Friday, 31 March 2023 to Sunday, 2 April 2023

Ambiguous Descent: Bronisława Staszel-Polankowa and the Queering of Highlander Identity

Fri31  Mar04:35pm(20 mins)
Main Building Room 466


Katherine Lebow1
1 University of Oxford, UK


Bronisława Staszel-Polankowa (‘Bronka’) was just 17 when she won the women’s world ski championships in Zakopane, Poland, in 1929. It was not just Bronka’s time – nearly three minutes ahead of the runner-up – that caused a sensation, but her fairy-tale-like story. She was, as headlines put it, a ‘child of the mountains’ born in a peasant hut in the Tatras, a member of Poland’s highlander (górale) minority. She had learned to ski barefoot. Her athleticism seemed to have been shaped by the toughness of the environment, the realities of poverty, and the freedom (many Poles imagined) characterizing life on the high slopes.

Indeed, Polish nationalists celebrated highlander culture as an exotic variant on mainstream ‘Polishness’, but like many highlanders, Bronka would navigate between belonging and otherness throughout her life. In this paper, I propose to explore how Bronka may also have used górale identity as a foil for an equally ambiguous gender identity. In her early career, she notoriously competed in traditional highland dress, sporting  long braids and a skirt. But as a child she had insisted on being treated as a boy and using masculine grammatical endings; on a solo cycle tour of Poland in 1934, she rode a man’s bicycle and wore men’s clothes. Drawing on an unpublished memoir by Bronka from 1937, I ask how we might read queerness through and across its articulations of górale identity.