here, the woman uses her talents and abilities to focus on the issues she deems important, trying to effect a change in society. For me, personally, this means voicing my thoughts and writing about these issues. I was lucky enough to find a welcoming environment. A positive social change cannot be that far away, or so I choose to believe. After all, women’s rights, and our commitment to fight for them, are only about a hundred years old. Imagine what could happen in the next one hundred. ‘You may say I’m a dreamer...’

At least now I know I’m not the only one.

A freethinker, writer and translator, Olga Dziedzic, studied modern literature at the University of Southampton. Her short stories were published in the renowned Polish art magazines “Chimera” and “Akcent”. Currently based in Poland.