Reproductive Rights and State Formation: Examining Gender Dynamics in Polish History

Recipient of the IRIS Award for Incoming Graduate Students, Alex Paradowski spent the summer of 2023 in Poland conducting dissertation research. As a PhD student within the Department of History at UW-Madison, Alex’s academic focus centers on modern Polish history, with an emphasis on the significance of gender and sexuality in state formation. Her dissertation aims to peel back the layers of historical discourse, scrutinizing how the Polish state, through its institutions and experts, sought to utilize women’s reproductive capacities. Beyond the state’s narrative, Alex delves into women’s lived experiences, seeking to understand their perceptions, embodiments, and challenges to the state’s constructs of sexuality and reproduction.

Alex’s research is particularly relevant, considering the recent abortion ban imposed by the Polish government. However, her quest extends far beyond contemporary headlines; it’s about offering a nuanced perspective on the intricate interplay between women, their autonomy over sexuality and reproduction, and the mechanisms of the state. In her work, Alex aspires to contribute significantly to the ongoing discourse surrounding reproductive rights in Poland, illuminating paths towards societal understanding and progress.

Over the span of two months in summer 2023, Alex immersed herself in overseas archival research, delving into the intricacies of conscious motherhood (świadome macierzyństwo) and its impact on Polish society. Beginning her expedition in Kraków, Alex delved into the archives of the National Archive and the Jagiellonian Library. Within the National Archive’s collection of documents from the Kraków chapter of the Polish Society for Conscious Motherhood, Alex uncovered a trove of administrative records spanning the organization’s formative years. Through meticulous examination, she pieced together a detailed narrative of the chapter’s challenges and achievements, shedding light on its endeavors in reproductive health and family planning. For example, she unearthed dossiers relating to the “specialist medical clinic” in Kraków, a pivotal institution providing comprehensive care and counseling on contraception and sexual health. At the Jagiellonian Library, she further encountered a collection of educational materials disseminated by the Society, offering insights into its mission and outreach strategies.

Traveling to Warsaw, Alex delved into archival collections housed at the Central Archives of Modern Records, the National Library, and the University of Warsaw. With the aid of dedicated archivists, she scrutinized press clippings, government dossiers, and ephemera illuminating the Society’s endeavors. A significant discovery awaited her at the National Library—a special collection of the Polish Society for Conscious Motherhood’s multi-disciplinary journal, Family Issues, spanning four decades. Immersed in its pages, Alex gleaned invaluable insights into the Society’s evolution and its international affiliations, prompting her to expand the scope of her research to encompass transnational dimensions.

Finally, venturing to Kielce and Katowice, Alex explored the State Archives, uncovering records that underscored the unique challenges conscious motherhood activists faced in smaller communities.

Reflecting on her expedition, Alex expressed profound gratitude for the IRIS grant, which enabled her to forge connections with archivists and librarians in Poland and lay the groundwork for her dissertation. Armed with newfound insights and avenues of inquiry, she eagerly anticipates further exploring the complexities of conscious motherhood and gender dynamics in Poland.

Interested in IRIS grants supporting overseas graduate student fieldwork? Campus units can nominate candidates for the IRIS Area and International Studies Awards for Incoming Graduate Students. The purpose of these grants is to recruit strong incoming graduate students who will at some point in their graduate training require a period of international fieldwork or development of language or cultural competence off the UW-Madison campus. In addition, UW-Madison graduate students planning to conduct six or more weeks of summer fieldwork outside of the U.S. can apply for the IRIS Graduate Student Summer Fieldwork Award. For more information about these and other awards, please visit our website and  sign up for the IRIS Awards Office monthly newsletter.