“Women on Tractors!” A few reflections on women and their “steel steeds” in post-war Polish agriculture

1. Probably Bronisława Pestkówna on the Ursus C-45 tractor, field of State Agricultural Farms in the Gdańsk district, second half of the 1940s. From the collection of the Archives of the Museum in Szreniawa

The collection of the National Museum of Agriculture in Szreniawa includes 35 tractors. These are machines manufactured by the following companies: Ursus, Lanz, Zetor, Fordson, Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz AG, Case Company. We also have Famo Boxer and Mazur tracked tractors and a Dutra tractor manufactured in Budapest to pull a drainage plow. These are the machines that we present at permanent exhibitions. Some of them are launched during the “Retro Show” outdoor event, which annually attracts enthusiasts of old machines to the Museum.

2. Bronisława Pestkówna among tractor drivers, Gajewo near Malbork, 1948, photo from “Trybuna Ludu” No. 147 (161) Year II

The museum in Szreniawa also deals with the social history of the village. In our archives we store, among others, photos, posters, films and written testimonies. Among them, the issue of rural women, who decided to work as tractor drivers after World War II, responded to the postulate of the socialist authorities: “Women for tractors!”, is of little importance. The then authorities noticed the important role of a woman who, in the difficult post-war reality, was forced to perform the so-called male tasks on the farm.

Socialism, breaking with the old social order, also broke with the traditional patriarchal division of gender roles attributed to it. In the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic, as well as in books and magazines from the 1940s and 1950s, it was emphasized that a woman takes part in the pursuit of socialism on an equal footing with men. Cyt.: “The course of social and political events does not pass unnoticed today for a woman from the countryside of People’s Poland (…). Today, the rural woman performs state work plans on an equal footing with men, competing to increase agricultural production (…)”. Rural women took care of cattle, poultry and pigs breeding on state-owned farms, helped with the harvest and rode tractors.

3. (a and b) Magdalena Figur posing on the tractor and during plow repair. Plowing in Żuławy, second half of the 1940s. From the collection of the Archives of the Museum in Szreniawa

An example is the figure of two female tractor drivers immortalized in photographs from the archives of the Museum. They gracefully and proudly pose on their “steel steeds”. These are Magdalena Figur (1927-2007) (Fig. 3a and 3b) and Bronisława Pestkówna (1928 – date of death unknown) (Fig. 1 and 2). In 1949, they were leaders in heavy plowing in Żuławy, and their example is a symbol of women’s involvement in building the “new Poland”. In the photographs, these twenty-year-old women, despite the men’s work clothes, are full of charm. They are captivated by optimism, vitality and a smile, despite the hard work. Their life stories are connected by poor origins and a passion for tractors, about which they sometimes knew more than their colleagues.

In 1946, Pestkówna got on a Lanz Bulldog tractor and drove to the field without a driving license. It was said about her: “so blond, and eager for men’s work.” Then she took part in the first course for tractor drivers, which she completed in 1949. She met Magdalena Figur at a course for tractor foremen in Elbląg. The girls rode Ursus C-45, which was a symbol of modernity and mechanization of the Polish countryside. They rode them in parades organized on the occasion of May 1st.

Ursus C-45 tractors were affectionately called “our spikes” because of the steel wheels with spikes. The hardest part was starting the engine of this tractor, which had a power of 45 hp. A bulb pear was used for this, which did not want to ignite at low air temperatures. The girls coped as best they could – they unscrewed the bulb pear and ran with it to the blacksmith, who was heating this part to red in the hearth. Then it had to be screwed on quickly, which caused burns to the hands. Magdalena Figur recalled: “We left for plowing at dawn and returned at night. Free time? I didn’t know that concept. Just hours and overtime.” Unfortunately, there were cases that sappers did not have time to clear the field and some girls ran into an anti-tank mine. The propaganda press reported that 30 female tractor drivers took part in the difficult plowing in Żuławy. Unfortunately, the reality was different. The authorities used the commitment and patriotism of women for their own purposes of socialist economic and social policy.

Many women resigned from working on a tractor after a few months, because they were physically unable to cope with this task. Magdalena Figur and Bronisława Pestkówna, thanks to their passion and fortitude, were examples of tractor drivers who persevered in their profession until the end.

Tractor women existed in the social consciousness as heroines of the socialist Polish countryside. They appeared on posters, photos, were immortalized by artists in paintings, sculptures, on napkins or folk cut-outs. An example of the popularity of this subject in the 1950s are the works of professional and folk artists, which are in the collection of the Museum in Szreniawa.

4. Plaster sculpture “Traktorist”, author unknown. The sculpture was presented during the first nationwide exhibition of visual artists at the National Museum in Warsaw in 1950. From the artistic collection of the Museum in Szreniawa

5. Crochet doily with the motif of a woman on a tractor, author: N. Ziemba, 1954, province Masovian. From the ethnographic collection of the Museum in Szreniawa

6. Cutout from Łowicz with a depiction of a housewife on a tractor transporting pigs to a collection point, author: Józefa Surma, 1950s, province Lodz. From the ethnographic collection of the Museum in Szreniawa

Author: Hanna Ignatowicz, National Museum of Agriculture in Szreniawa, Poland