March 8 - International Women’s Day

San Francisco, February 23, 2017

When I grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s in socialist East Germany, March 8 was one of the very special days of the year.

In elementary school, we would get out our arts and crafts supplies in anticipation of the big day and make cards for the women in our lives: mothers, grandmothers, teachers and various working class collectives’ women that we knew.

Flowers were important. Ideal would have been red roses or red carnations, but to find those, in early March, in Winter, in East Germany? Good luck!

So we did what industrious women do best — we improvised.

I remember visiting the local nursery and picking up whatever potted perennials they had to offer, most often one type called “Alpenveilchen”.

Cyclamen persicum, in German: Alpenveilchen

With our hand-crafted greeting cards and potted plants in hand, we went and visited the working women at the local beauty salon, at the farmer’s collective and school administration. We lined up in front of them, sang them a song and then handed over our cards and plants and wished them all the best for International Women’s Day.

March 8 was the day when women’s achievements at work, at home and across society in general were acknowledged and celebrated — no matter if you agreed or disagreed with socialism and its daily realities. (I, in my youth, disagreed with how socialism was practiced in many regards, which I will discuss in a future post.)

It was bigger than Mother’s Day. There really weren’t any “stay-at-home-mothers” as was custom in West Germany. Pretty much all women were in the work force, which was both economically necessary and made possible by government subsidized child care.

Back then, there was no Wikipedia, so we didn’t know that Women’s Day actually began in February of 1909 in New York City, organized in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garments Workers Union. After the 1917 October Revolution it became a holiday in Russia and has since been celebrated in many Eastern European countries.

Until I moved to West Germany to attend university in 1991, and met West-Germans and their families, it never occurred to me that women would stay at home. Why would they do that? Why would they make themselves dependent on someone else? What would they do at home all day?

After I finished graduate studies in Economics in Germany in 1997, I immigrated to the United States, started working immediately and in 1999 became a mother myself. The company I worked for, AOL Inc., gave me 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, which was considered extremely progressive for US standards at the time. After that, I had to face what all US parents face: the frantic calculation of child care expenses versus double income (if a woman finds herself so lucky; the case of single parenting warrants an entirely separate future post!), which has become economically necessary to make ends meet. Since women are still paid less than men, and women still tend to be assumed to be the better suited primary care taker, it is often the woman’s salary and career that gets weighed against the child care expenses.

While the brand of socialism practiced in East Germany, in retrospect, seems far from perfect in many ways (details to be discussed in a future post!), the way how capitalism is practiced in America today seems entirely backwards to me, especially for women. Rich, white men control the government, politics and spending that ultimately determine the conditions of everyday life for families and communities that result in lack of equal pay, lack of universal health care, lack of quality- and affordable child care and lack of affordable housing. While I was glad to see so many women march all over the country at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017 — I still wonder why it took us so long and why it took for Trump to be elected president? Why are we, as women in America, ok with having had none of the things I listed above, while 4.79 Trillion USD are spent in wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and for Homeland Security between 2001 and 2017?

I am looking back in time, to see what can be learned from general and personal history. I have lived in three types of societies and have arrived at some surprising observations. I didn’t foresee or expect any of them to happen. A growing number of women find hope in the movement around Bernie Sanders, especially the progressive ideas put forth by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It turns out, just because socialism as practiced in East Germany/Eastern Europe had some major flaws, it doesn’t mean that it‘s economic theory and basic values are irrelevant in America today. Quite the opposite. Instead of isolating ourselves and sucking up the daily burden of trying to make it in a system that is structurally designed against our interests, the interests of our children, families and communities, it is timely and relevant to revisit the structures and question them. To remember International Women’s Day on March 8 is a good first step to stand together in solidarity and to begin to organize for progress.

For me personally, March 8 was not only International Women’s Day, but also my great-grandmother Ella’s birthday. She was born on March 8, 1909 and lived through two world wars and saw the Berlin Wall go up and be torn down again. Throughout those turbulent years, she always worked, raised 4 daughters, survived her husband by 30 years and cared deeply for her family, neighbors and the people around her. I grew up in her house, under her roof, watching her closely. The general excitement of the day when friends and family came to congratulate her, always made a lot of sense to me, because she was the most industrious and resilient woman I have known.

Ella Keiger, née Wolf

So in honor of Ella and all the amazing women who work/love/care/provide/organize/fight for themselves, their families and others every day, I ask you to join me and take a step back and consider your current stance.

Check out what the DSA says on Feminism here or start with a small gesture and show your appreciation and solidarity and pick up a red rose to give in appreciation to a friend, mother or co-worker for International Women’s Day, this year and from then on every year, on March 8th!

In solidarity,

Dani Keil (born again socialist).