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8 Mar, 2009 05:53

International Women’s Day: from rallies to flowers

International Women’s Day: from rallies to flowers

Since 1918, March 8 has been an official state holiday in Russia, known as International Women’s Day.

Modern day celebrations take the form of toasting and giving presents to the attention towards the fairer sex, yet few are aware of this holiday’s origins.

It’s more than bunches of tulips and men taking over in the kitchen and it’s definitely not a strange cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day as some describe it.

Tokens of attention and celebrating the very fact of womanhood may well be all that remains, but International Women’s Day originated as a result of feminism. It wasn’t a day for flattering or patronising women. On the contrary, it was dedicated to the woman-revolutionary.

Indeed, when the holiday was first initiated in early Soviet times, the official party newspaper Pravda referred to it as “the day of women workers' Internationale”. It was described as the day of celebrated egalitarianism between men and women and a day to demonstrate female emancipation.

During the Soviet era, the notion of gender equality was deemed ideologically important, giving the country such unusual phenomena as the purely-female profession of… a concrete layer.

The roots of celebrated womanhood

It all began on the March 8, 1857, when female workers in textile, sewing and shoemaking factories assembled on the streets of New York. Their demands were simple: equal pay with men and similar working hours. Their otherwise peaceful walk was accompanied by the deafening banging of empty pots and pans.

Women worked for up to 16 hours a day at the time, compared to the men’s legally-defined 10-hour working day. At the same time, they earned as little as a third or even a quarter of a man’s wage for a day’s work. This progress for male workers was achieved through forming a trade union, which, despite pushing for workers’ rights, did not accept women.

In what became known as the Empty Pot-and-Pan march, the garment workers were protesting against their very poor working conditions and low wages. Despite their peaceful demeanour, the protesters were dispersed. Nevertheless, a women-only trade union was set up two months later and continued to fight for the demands made at the march.

Made official

The Empty Pot-and-Pan march served as an example for the suffragette movement, which gained momentum at the turn of the century. In 1908, following a half-century old example, 15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Two years later, the first international women's conference was held in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.

By the second conference, the idea of an International Women’s Day was established, following the submission of Clara Zetkin, a prominent German Socialist. However, no official date was given. Thus, in its first year of being celebrated, the dates of the International Women’s Day ranged from the 2nd to the 19th of March in various European countries.

The set date did not emerge until 1914, when women across Europe held peace rallies shortly before World War I, on March 8. Although widely commemorated throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the holiday dwindled in Europe thereafter, only to regain strength with the rise of the feminist movement in the 1960s. It did, however, become an immediate success with the newly-emerged socialist states.

International Women’s day in the USSR

Demonstrations marking International Women's Day in Russia proved to be the first stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Following the October Revolution, the Bolshevik feminist Alexandra Kollontai persuaded Lenin to make it an official holiday in the Soviet Union. It was duly established, but was a working day until 1965.

On May 8, 1965, by decree of the USSR Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, International Women's Day was declared a non-working day in the USSR “in commemoration of the outstanding merits of Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defence of their Motherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in rear, and also marking the big contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples and thestruggle for the peace.”

Originating as a political phenomenon, over the decades of its existence, International Women’s day shed its revolutionary aura. Even during Soviet times, it became an occasion for men to congratulate their female co-workers with flowers (often yellow mimosas) as well as the women amongst their loved ones.

Present traditions

Today, International Women’s Day is an official state holiday in 30 countries around the world, ranging from Burkina Faso to Mongolia. Traditions of celebrating vary from country to country.

States which previous belonged to the socialist bloc have retained largely Soviet ways of celebrating the holiday. The tradition of giving women flowers prevails and schoolchildren often bring bouquets for their teachers.

In some parts of the world, however, March 8 is still a symbol of an ongoing struggle for emancipation. For example, International Women's Day came face to face with violence in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on March 4, 2007.

Police beat hundreds of men and women who were planning a rally. Police arrested dozens of women and some were released after several days of solitary confinement and interrogation.

Many women’s groups around the world hold centralised events on the day, popularising issues which women specifically have to deal with: abortion, household abuse, discrimination in the workspace, prostitution and harassment. Many of these events are announced in the media prior to their launch so that women can organise similar actions in their local communities.

Anna Bogdanova, RT