International Women’s Day – then and now

Last Updated December 14, 2020

In ancient Rome, people celebrated Matronalia to worship married women and mothers. This custom did not, however, spread outside the empire, and the Women’s Day was not celebrated until the early twentieth century. The situation changed in 1909, when the Socialist Party of America held in New York the first celebration of the International Women’s Day.

The New York march in 1909 was to commemorate the events of the previous year, when 20,000 seamstresses and dressmakers marched along the streets of the city, demanding workers’ rights and the right to vote. According to some sources, the owner of one of the factories – trying to prevent his workers from taking part in the march – locked them in the factory where a fire broke out, killing 126 women. The authenticity of the event is questioned, as historians believe that two events: the march of 1908 and the fire of 1911, were mixed up. There is no doubt, however, that the working conditions for women (sometimes even girls) were horrendous and this was the main reason why they held their protest.

The Women’s Day is often considered, not without a reason, as a socialist holiday. Although the first celebration took place in the United States, and these were European countries, such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands that introduced the Women’s Day into their calendars on a permanent basis, the celebration was popularized largely by the socialist governments of Soviet republics.

The time when the International Women’s Day was officially recognized as a global celebration was not accidental either. The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of increased activeness of suffragettes who were calling for the establishment and enforcement of workers’ and political rights for women. It can be therefore concluded that the Women’s Day was to some extent a celebration of a political nature, and certainly – ideological.

Nowadays, the International Women’s Day is an official holiday in many countries around the world, e.g. in Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, Poland, Russia and Vietnam. Interestingly, after the collapse of the USSR, Armenia banned the celebration of this holiday and replaced it with the Day of Beauty and Motherhood. In some countries, the Women’s Day is indeed celebrated along with the Mother’s Day.

At the time of the People’s Republic of Poland, women were given carnations and tights. Some men still practice this tradition out of sentiment and hand their wives, mothers and girlfriends carnations (as in Vietnam). In Italy, men usually buy on this occasion yellow mimosas, while in Russia and Albania, men choose silver acacias. German women are given roses. Portuguese and Romanian women meet on 8 March to have dinner “only for ladies”, whereas Chinese women are given a half-day off from work and can take advantage of numerous discounts in stores. In Iran, those who celebrate this holiday are unfortunately severely punished.

Although the Women’s Day is now associated with rather small gifts and kind gestures, a lot of people use this occasion to remind about gender equality and promote women’s rights. The United Nations chooses every year a theme for the eighth of March. So far, the United Nations have reminded about the diversified situation of women worldwide. The themes have included forcing women to fight in armed conflicts and the threats related to diseases: AIDS and breast cancer, striving for equal access to education for boys and girls, as well as efforts to prevent violence against women. This year’s theme is gender equality both in the private sphere and the public one.

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