The Citizeness is the third part of Manuela Gretkowska’s running diary, showing the writer in a rather untypical role, as the founder, and then president of the Women’s Party. In describing what goes on behind the scenes of the political scrum, she answers the question of how a writer hit upon this unusual idea, and explains what attracted her to it.
It all began by accident, when a column was withdrawn from a certain newspaper, in which Gretkowska criticised the government of the Kaczyński brothers. She then published an uncompromising statement on the modern situation of “the Polish Mother” in one of the weeklies. It was later reissued in a book called Manifesto, in which Gretkowska challenged women to determine their own rights and create their own party. The initiative did not fail to stir a response, and it was immediately obvious that the charismatic author should head the new political force.
To those who followed the whole affair from the outside, it looked like a combination of cabaret and a theatrical event. Although thousands of women responded enthusiastically to Gretkowska’s initiative, she got no support from any of the formal political forces. Her efforts to be taken seriously were not helped by the fact that in the meantime her new novel was published, which meant that her political venture was seen as nothing but an unusual advertising gimmick.
The Citizeness certainly casts light on the whole so-called scandal, and mainly on the writer herself, who really did take on the role of Don Quixote in a skirt, battling not just against external criticism, but also the friction that arose among her colleagues. She gives a frank account of her struggles with the machinations of politics and with human nature, highlights moments of triumph and doubt, and above all describes the everyday work of the party.
It is worth stressing that although these are the confessions of a person with no experience as a community worker or diplomat, it is hard to regard her as naïve. Manuela Gretkowska is aware of the tragi-comic nature of the ups and downs she experienced and treats them with a fairly large dose of irony, though not enough to make the reader doubt her commitment.
- Marta Mizuro
A quick dinner in a pub near the Montownia Arts Centre. A breather at last after a week in the soup kitchen. The Gąsioreks – tall, dark, iconic beauty Ania and genially plump Jacek with his splash of reddish curls – have projected the poster on the wall behind me. I’m standing centre stage, more people are arriving, there aren’t enough chairs. There are about four hundred people, mostly women of various ages.
“Ms Gretkowska, you’ve been talking for fifteen minutes now, you’ve been talking and nothing’s happening,” an impatient old lady says in surprise.
“Well we should be in the Sejm by now, not for a quarter of an hour, but for years,” I step it up.
The hall laughs in reply and I carry on: “What’s stopping us from being in the Sejm? Where are the restrictions? In our heads.” I say why is a party a regular political army, and not a society, like the partisans. I am so sure of the rightness of the arguments and the simplicity of the solutions that the stage becomes a runway for ideas, causes, for me. The boards stretch out and the lights merge towards a shining signpost ahead. I rise above the crowd, I can still see the individual faces. Focused on my words, the eyes lead me on, winking to tell me if I’m going in the right direction. But I can’t hear myself any more, I have no idea what I’m about to say. I’m sinking into a trance, I’m afraid of losing consciousness. I put on the brakes and ask for questions. I have no time to think about what has just happened.
Women stand up in the front rows. From Łódź, Olsztyn and Silesia – they introduce themselves. Ever so clean, white ironed blouses, dark blue skirts – they’re proper political workers. In a blouse and baggy cords, next to them I look like a rock musician. A political scientist called Iwona and ladies from various organisations come forward. I collect business cards. A girl comes up who wants to be my assistant. I ask her straight out if she’s had psychiatric treatment. It’s a shock. I explain that it’s such tough work that either you don’t know what you’re taking on, or you don’t have a firm enough idea of the reality.
Piotr has been watching the meeting from the balcony.
“God, in their fifties these women have woken up and think they’ve got some sort of rights,” he says, hiding his emotion behind mockery.
Małgosia Marczewska, my would-be coach whom I met at the photo session, tries to sum up:
“You didn’t send pieces of paper round the room to record who was there, their details, what they can do. The rest of the meeting was like something out of CIA training school. Before you began, you asked the audience three questions, if they had chairs, if they could hear…. to be perfect it would have been five.”
I don’t know if Małgosia is joking or being serious. She trains businesses and company directors.
“You have to separate your private life from the party, turn off your phone after meetings,” she advises. My mobile, kept in my trouser pocket, has become a sort of kicking, jumping foetus, prodding me in the side. With every day it is making its presence more keenly felt. It wakes me at night and won’t give me peace all day.
We go home; the shops are already shut as usual. All that’s left is the petrol station, but we haven’t the strength to stop and buy bread.
“If this goes on much longer, I won’t make it,” Piotr capitulates. He was expecting the meeting to produce a committee of new leaders. He was counting on us not being so needed any more.
We don’t talk in the morning, he goes to Łódź for the little one. I run between the phone and the Internet. Not much has changed following the Montownia event. Maybe this evening at Małgosia’s on Filtrowa Street… Iwona’s coming, the party professional. The Gąsioreks get down to sorting out the e-mails. They have a daughter who’s a few months old and are crazy about community work. If just a small percentage, just a fraction of humanity were like them, the world would be paradise.
At noon starvation, I’ve got nothing in the fridge. Someone asks over the phone: “Has something happened?”
I don’t quite get who it is and why he doesn’t know what’s happened… a mass movement!
“We had an appointment to meet at a restaurant, you were going to appraise the menu for the newspaper…” a voice from a past life reminds me.
I have forgotten a meeting that’s written down in my notebook. I have wiped everything that isn’t to do with the party from my mind. Unfortunately, that includes paying the bills. As I wait for a taxi to the restaurant, I find some reminders in the mail box. And that’s me, for whom filling in the monthly payment slips for the electricity and the phone used to be like the relief of absolution. As if I’d brought Mummy a certificate of morality.
Torn away from the Internet and the recruitment of regional coordinators, I enter a different world: a pub redecorated in Japanese Belle Epoque. I have foie gras in chocolate and cod sprinkled with rose petals. I gulp it down, give my appraisal for the cooking column, and rush home.
Pola is behaving like a spoiled child. She can’t stop after a visit to her grandparents. The old folks don’t keep any rules, they’re amoral in their love for the little one. When I was her age my father used to watch in delight as I smashed the family crystal and hand me another glass. Maybe he didn’t like them, maybe he loved giving me pleasure. I prefer not to know what he allows Pola to do. Lately Piotr and I have been pretending to be parents, so the grandparents don’t have to act the part any more. They do as they please, and they let the child do the same.
Małgosia’s office on Filtrowa Street, in the Stara Ochota district. A kitchen, wooden stairs, a loft, two large, bright rooms. Cream-coloured walls, expansive rococo chandeliers, the minimum of furniture. The branches of a cherry tree in the garden are pushing their way in at the windows. It’s empty, quiet after the hubbub of phone calls. We’re waiting for Iwona. I’m not sure she’s coming. At the Montownia Centre she gave me her card and promised to help. Finally she’s here: shapely and beautiful – an ex-model, a friend of Lidka’s.
She knows all about gearing up for political action, and lists the stages for forming a party. We must establish if we’re going to accept men.
“Maybe it would be easier without them?” we wonder. “Or to deprive them of the right to vote within our party.”
Małgosia is with us, and so is Piotr on the speaker phone.
“That’s undemocratic!” Always extremely conciliatory, now he’s protesting. “If they’re only able to belong and serve disinterestedly, you’ll make political eunuchs out of them. Anyway, I don’t think you’re allowed to found an organisation that discriminates on grounds of race or gender,” he calms down. In Iwona’s opinion women behave differently on their own, and it’s they who have to decide in the end without male assistance. She cites her lecturer, Professor Szlendak from Toruń:
“He’s a feminist, but he believes women have encoded behavioural competition – they have always fought each other for access to goods for their children.”
“Exactly,” I say, “this will be the first behavioural party, but it will fight for the common interests of women and children: health and education. Secondly,” I enumerate, “it’s not true that women are incapable of working together and just compete. By all means be head of this party, you’re the expert, you’re a specialist. I’ll travel around, talk to people and give interviews. I’m not much of a politician – I don’t even wear a watch… I should be at home with Pola by now.”
“So buy yourself one.” My self-neglect is no problem for Iwona.
“I don’t wear one because I don’t like to. Or jackets or smart little shoes,” I say, describing Iwona’s elegant clothes. “You’re more suitable, you’ve got the knowledge…”
“Not now. Once it’s all organised.”
“In... six months,” she estimates.
“I’ll never survive at this rate.”
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones