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A Catholic Woman Leader of Poland

An interview with Hanna Suchocka, the first and only female prime minister in the history of the country

"In my family women have always been active both socially and professionally. My aunt, for example, was one of the first women in Poland to graduate in pharmacy, and my mother was also a pharmacist. For me, women's work outside the home has always been obvious: in fact it seemed rather strange to see the mothers of my friends being housewives! We were a very Catholic family: at home we prayed regularly, went to Mass together, we talked about religion, spirituality and the history of the Church. I remember an old book I used to read as a child: it was the history of the popes up to Pius XII. Then my mother added, in writing, John XXIII and Paul VI. John Paul II, however, I added myself. My aunt and my grandmother, activists in Catholic Women’s Action, received the papal honour Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (respectively before and after the Second World War). Given that I did not carry out an activity within the Church, I never thought that I – even though I was myself a Suchocka – would have the honour of receiving a similar medal. Instead later I was given an even higher award."

If female tradition and Catholicism have marked the path of Hanna Suchocka, another was added which  has led her to be the first - and to date only – Woman President of the Council of Ministers in the history of Poland. How did your entry into politics come about?

As a citizen during the communist epoch, I had never thought of entering politics, although I was driven by a social passion . It was, however, obvious that I could not enter the Communist Party! I graduated in law in 1968. In August there was the invasion of Czechoslovakia, whereas before, in March, in Poland there were university protests, which were harshly repressed by the police. After these events, it was decided to "verify" the adherence  of the students to the ideology, with particular attention given to those who wanted to pursue a university career. In practice this meant that you had to join the Communist Party. Although there were many Catholic members of the party, in my opinion, they were two approaches which were mutually incompatible. For this reason, while I was waiting to go to work as a researcher at the university, I chose another party, a very small one, the Democratic Party (of artisans) which was not grounded in historical materialism. Then we come to 1980, even before the birth of Solidarność: my party was looking in Poznań for a woman, a young lawyer, to be a candidate in the general election. Chance would have it that, at that time I had the suitable qualifications and so I was put on the list. Perhaps it was also in a sense the action of Providence. So I found myself in Parliament, just when Solidarność was born, with which I collaborated: we had worked well together and they trusted me. The following year, after the introduction of the state of emergency, I voted against the outlawing of Solidarność: we were only a dozen MPs to do so. It was not easy at a time when you voted on command: at that point, the end of my political career was certain. So I went back to Poznań, resuming my work at the university. But everything changed again with the turning point of 1989, when Poland was preparing for its first democratic elections. In fact, I became a member of the Civic Committee of Solidarność, which created a list for the future Parliament. Many at that time brought up my name: "Our representative must be Hanna because she had the courage to vote in the communist Parliament against an unfair bill. We know that we can trust her." At first I refused, not wanting to go back into politics, I had done it for five years and that was enough for me. But then I changed my mind and on June 4, 1989 I was elected. This is the moment when I truly entered politics, and I entered it not as a woman, but as Hanna Suchocka with a precise history on her shoulders.

Has communism promoted the emancipation of women? Do you believe in the model imposed by the State?

I do not think that a model imposed by the State can be successful. I have written, in one of my articles: in the communist system a somewhat artificial emancipation was promoted. It wanted to change the role of the family, seen as an institution of the past and of little use, but women went to work only because men did not earn enough. For this reason children were entrusted to public facilities: the family and social life was organized by the State through very poor quality services. If in a certain sense this was a form of emancipation, it was, however, a very ambivalent process.

About emancipation, Hanna Gronkiewicz Waltz, the current mayor of Warsaw, is the former governor of the Bank of Poland, a role at the time unprecedented for a woman.

In our country, women have historically had to play an important role. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were marked by continuous wars and insurrections, and so while the men fought, women ran the household, they were authentic managers! In the specific case of Hanna Gronkiewicz Waltz, she played an important role in the changes that occurred after the fall of communism because they were looking for new people. The choice of the governor of the Polish bank was a personal choice of President Wałęsa: Hanna Gronkiewicz Waltz, Mayor of Warsaw today, is a lawyer who is an expert in banks and banking systems.

In Poland, the Church and the government in recent months have found themselves on opposite sides with respect to  the Convention regarding  violence against women.

The acceptance of the Convention is by no means a reason for conflict between Poland and the Holy See. It is an international document. But I believe that this convention is not the solution to the problem. The title expresses the right idea, even if in the text there are two or three phrases that give rise to confusion: interpreting them in a particular way can actually give the document a meaning that distorts its nature. Writing texts of this type one uses a  very generic language, that can propose solutions that do not apply to all cases. In Parliament, I was for years a member of the legislative committee where in fact we worked on words: language is of fundamental importance!

Why did you leave politics?

I left because I felt that I could not affect the decisions and at times it was impossible to find a compromise. Of course, compromise is an important tool when engaged in politics, but there is a limit. Moreover, from a certain point on political life has become more and more aggressive and brutal. I'm not used to using vulgar words, rather than shouting I like to reason. The media have also changed their language, in debates one shouts and argues more and more. This is not my style. Election campaigns, moreover, are a disgraceful spectacle: you tell lies, using unverifiable arguments that seem serious but are not. I spent years in Parliament, and in the most important period of recent Polish history, that between 1989 and 1991, we have developed models of development for the country. It was really a difficult job, but there wasn’t the aggressiveness, which today rules everything. So in 2001 I did not present myself for the general elections and I accepted the proposal of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to become ambassador to the Holy See.

Can the task of the representatives of the Holy See  also be carried out by religious or lay women?

In the future, one could imagine an opening to the laity, and therefore also to women. I know that according to the rules the apostolic nuncio has to be an archbishop, but perhaps you could begin with international bodies: already the representative of the Holy See at the United Nations in Vienna is not an archbishop: we could then begin with observers. Mary Ann Glendon has been president of a Vatican delegation, I was also asked to lead one in 1994, but I declined: I had just resigned as prime minister and it did not seem appropriate  immediately to become the Head of  a Delegation of another country (I was its only member). If a woman can be the head of the Vatican delegation sent to a global conference, a woman could also represent the Holy See in an international organization.

Born in 1946 in Pleszew, Hanna Suchocka has been since 2001 Polish ambassador to the Holy See. A specialist in constitutional law and a member of the Polish Parliament in the years 1980-1985 and 1989-2001, from 11 July 1992 to 26 October 1993 she was prime minister and from 1997 to 2000 she was Minister of Justice and Attorney General. A member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences of the Club of Madrid and of the World Council of Women Leaders, she published in 2012 a book devoted to the ancient stational churches of Rome.

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