The celebration of Women’s History Month in the United States is relatively common knowledge on campus. Throughout March, campus organizations such as the Women*s Center spotlight the struggles and triumphs accompanying women’s momentous fight for equity. As Women’s History Month draws near, we must remember that the celebration of women in March extends beyond U.S. borders. This March 8, we must celebrate women globally on International Women’s Day.
International Women’s Day occurs on March 8 and is an internationally-observed holiday officially recognized by the United Nations. According to the United Nations, March 8 “is a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.” International Women’s Day is truly a global holiday: it is celebrated from Armenia to Zambia. It is not, however, widely observed in the United States.
Ironically, the first incarnation of what became International Women’s Day was America’s first National Woman’s Day celebration, which took place on Feb. 28, 1909, in New York City. Members of the Socialist Party of America organized the event. Inspired by the celebration, German feminist and socialist Clara Zetkin presented the idea of making the holiday international. Her idea proved popular, and in 1910, the International Conference of Working Women decided to recognize the day. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day celebration was held in Paris.
Although the holiday has roots in the United States and western Europe, it was in Russia that International Women’s Day made history. On Feb. 23, 1917, tens of thousands of Russian women demonstrated against the tsar in conjunction with International Women’s Day. This women-led protest marked the beginning of Russia’s February Revolution, which resulted in the tsar’s abdication. Thus, there is a claim to be made that women observing International Women’s Day “sparked the Russian Revolution.” In honor of this Russian protest, International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 — since Feb. 23 on Russia’s pre-revolutionary Julian calendar is March 8 on the Gregorian calendar.
To better understand the ongoing significance of International Women’s Day in Russia, I spoke with the Princeton Slavic Languages and Literatures Department’s Svetlana Viktorovna Korshunova. According to Korshunova, International Women’s Day was a highly ideologized holiday during Soviet time, on which women were celebrated. Every March 8, Soviet women — from kindergartners to grandmothers — were given mimosa flowers, which were the only flowers widely available in early March. On that day, she explained, women were elevated. Even now, March 8 in Russia is associated with flowers, and it is also a national holiday, allowing a day off from school and work. Korshunova further mentioned that in contemporary Russia, March 8 has developed into less of a revolutionary holiday and more of a celebration of stereotypical femininity — an assertion of patriarchal gender norms.
Thus, contemporary International Women’s Day has undeniably socialist origins: Lenin declared Woman’s Day an official holiday in 1917, and communists in other countries eventually followed suit. Unfortunately, the holiday’s socialist origins hindered its acceptance by the international community. The United Nations, for example, did not begin celebrating International Women’s Day until 1975 and did not officially recognize it until 1977. The holiday is still widely ignored in the United States due to the Cold War-era rejection of the celebration.
As a Russian-American, International Women’s Day has always had a special place in my heart. Every March 8 in high school, I brought a bouquet to school and gave each of the women I knew a flower. They always seemed surprised that the reason for the small gift was International Women’s Day. I would also gather with my local Russian community and toast “to women!” I never understood why the incredibly global holiday was trivialized in the United States. Many Princetonians who are international students or who have family abroad have felt similarly. It was not until I researched International Women’s Day more thoroughly that I realized that its socialist roots prevented it from becoming widely celebrated in the United States, even following the United Nations’ recognition of the holiday.
Although social media is bringing awareness to International Women’s Day in the United States, the holiday is still tragically under-recognized. By failing to embrace the holiday, the United States is inadvertently excluding itself from a vital celebration of international feminism. Many of the rights American women enjoy today were only extended to women in the United States because of the work of feminists globally.
As Princetonians, it is our responsibility to know why International Women’s Day and the ongoing fight for women’s rights across the globe is important. Despite the fact that International Women’s Day has been commercialized and is far from perfect, it has incredibly poignant origins and global relevance and must not be ignored. This March 8, celebrate women — their struggles and triumphs, their journeys, and their stories — worldwide.
Genrietta Churbanova is a first-year from Little Rock, Ark. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.