The Surprisingly Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day was once a staple holiday of Eastern European communism, a day when bosses would give red flowers to their female employees. Ostensibly, it was a day to celebrate the achievements of women workers. But in practice, it was a propaganda exercise to highlight socialism’s alleged commitment to equality between the sexes. The ...

By , a reporter based in New York.
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images
VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

International Women's Day was once a staple holiday of Eastern European communism, a day when bosses would give red flowers to their female employees. Ostensibly, it was a day to celebrate the achievements of women workers. But in practice, it was a propaganda exercise to highlight socialism's alleged commitment to equality between the sexes.

The holiday has deep roots in the heyday of international socialism. The Women's Day movement started in the early 20th century, with American labor activists celebrating the first National Women's Day in 1909, which was mandated by the Socialist Party of America. The first International Women's Day was celebrated two years later and focused on female voting rights, labor rights, and fighting discrimination. In Russia, the holiday played a crucial role in launching the 1917 October revolution. A women's protest for equal rights on International Women's Day sparked massive workers' protests that would eventually led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II during the February revolution -- the first of two upheavals of 1917. 

Today, in Russia and other former members of the Soviet bloc, the holiday has veered far from its radical roots. It is a concoction of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day -- schmaltzy, tacky, and commercial all at once. Women are celebrated for being mothers, wives, and girlfriends -- all roles associated with the men in their lives. Then again, that perhaps isn't so surprising. Some 72 percent of Russians believe that when choosing between a career and a family a woman "should give her preference to the home and family, and work should be placed on the back burner," according to a poll released Friday.  

International Women’s Day was once a staple holiday of Eastern European communism, a day when bosses would give red flowers to their female employees. Ostensibly, it was a day to celebrate the achievements of women workers. But in practice, it was a propaganda exercise to highlight socialism’s alleged commitment to equality between the sexes.

The holiday has deep roots in the heyday of international socialism. The Women’s Day movement started in the early 20th century, with American labor activists celebrating the first National Women’s Day in 1909, which was mandated by the Socialist Party of America. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated two years later and focused on female voting rights, labor rights, and fighting discrimination. In Russia, the holiday played a crucial role in launching the 1917 October revolution. A women’s protest for equal rights on International Women’s Day sparked massive workers’ protests that would eventually led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II during the February revolution — the first of two upheavals of 1917. 

Today, in Russia and other former members of the Soviet bloc, the holiday has veered far from its radical roots. It is a concoction of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day — schmaltzy, tacky, and commercial all at once. Women are celebrated for being mothers, wives, and girlfriends — all roles associated with the men in their lives. Then again, that perhaps isn’t so surprising. Some 72 percent of Russians believe that when choosing between a career and a family a woman "should give her preference to the home and family, and work should be placed on the back burner," according to a poll released Friday.  

In Central and Eastern Europe, Women’s Day (the "International" is usually dropped from the name) is when men give their sweethearts flowers, gifts, and take them out to dinner. Spas and boutiques offer deals exclusively to women. Newspapers and magazines offer suggestions to boyfriends, suitors, and husbands to embrace Women’s Day activities that would make any self-respecting feminist cringe. 

One Polish newspaper generously warns its (male) readers against buying a "really cool apron" or a pot. "It’s a recipe for disaster," the paper declares. But the course of action it endorses isn’t exactly feminist either: "You can show that you trust your partner and take part in a car race together (a real conundrum: should she be the driver or the navigator), you can take her shopping (and not send her alone)." Another sage nugget: "Carnations and coffee just won’t cut it."

The carnation, in particular, has garnered a bad rap in the former Soviet bloc. During the Communist era in Poland, women would receive them from their employer, making the flower now an unpleasant reminder of the former communist regime. Generous workplaces would throw in some coffee beans or pantyhose,  treasured and hard-to-obtain products behind the Iron Curtain.

But feminists in the region aren’t happy about the commercialization of the holiday either. Feminists all around Poland organize annual marches for March 8, with a different theme every year — from political and reproductive rights to early childhood education. For 2014, it is  "Equality in School, at Home, and at Work." In the run-up to last year’s Women’s Day, Natalya Bitten, a Russian feminist told the Washington Post: "I don’t want candy and flowers…. I want a good job and education. Where do flowers and perfume once a year get you if you have nothing the next 364 days?"

Hanna Kozlowska is a reporter based in New York. Twitter: @hannakozlowska

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