International Women’s Day is now recognised by the UN and celebrated in countries across the globe. But where did this distinctly twentieth century holiday come from? And what do modern celebrations of it say about the fight for gender equality and recognition in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia? Managing Editor Claudia Griffiths and Online Editor Hugh Ollard chart the history and prospects of the day.
International Women’s Day is now an accepted date in the international calendar. However, its history and how it is marked today is not without conflict. The ultimate origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) may well come down to how you feel about the wave of socialism that overtook the industrialised world at the start of the twentieth century.
In broad strokes, the day developed from protests in the USA before being taken up in socialist circles across Europe. The International Women’s Day website describes ‘great unrest and critical debate was occurring amongst women’ in New York City in 1908. This culminated in a march, calling for better pay and working conditions. To grow visibility of this movement, in 1909, a Women’s Day was celebrated on 28th February. In 1911, women’s rights groups in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland recognised 19th March as International Women’s Day, a date which remained in a limited number of progressives’ calendars until 1913 when the date was moved to 8th March.
The event continued to grow with Russian women observing the day in 1913 – though of course on 23rd February due to the Gregorian calendar – and British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested on her way to the event in London in 1914. However, the event that entrenched the socialist and eastern European roots of the day was the 1917 Women’s Strike in Moscow. Protesting the war and the lack of food, this strike, starting with a march on 23rd February, culminated in Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication.
Alexandra Kollontai, the founder of Zhenotdel or “Women’s Department” in the Bolshevik government, convinced Lenin to commemorate this day as a national holiday. The linkage of the date to such outwardly revolutionary and socialist history limited the day’s spread in the West. It was only recognised by the UN in 1975, and only grew in stature following the creation of the official internationalwomensday.com domain in 2001. In 1994, Maxine Waters, a Democrat in the US House of Representatives, put forward a bill to make IWD a holiday in the USA but it never passed committee.
IWD’s centenary was marked in 2011 with Barack Obama hailing a Women’s History Month in the USA. The choice of year encapsulates the debate over IWD’s origins, choosing to commemorate the first IWD of 19th March 1911, on the date set by the USSR. The day’s history is by no means straightforward.
Against the backdrop of this 100-year history, steps taken towards gender parity are still painstakingly forged. 2020 alone saw outrage sparked by a near-total abortion ban in Poland and arrests of IWD marchers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The IWD website claims that we will face yet another century fighting for equality, since ‘none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children’.
That being said, IWD is now celebrated in a plethora of eastern European countries, and that it is on the agenda, can undoubtedly be seen as a positive. Countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan all recognise the holiday in one way or another. It could be argued that some celebrations, however, lose sight of the day’s progressive history.
As a British student in Russia, I was at first surprised at how widespread the celebrations were for the day which unlike in the UK, was designated a public holiday. The celebrations were undoubtedly cheerful, with women gifted flowers, free meals at restaurants and the day off work, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some ways these festivities were reinforcing the gender norms that IWD aims to dismantle. Some have gone as far as branding it ‘a concoction of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day – schmaltzy, tacky, and commercial all at once’. There is no doubt that the celebrations in Russia seek to glorify women, but as one author puts it, ‘the irony is they go home and cook – not the most progressive reward’.
In recent years, IWD has been seen as an opportunity for Polish activists to tackle this disparity head-on. It is a country where the theme of women’s rights recently made international headlines with its introduction of a near-total abortion ban. Under the name Manifa, Polish women’s activists have taken to the streets on 8th March to confront ‘issues that are too toxic for political parties to touch: abortion, unpaid labour, and the rights of disabled people and sex workers.’ In 2017, they campaigned under the slogan ‘we are the revolution. No more being nice to violent guys’.
According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Eastern Europe and Central Asia falls behind the rest of Europe in the sphere of gender equality and will require another 107 years to close its gender gap. That is not to say that there have not been advances – as of 2020, the region has already closed 71.3% of their gap and Albania was listed as one of the top 5 most improved countries in the world for reducing gender disparity in health, education, economy, and politics. But if we have learnt anything from the recent events in Poland or indeed the shocking figures relating to domestic violence against women and girls during the pandemic, it is that we still have a long way to go, and it is not the time to be complacent. So this year, the IWD campaign asks us to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality by ‘choosing to challenge’, for ‘a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.’
By Claudia Griffiths (Masters Student in Russian and East European Literature and Culture) and Hugh Ollard (Masters Student in Russian Studies) at UCL SSEES.
Are you interested in finding out more about the history of IWD in Eastern Europe or in participating in events to celebrate the day? We encourage you to attend the Ukrainian Institute London’s Event: “30 Years of Women’s Activism in Ukraine”.