RIP a Cold War Heroine, the 'Mother of Solidarity'

Another woman whose place in history was stolen from her.

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By Bonnie Erbe, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I often write about U.S. women’s issues, but I came across a woman of note whose legacy has been largely neglected by Western historians. Her life and death should be more widely known to American women. So here goes.

Remember the plane crash earlier this month near Smolensk in which the President of Poland and other important figures in Polish politics perished? Among the passengers on that plane was one Anna Walentynowicz, who was considered “the mother of Solidarity.” She was one of Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s delegation en route to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre of Polish officers by Stalin’s communist secret police. She not only worked her way up to become one of the most fierce defenders of worker’s rights in that nation, but she also co-founded the Solidarity movement--most of the credit for which has gone to Lech Walesa, who, according to one Polish political expert, stole that legacy from her. Dr. Lucja Swiatkowski has a Ph.D. from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is a commentator on international and specifically Polish issues. She knew Ms. Walentynowicz personally and put together some background information about her life, which I share with you herewith:

In 1978 together with a few others, she was the co-founder of a "Free Trade Union," free from communist party control and representing workers. As a result of her activities, she was constantly harassed and arrested by the communist secret police and finally was fired from the shipyard in 1980, five months before retirement. Her dismissal was the catalyst for a general strike in the Gdansk Shipyard and its primary demand was to reinstate her to her job. Other demands were added, such as pay raises, better treatment and the recognition of a free trade union. Factories throughout Poland joined the strike in solidarity, inspiring the name of Solidarity Trade Union. Walentynowicz and the strike committee chose Lech Walesa to be the leader of the strike as he was a popular young man and a great orator.

The strike occurred in a very nervous atmosphere as a similar strike in 1970 was broken by security police troops by shooting at the workers. Now the government negotiated as a whole of Poland was paralyzed and eventually accepted 21 worker conditions. The strike ended and workers started to return home. However, Walentynowicz and other women turned them back from the gate, asking: "What about others who supported us?" The workers returned and continued the strike until the agreement was extended to all factories in Poland.

Anna Walentynowicz eventually fell out with Walesa as he arrogantly identified the whole of Solidarity with himself and over his compromises with the communist government. She was interned during martial law. Secret police tried to poison her. Her trip to Katyn was a result of her friendship with President Lech Kaczynski, law professor who was an adviser to Solidarity on labor law. It’s interesting to note that once again, a man (in this case Walesa) has stolen from a woman what was rightfully hers: a major place in history. I’m not saying this is always what happens, but the Western record is rife with such thefts. Let’s hope from here on out they become rarer and fewer in number.

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