Women in Poland's Early History

March is considered the Month of Women. In Poland, Women's Day was celebrated on March 8th. Sadly, the traditions of Women's Day, when all women were given some extra favors from men and beautiful flowers, are fading away. Women's Day is now considered to be a part of the communist tradition because it was celebrated in the majority of Eastern European countries, especially in Soviet Union.

The Roots of International Women's Day

The roots of this day reach back to the women's movement in the USA rather than in Russia and it is recognized in the USA as Women's Rights Day. Its history goes back to March 8th almost 150 years ago - in 1857 when women from New York City stopped work in protest of bad working conditions, a long working day (12 hours), and low pay. The march that started in a poor neighborhood was brutally broken up by police when the women reached the wealthy district of town. A similar march took place 50 years later; this one was triggered by the death of 126 women killed when they were trapped on a high floor in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Their slogan was "bread and roses"—"bread" for economical security and "roses" for a better life. The remembrance of this day was eventually adopted by a conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1910, the year when Women's Day was created. Read more about the International Women day in the articles: International Women's Day - History and How International Women's Day was celebrated in Poland.

I come from the generation of Polish women who will always remember how our men welcomed us with flowers on that day, so I decided to devote this article to women who were important in Polish history.

Important Women in Polish History

It is almost a paradox, but the most important women in Poland's early history were mainly non-Polish women, mainly queens and princesses, who were married to Polish kings or dukes. But this is actually logical, since there was usually only one recognized royal family in each country, and they had to search for peers abroad, among other royalty, in order not to mix with the lower classes and in order to strengthen their international influence and power. The main rulers of Europe, just before their fall after World War I, were interrelated by blood. The royal families of the Windsor house in England, the Russian tzars (Romanovs), and the German Emperor (Kaiser) Friedrich Wilhelm II were all descendants of Queen Victoria, with all the advantages (concentration of power) and genetic disadvantages, such as hemophilia.

Polish women were also sometimes more recognized in the history of other countries as wives of kings and rulers, especially in Scandinavia. The blood of the Polish royal dynasty of Piasts and Viking rulers was mixed thanks to Swietoslava, the daughter of Mieszko 1st and Dobrava. Swietoslava is recognized in Scandinavian sagas as Sigrid the Haughty, Gunhilda, or Storrada. She was the wife of King Eric VI of Sweden and later Sweyn I of Denmark. Allegedly her sons, among them Canute the Great, became rulers of Sweden, England, Demark, and Norway. According to the sagas, she had a difficult character - when she fell in love with a Viking warrior who ignored her, she burned him alive. Read more about Swietoslawa in the article: Swietoslawa - Piast Princess & Viking's Queen.

Catherine Jagiello (Polish: Katarzyna Jagiellonka, Finnish: Katarrina Jegellonica) - see her portrai on the left, the daughter of the Polish king Zygmunt I the Old and his Italian wife Bona Sforza - portrait to the right, brought Renaissance culture and European cuisine to Finland and also good table manners: she introduced the fork to Finland. After she married Duke John of Finland, the second son of Sweden's King Gustav I, they set up house in Turku castle (Turku is the second biggest town in Finland). The new couple stayed there for seven years, bringing the influence of the Renaissance to the area; this period was considered the castle's heyday. I visited there once and the memories of Catherine, known there as Katarrina Jagellonica, are everywhere: some restaurants proudly base their recipes on her cuisine, since many culinary delicacies came to Finland through Turku castle. Catherine's fate was unsettled. She and her husband were later imprisoned in Gripsholm Castle by John's older brother Eric, the King of Sweden. Eventually they were released and crowned as king and queen of Sweden in 1569. Catherine's son Sigismund later became the king of Poland. Joseph Simmler painted an exhilarating picture of Catherine in prison in Gripsholm - see attached picture.

Many women of foreign origin were important in Polish culture. Thanks to Dobrawa - portrait to the left, the daughter of the Duke of Bohemia, who married the duke and Polish ruler Mieszko I, Poland became a Christian country fully recognized by other European countries and Rome. Accepting Christianity turned away the danger of attack from German tribes who were forcing Slavs to move farther and farther east or lose their national identity.

Jadwiga (Hedwig), the daughter of a Hungarian king (see her portrait by Matejko on the right and the tomb sculpture to the right) and who also had Polish royal blood in her veins, was the first woman crowned as a king—not queen—of Poland (Hedvig Rex Poloniae, not Hedvig Regina Poloniae) in 1384. She sacrificed her personal happiness, since she was engaged to William of Austria from the House of Habsburg, and instead married, at the age of 12, the much older Lithuanian Prince Jagiello (36) who was christianized just before marrying her. Their marriage initiated the union of Poland with Lithuania. The Polish-Lithuanian kingdom became one of the biggest and most powerful states in Europe, although with time its size became also a weakness.

Jadwiga was unusually tall for her times, 5'6", with regular features and a proportional silhouette, according to anthropological examinations. She was a well-educated polyglot, interested in arts, music, science, and court life. She was also known for her piety, and donated much of her wealth to charity, such as the foundation of hospitals. She gave her jewelry, dresses, and royal insignia to restore the Academy of Krakow, since called Jagiellonian University in honor of her and her husband. Unfortunately she died very young, after the difficult delivery. She and her baby daughter were buried in Royal Wawel Cathedral. She is venerated as Saint Hedwig. In a future article, we will continue the subject of women important in Polish history in more recent times.

Copyrights Baba Jaga Corner
March 2006

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    I recommend guide-books about Poland:

    Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland (Eyewitness Travel Guides) by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers


    The Rough Guide to Poland, by Mark Salter, Jonathan Bousfield

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