Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. It’s a day which, since its conception, has been wrought by ideology, affecting profoundly its form and consequence, existing today in all its incarnations as little more than a ceremonial holiday.
Is the problem with I(W)WD’s ideological framing related to the existence of the day itself? How far is feminist momentum possible when it is to be played out within a single day? The incessant calls for International Men’s Day (and its sorry existence), used both as a joke at the expense of I(W)WD, and a grievance at attempts to correct inequality, highlight the pitfalls of a ceremonial holiday dedicated to women, representing a widespread unwillingness to engage with global and local feminist issues at other times. The way in which I(W)WD is framed in 2016 clearly varies drastically from its conception. Is a return to its socialist roots needed to redeem it?
The first International Women’s Day was proposed as International Working Women’s Day by Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin in 1910 as a means to promote women’s social, political and (crucially), economic equality. Following the Revolution in 1917, I(W)WD became a national holiday in Russia, and it continues to be celebrated in Russian and many former socialist states to this day. 1
In Russia, having endured fluctuations in Soviet gender ideology, I(W)WD was increasingly exploited to highlight the state’s achievements in emancipating women, transforming it from a day of rebellion to the vague (though intense) apolitical celebration of women existing today. In its current form, I(W)WD has deviated from its socialist origins, dropped a ‘W’, and now lies somewhere between mother’s day, and a kind of Valentine’s Day aimed solely at ‘celebrating women’.
The tone today varies from well-intentioned-but-creepy to patronising, with billboards announcing greetings such as ‘С прадзником 8 марта, милые девушки!’ (Happy March 8, sweet girls!), and shops adorned with pink kitchenware to gift to female friends and relatives. Flowers are available from every outlet to give to friends, relatives and even colleagues. Young boys fill every bench of Moscow’s metro, waiting for their Women’s Day dates.
But it would be unfair to deride the Russian Women’s Day too much. Diverging in the opposite direction from its socialist roots, IWD – always without the (W) – was first observed in the West and ‘globally’ after 1977 as part of a UN resolution which proclaimed a UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace, to be observed – usually on March 8 – by Member States. 2
In this incarnation, I(W)WD is also largely a ceremonial occasion, claiming to celebrate ‘the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women’, and marking ‘a call to action for accelerating gender parity’. This year’s ‘theme’ is #PledgeforParity, and its partners include large corporations such as BP and EY, reinforcing the necessity of the removal of ‘Working’ from the day’s title. 3
These fairly significant deviations in both contexts highlight the particular problems of framing International Women’s Day in a global context still affected by Cold War bipolarity. In former socialist states, the inherent contradictions of policies rooted in class-based ideology, paying little attention to gender, allow gender essentialism to flourish. 4
Evidently, though, these flaws are not unique to I(W)WD in former socialist states. As a platform for endorsing gender equality in a late capitalist global economy, IWD is a ‘sexual decoy’: a ceremonial fanfare to the advancement of women within neoliberal societies and economies. Hashtags, races and EY’s Pledge for Parity campaign all severely undermine the drive to eradicate sexual and gendered inequality. 5 The roots and resolve of I(W)WD to eradicate social, political and economic gender inequality are clouded by the global political and economic context in which it exists.
Executed within the infrastructures of Western ruling elites, mobilisation around ‘global’ gender issues constitutes a new form of empire building – the drive to civilise acting as a distraction from the inadequacies of the performance of gender equality in the West. Initiatives originating outside Western Europe remain largely unacknowledged. Instead, women residing outside the region are ‘rescued’ from local patriarchal tyrannies by large-scale corporate initiatives.
As such, IWD in the West is, though arguably well intentioned, disrupted by forces of corporate globalisation. By focusing solely on turning women in countries of conflict into ‘entrepreneurs’, many of the root causes of inequality are brushed under the mat, as are the parallel, intersectional social and economic issues relating to inequality worldwide.
These problems of neoliberalism aren’t necessarily resolved by an intrinsic reverence to International (Working) Women’s Day’s socialist roots. The picture of woman as mother, the shoulder upholding man, which evolves from a strict adherence to class solidarity alone, is equally as unhelpful. But, a move away from the competitive race for goods which has typically been at the helm of the day in the last 40 years, is crucial.
On the other side of the same coin however, by revering the historical and political roots of I(W)WD, are we expecting too much from a single day? Many of the activities carried out under the umbrella of I(W)WD are substantial and incredibly important. These include, but aren’t limited to, raising the profile of campaigns against FGM, and a wide variety of local grassroots initiatives worldwide: from the ‘mapping’ of women’s voices by Art with Heart and Girl Gang Manchester, to the work of Sauti Ya Wanawake (Voice of Women), in Kenya, and political rallies in Morocco, Madrid, Tsibili, Tunis and Warsaw addressing issues of inequality in women’s lived experiences globally.
But in order to frame I(W)WD in a way that emphasises these triumphs and supports these initiatives, we need to somehow locate it within this ideological bipolarity. Perhaps rather than ‘fitting’ ordinary women into pre-existing narratives that endorse essentialism, or sponsoring events with the finances of large corporations, for I(W)WD to have any resonance its activities must instead focus on addressing these issues, divorcing its activities from the institutions that perpetuate its lack of success, and generating momentum year-round, providing an annual rallying point.
Hannah Parker is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focusses on the reception of gender ideology by women in early Soviet Russia. You can find Hannah on twitter @.
Header image: Frauentag (Women’s Day) poster from Germany, 1928 [Wikicommons].
In-text image 1: Graffiti reading ‘Shut up bitch, your day is March 8, [Wikicommons].
In-text image 2: International Women’s Day, Moscow 2015, courtesy of Hannah Parker.
- In February 1917 (according to the pre-revolutionary Julian calendar), International Working Women’s Day demonstrations in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) triggered the wave of strikes which led to the February Revolution, hence, its significance in the socialist East. ↩
- International Women’s Day website. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Having endured the Soviet glorification of motherhood in the 1930s, I(W)WD in Russia became a mouthpiece for the gender solutions of a masculine state, which muted the voices of women, and exploited the day ‘as hyperbole to women’s advances’, resulting in the strange, institutionalised ceremony we see in Russia today. See ‘The Capitalist Hijacking of International Women’s Day: Russian and American Considerations’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 14:3, (July, 2013), p.247. ↩
- Ibid. ↩