8th March, for most in the world, marks an average day. International Women’s Day (IWD) is often acknowledged but not truly celebrated. It’s mentioned on the news or acknowledged by a local women’s non-governmental organizations, but it could easily be missed if you’re not looking for it.
In Ukraine, as well as many other countries of the former USSR, International Women’s Day is widely celebrated. From little girls to older ladies, each and every woman is given flowers and cards to celebrate.
But in the months leading up to the 2017 celebration of IWD, public opinion and debate have shifted. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory published a bill which proposed the removal of International Workers’ Day (May 1-2) as well as International Women’s Day (March 8) from the list of official state holidays. To understand why anyone would propose the removal of IDW, you must first understand the history.
The holiday first appeared in the United States and was organized by the Socialist Party of America to commemorate the strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers. On 22 November 1909, garments workers gathered to discusses their dangerous working conditions, unequal wages to men, and unreasonable working hours. The strike lasted until February 1910. The women, led by Clara Zeitkin, were able to negotiate better wages, shorter working hours, and equal treatment.
In August 1910, the general meeting of the Socialist Second International was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. The event was preceded by an International Women’s Conference. It was here that German Socialist Luise Zietz proposed the establishment of an annual International Women’s Day. For the next few years, women all over the world used the day to march and propose equal rights – including suffrage.
The first IWD was observed by Russian women in 1913, but it wasn’t until after the October Revolution that the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai and Vladimir Lenin made it an official holiday. It remained a working day within the Soviet Union until 1965 and became predominately celebrated within communist and socialist countries following the USSR’s adoption. China celebrated it in 1922, then after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the state proclaimed 8 of March to be an official holiday with women in China being given a half-day off.
It’s these ties to communism as well as socialism that leave many in Ukraine questioning, why is IWD still celebrated? The drafted law reads, “These international days were declared holidays in Ukraine during the first years of the Bolshevik regime, and they were introduced to support the then-current social and political movements.”
Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Insitute of National Memory, also alludes to the idea that the modern interpretation of IWD does not celebrate women but further pushes them into imposed gender roles. He stated, “As a historian, I think that it was the holiday format that deprived this day of its human rights meaning and turned it into a holiday of cakes and flowers.”
But this decision has also been met with backlash. “In this case with Viatrovych, we again have a situation in which a man makes a decision regarding the day of women’s fighting for their rights,” says Iryna Zemlyana, a project manager at the Institute for Mass Information.
Since the bill’s drafting, a group of female activists has sent an open letter to Volodymyr Viatrovych. They point out that the origins of the holiday – the meeting of over 100 in Copenhagen in 1910 – should be celebrated.
The letter says: “March 8 is not just Women’s Day, but the Day of Women’s Rights, when every woman – regardless of her age, family status, nationality, religion, residence, health, income or profession – has the opportunity to remind people out-loud that she is an equal person with full rights.”
The question remains: does International Women’s Day hold value if the meaning has shifted from celebrating universal suffrage of women and the empowerment of women’s rights in the workplace to ‘girly’ trinkets and traits? Can a nation, such as Ukraine, which has implemented numerous de-communisation programs in the past years, overlook International Women’s Day’s ties to the USSR’s history?
It’s these questions and more that will continue to drive debate for years to come as Ukraine continues to try and redefine its national identity.
Cover photo credit: Ian Schneider