International Women’s Day: history, myths and traditions

March 8, 2016 10:44 am

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March 8th is, since 1921, the day to remember the social, political and economic struggles of women all around the world. Where does this celebration come from, and why is it celebrated on this day?

The first Women’s Day was celebrated on February 28, 1909, in New York. It was a celebration in memory of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, one of the largest labor unions in the United States at that time, organized by the Socialist Party of America.

The following year, on the occasion of the “International Women’s Conference” organized to precede the Socialist Second International, the establishment of an annual ‘International Woman’s Day’ was proposed and 100 women from 17 countries agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights, including suffrage, for women; even if no date was specified at that conference.

On March 19, 1911, the first International Woman’s Day was celebrated by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, attending the rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination; while in America people continued to celebrate National Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February. In 1913 the International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia also, on the last Saturday in February.

The agreement on a common date to be observed worldwide to celebrate this recurrence dates back to 1921. What is the reason for this choice?

The most common legend about the Women’s Day, broadly spread even nowadays by the media, involves an imaginary fire which broke out on March 8, 1857 in a New York shirts factory called “Cotton” (or “Cottons”, in other versions) where many female workers lost their lives. The legend states that those women had been locked inside the factory to prevent them from taking part in a strike, and that when the fire started they had no way to escape, perishing between the flames. Near that factory many mimosa trees used to grow, and that’s why this is the official flower for this day. Even if this story is very moving, and tragic, there are no records of this incident: the origin of this legend could come from another disaster which happened in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911. In fact, 146 women – mostly young immigrants – used to work in that factory when a fire began. Many of those people were unable to run away because doors had been locked to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks, so they perished in the flames or jumping out of the windows trying to escape. This incident had a huge effect on the community, and more than 100,000 people participated in the funeral march for the victims.

Other versions about the origins of the celebration of March 8 cite the violent police repression of a supposed trade union demonstration of textile workers that took place in New York on March 8, 1857, while others refer to strikes or accidents that occurred in Chicago, Boston or New York.

The real event behind the choice of this day is the large demonstration which was held in St. Petersburg on March 8, 1917. This protest, led mostly by the women of the capital, demanded the end of the war. The weak reaction of the Cossacks, sent to suppress the demonstration, subsequently encouraged protests that led to the collapse of tsarism; at that time discredited and after those events even without the armed forces’ support. For this reason on June 14, 1921 the Second International Conference of Communist women declared the 8th of March the “international day of the female workers”.

Speculating about the origins of these legends, it has been suggested by Liliane Kandel and Françoise Picq, leading figures of the French feminism, that in recent times some could felt it was opportune to ascribe the International Women’s Day to a more “international” origin, less related to Bolshevism and more spontaneous. This makes sense also from an historical perspective, because of the Cold War that would make unacceptable the celebration, in the West, of a day of such a political content.

With the UN Resolution 32/142 of December 16, 1977, the “United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace” was proclaimed. March 8, which had already been celebrated in different countries, became the official date for this celebration in many nations. It is nowadays an official holiday in more than 25 nations, but is widely observed nonetheless in many other countries.

Almost around the whole world the tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc. with small gifts and flowers. In some countries, as Bulgaria and Romania, this day has the same status as Mother’s Day, where children give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers. Some men like to celebrate undertaking all household duties on this day so that women can enjoy a full day of rest. In Italy, Albania, Russia and Georgia, silver wattle flowers, known as “mimosa”, are frequently given to women on International Women’s Day; while in France violets and lily-of-the-valley are usually gifted on this day. In Poland, women receive special attention usually by getting carnation flowers and pairs of stockings, while in Colombia women organize “polladas”: food sales to raise funds in support of activities organized by them.

Annually on this day thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate their achievements. Rich and diverse local activity connects women from all around the world, ranging from political rallies, government activities, business conferences, networking events, theatrical performances, fashion parades, local women’s craft markets, and more. In the US, the whole month of March is designated as ‘Women’s History Month’, while in Cameroon the festivities last for a week.

An interesting initiative is “Join Me On The Bridge”, organized by “Women for Women International”. Women of different ethnic communities join appointments on bridges around the world to show support for the cause of women and to provide an image of multiculturality and solidarity.

Since 1996 the United Nations provides an official theme for the International Women’s Day. The theme for 2016 is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”. For this year the UN also provided official hashtags to join the conversation about those themes: #IWD2016#DíadelaMujer, #Journéedelafemme and #Planet5050. They also provide an official set of profile and cover pictures that you could use on your social media profiles that can be downloaded from the following link (available in English, Spanish and French):

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/fjfycqmmrxzoazk/AACDFmMVogi2PFqBosBbCq7Qa?dl=0

 

Written by Maurizio Fusillo
Communication Trainee at TermCoord

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