Forget the schmalzy romance of Valentine’s Day or the faux-sentimentality of Mother’s Day. This March 8, celebrate International Women’s Day, or Frauentag: give a flower to your mum, lover, wife or teacher!
It turns out it was the communists who really knew how to celebrate women: in the former Eastern Bloc, the holiday was effusively celebrated with flowers, chocolates and cards – a kind of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s combined in one. Some Western leftists will remember its working class origin.
As the legend goes, International Women’s Day on March 8 goes all the way back to 1857, when female textile workers in New York went on strike against low wages. Police attacked the demonstrators and a number of women died. This strike was commemorated as a day for women’s rights. But this is merely a myth invented in the 1950s to hide the real, red origins of the day.
The tradition actually goes back to 1910, when the International Socialist Conference in Copenhagen called for a day of struggle to win voting rights and equal working conditions for women – but without setting a date. The first Women’s Day was celebrated on March 19, 1911, with more than a million people demonstrating in Germany and other European countries.
One of the initiators, the German socialist Clara Zetkin, wrote in the women’s proletarian magazine Die Gleichheit that the day “was not just for political equality, but beyond that the expression of a rebellion against capitalism (…) and all the reactionary measures of the bosses and their willing servants, the government.”
A few years later, the Russian Revolution of 1917 began with a textile workers’ strike on March 8, 1917. A communist women’s conference, meeting four years later in Moscow, decided on this date for Women’s Day.
Today, Women’s Day is a state holiday in more than two dozen countries (most of them with some kind of socialist past). In the GDR it was a big festival but not always political. Women got flowers and chocolates (when they were available) as well as small gifts. Marlies Thiede recalls her experiences on a collective farm: “On March 8, women got off work at noon so they could go to the hairdresser” before a celebration.
Now, a woman from the former East is Chancellor of Germany – and is opposed to establishing a quota for women in business. But the 100th anniversary of Women’s Day reminds us that the struggle for women’s rights continues. And more to the point, that women still love chocolate.