Polish Culture / Culture news from Poland / Ten outstanding Polish women who changed the world- For better!
Ten outstanding Polish women who changed the world- For better!

Ten outstanding Polish women who changed the world- For better!

March 8 was once not very popular in Poland. For many, it was a celebration created and imposed by the communist authorities.

Today, however, International Women’s Day has a completely different, more sincere face, corresponding much better with the contemporary world. It has been luckily taken over by feminists who take the opportunity on that day to call for women’s rights once again in terms of equal pay, reproductive rights, and effective protection against violence.

We are wholeheartedly on their side and wish to celebrate March 8 by recalling the profiles of ten outstanding Polish women. Of course, there were many more of them in history, which can be easily discovered in Anna Kowalczyk’s book BRAKUJĄCA POŁOWA DZIEJÓW. KRÓTKA HISTORIA KOBIET NA ZIEMIACH POLSKICH (A SHORT HISTORY OF WOMEN IN POLAND), available only in Polish. We are, however, bound by self-discipline as to the length of the text, so we bet on the number 10.

In the case of our heroines, a chronological order could be considered a bit tactless, and an order of merit could lead to endless arguments, so we present them in a neutral alphabetical order.


MAGDALENA ABAKANOWICZ (1930-2017) is considered one of the most outstanding Polish artists of the 20th century. She is known to a wider audience mainly for her sculptural works, especially monumental compositions made of fabric, which were named “abakans” referring to her last name. They were first presented at the Biennale of Artistic Tapestry in Lausanne in 1962. Their innovation was based on the then very unconventional use of traditional materials. In addition to textiles, the artist also used metal, wood, and stone. Art critics around the world unanimously claim that Abakanowicz’s experiments opened a new chapter in the history of sculpture.  Her works were exhibited not only in galleries, but also in the open air. For many years she collaborated with the prestigious London gallery Mrlborough Fine Arts, which has presented her work all over the world – including UK, Italy, USA, Japan, Israel and Brazil. This year, a retrospective exhibition of Magdalena Abakanowicz was prepared by the National Museum in Wroclaw, which is proud to have the largest and most representative collection of her works, from the artist’s debut until the early twentieth century – a total of 53 objects.  https://mnwr.pl/abakanowicz-totalna/


MARIA LESZCZYŃSKA (1703-68) Polish princess who became queen of France after marrying Louis XV of Bourbon in 1725. The royal couple had as many as ten children, and the king, despite numerous affairs, was very attached to Maria until the end of his life. La Reine Marie, as the French called her, was not interested in big politics and court intrigues. As a deeply religious person, she devoted a lot of time to philanthropic activities, which gave her great popularity and sympathy among her subjects. She is credited with opening a school near Versailles where girls from poor families were educated. The building still exists today and still functions as a school – Lycee Hoche at Versailles. She was also very well educated, with a keen interest in painting and music. She spoke several languages fluently, danced excellently and painted quite well. It was on her initiative that the French court was visited by a young virtuoso – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Always observing court etiquette, she felt happiest in the circle of her closest friends – intellectuals and artists of France at that time. She reigned at Versailles for 42 years and was the longest reigning monarch there.

TAMARA ŁEMPICKA (1898-1980) SELF-PORTRAIT IN A GREEN BUGATTI, she painted in 1925, is probably known to everyone because the painting has been admired and copied for years. Worth mentioning that it was commissioned by the German fashion magazine DIE DAME. The editors of the magazine placed it on the cover of an issue dedicated to women’s independence, hence the image of a woman driving a car – an unusual sight at the time. However, few are likely to own an original of any of her works. In 2020, A PORTRET OF MARJORIE FERRY (1932) was sold at Christie’s auction house in London for over 21 million dollars! She was born in Warsaw but studied painting in Paris. Her style is unique and easily recognizable for everyone. It combines elements of mature cubism with neoclassical aesthetics and perfectly harmonizes with Art Deco architecture and design. Not only her great talent, but also her colourful life, her escape from Russia after the outbreak of the 1917 Revolution, her flight from Europe in 1939, her numerous romances and scandals made her the heroine of many books and even a play. Admirers and collectors of her paintings include Madonna, Jack Nicholson and Barbara Streisand. This year, the National Museum in Lublin presents an exhibition of Łempicka’s works, which will include oil paintings, drawings and prints. https://zamek-lublin.pl/wystawy-czasowe/tamara-lempicka-kobieta-w-podrozy/


HELENA MODRZEJEWSKA (1840-1909) Legendary Polish actress, admired by audiences in Poland and the United States. Born in Kraków, she began her theatrical career on provincial stages. Critics quickly recognized her talent, and in 1860 she appeared at the Lviv theatre, and by 1865 she was already performing at the prestigious theatres of her native Kraków. Her repertoire included roles in both classical and contemporary plays, and she was equally comfortable both in tragedies and comedies. She had excellent acting skills, quite tall, attractive, and beautifully built. In addition, she was intelligent and a quick learner. After several successful seasons in Kraków, Warsaw audiences fell in love with her in 1868. Her position as a star was firmly established, and she was considered one of the finest actresses in Europe. Her last performance in Poland came in 1877 before she left for America with her husband and several friends. She quickly mastered the English language to the extent that she could appear on the greatest American stages. She performed in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. After a few seasons she was already a star, mainly thanks to her Shakespearean roles. It is remarkable that she visited England with this repertoire! She wrote down her memoirs in English in a book published after her death, MEMORIES AND IMAGES (1910)


POLA NEGRI (1897-1987) had a great career in Hollywood and was one of the brightest stars of silent cinema. She played mysterious famme fatale characters and kept the same image off-screen. Hollywood was buzzing with gossips about her love affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolf Valentino. Her film career began in Poland. In 1917 she moved to Germany, where she acted in Ernst Lubitsch’s productions. Their joint successes included such films as EYES OF THE MUMMY (1918), CARMEN (1918), and MADAME DU BARRY (1919). All of them were internationally acclaimed and, as a result, Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures offered Pola Negri a very lucrative contract worth $3,000 a week, a staggering sum at the time. Negri signed the contract, becoming the first actress from the Old Continent invited to work in America. By 1928, her salary was already $10,000 a week, and the films she appeared in were too numerous to mention on one breath. Her career slowed down after the advent of sound films and her last appearance on screen was in 1964 in THE MOON SPINNERS. Part of the shooting was done in London, where Negri caused a sensation by appearing at a press conference accompanied by a live cheetah led on a steel leash – a Hollywood diva in every sense!

IRENA SENDLEROWA (1910-2008) was involved in social and charitable activities even before the outbreak of World War II. However, she is most famous for her achievements during the German occupation of Poland, when as a social worker, using her contacts with orphanages, hospitals, and religious congregations, she helped to get Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, saving them from almost certain death. The exact number of children she saved is unknown, but conservative estimates allow us to assume that it was nearly 2,500. This activity involved the risk of being arrested and shot. And indeed, at the end of 1943 Irena Sendlerowa was arrested by the Germans and sentenced to death. The sentence was not carried out because the Polish underground managed to bribe German officials. In recognition of her merits, in 1965 the Yad Vashem Institute honoured her with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. She was a hero of a great format and, as all who were lucky enough to meet her say, a very warm, kind, and cheerful person.


MARIA SKŁODOWSKA – CURIE (1867-1934) One of the most recognizable Polish women, many books have been written about her life. The scientist who researched and explained the phenomenon of radioactivity, the separation of radioactive isotopes, the precursor of radiochemistry and the discoverer of two new elements – radium and polonium. She belongs to a very small group of only four people who received the Nobel Prize twice and one of the two only who received this great honour in two different disciplines! In 1903, the Nobel committee awarded the prize in physics to Maria, her husband Pierre Curie and Henry Becquerel for their joint discovery and study of radioactivity. In 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for the second time, in chemistry, for the discovery of radium and polonium (the latter was named after Poland, which was partitioned and not on the maps of Europe at the time). Her discoveries proved to be a breakthrough in the diagnosis and therapy of cancer, but also completely changed the perception of the world, which was echoed in many fields of art. She is the first woman to be buried in the Paris Panthéon in recognition of her great contributions, alongside Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Email Zola. In 2017, Simone Veil, a French lawyer and politician who successfully fought for women’s rights, was also buried to rest there.


MARIA SZYMANOWSKA (1789-1831) pianist and composer, an outstanding figure ahead of her time, though unfortunately little known. She was one of the first professional concert pianists of the 19th century who achieved great success, playing in concert halls all over Europe, in England, France, Germany and Holland – including Amsterdam. It is worth noting that concert halls themselves were a novelty at the time. And a woman who attracted crowds with her virtuoso playing and thus ensured her self-sufficiency and financial independence – something completely unique. After several very successful tours of Western Europe, Szymanowska moved to Russia, where she became court pianist and composer to the Russian Empress, Alexandra Fedorovna. While living in St. Petersburg, she ran a salon whose regular guests included prominent intellectuals and artists, including Rossini and Goethe. Her compositions, mostly for piano, range from chamber works to concertos, etudes, and nocturnes. She died young, at the age of only 42, but her life story and professional achievements are worth recalling, as they may become an inspiration for many talented young people who want to follow a path not yet discovered.


WISŁAWA SZYMBORSKA (1923-2012) translator, essayist, but above all, a poet. It was for her poems that she received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996. She debuted in 1945 with a poem titled LOOKING FOR WORDS, published by a popular daily paper. The title turned out to be almost prophetic – indeed, she searched for words all her life and achieved in this search the highest level of skill.  The Nobel Committee, justifying the decision to award her the prize, explained that it was “poetry as an answer to life, a way of living and working with words”. She has published 16 volumes of poetry. It is difficult to choose the best known, CALLING OUT TO YETI (1957), NO END OF FUN (1967), Or THE END AND THE BEGINNING (1993). She became a literary celebrity somewhat against her will, since she valued her privacy and tranquillity the most, but thanks to the Nobel Prize she gained international fame, and her poetry was translated into many languages, not only European. The deeply philosophical nature of her poems combined with a great sense of humour and heartfelt irony, make all of them so wonderful to read!


OLGA TOKARCZUK (1962) according to many, the most outstanding Polish writer of her generation, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018. Since then, her books have been translated into nearly 40 languages, the most among contemporary Polish writers. She debuted in 1993 with the novel JOURNEY OF THE PEOPLE OF THE BOOK. Her novels PRIMEVAL AND OTHER TIMES, HOUSE OF DAY, HOUSE OF NIGHT and the award-winning novel THE FLIGHTS (2007) were also a great success. However, her opus magnum is THE BOOKS OF JACOB, a monumental epic story based on historical facts about a Jewish messiah living in the seventeenth century on the eastern edge of the then Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The books she wrote, both those describing contemporary times and those whose plot is interwoven with events from the past, are characterized by a historical context presented with great precision, suggesting that the solution to our present-day dilemmas should be sought in the past. A vision of the world assuming that everything is interconnected.  The Nobel Prize lecture entitled THE TENDER NARRATOR which Olga Tokarczuk delivered in Stockholm while receiving the award, is one of the most important literary texts describing the condition of us and the world we live in.        https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/lecture/