Women’s Day – from political propaganda to the promotion of women’s rights

I was once told that this Day played an important role in the choice of my name. When I was born, my mother still did not know how to call me and at that time, fathers were not allowed into the maternity swing in hospitals. While still in bed, she saw a poster hanging over the wall which celebrated Women’s Day with the sentence: “Flowers for Eve”. She then decided that if the name was good enough for the first woman (at least according to the Bible), it should also work for her first-born.

This story happened in 1980’s communist Poland and illustrates quite well how the International Women’s Day reached to blend in with the cultures of many countries. A larger analysis of its international history is also a curious, yet fascinating tale of how 8th March has well served the purposes of both political propaganda and women’s rights promotion across the world.

It was celebrated for the first time in New York in 1909, but did only undergo institutionalization by communist Russia in the aftermath of the fateful 1917. The new Soviet authorities were seeking a solution to use women as a symbol of the new political and cultural system. Finally, they decided women’s participation in the February Revolution would help them create a new national myth. On the last Sunday of February (8 March on the Gregorian calendar) women of St. Petersburg went to the streets, demanding bread to feed their families and protesting against the WW I. Those riots led to the abdication of Tsar Nicolai II. Glorification of their protests allowed thus to create a narrative in which Russian women not only have massively participated in political processes (avant-garde in the beginning of the 20th century), but also were important actors in the international peace-building process.

The holiday grew in importance during the Stalinist era when it was used to promote the image of the new Russian woman: ahead of her time, but also very devoted to “Batiushka Stalin” (Father Stalin) and his project of strong Russia reconstructed after the WW II. Despite its modern and independent aspect, the values contained in this message were strongly patriarchal: women could access the men’s world (study and work), but there still existed a hierarchy dominated by men (and personified by Stalin). The respect of this order was depicted as a patriotic duty of every woman concerned about the country’s rebuilding.

Until the 1970’s Women’s Day was mainly celebrated in communist countries where it reached the status of a national holiday and non-working day. The holiday became global in 1975 being declared by the UN “Women’s Year”. Since then, the UN has been using the 8th of March as a key communication tool to create momentum and speak about gender issues in the world.  1975 Women’s Year emblem, a dove intersected by a symbol of equality, became the logo of UN Women, the UN organ entrusted with gender equality promotion.

The internationalization of the Day as well as the fall of the communist block depoliticized the nature of the event. This change of political paradigm modified the message of the event as well: it is no longer about telling stories of women’s empowerment and nationalistic grandeur, but rather about presenting the actual condition of the gender gap.  This new strategy showing that there is still a long road to go in the domain of gender equality, is in my opinion a positive change for women.  In order to advance, we should name problems and face them, instead of creating cultural myths.

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