The Secret History of International Women’s Day

Did you know it was a Soviet “red calendar day”? Or that what sustained it through the years was not radicalism but traditionalism?

After seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly embarked on a program of societal transformation. An integral part of their cathartic agenda was a replacement of traditional pagan and Christian holidays like Christmas or Maslenitsa with newly created socialist rites. Arguably the most successful of the newly introduced “red calendar days”, the one that the country celebrated in earnest, was International Women’s Day, colloquially known by its temporal marking as the Day of March the 8th. Not so coincidentally, March 8 was the most subversive of all socialist holidays, and by “subversive” I don’t mean “commie pinko”.

The origins of International Women’s Day are shrouded in mystery. It first popped up in New York City in 1909 when women workers may or may not have held a strike on that date. In the coming years, lady socialists around the Western world lead their own strikes on or around March 8th. One such demonstration in St. Petersburg in 1917 quickly escalated into the overthrow of the tsarist regime. It is no surprise then that shortly after the October revolution the Soviets canonized the women’s solidarity day. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the USSR made it into a major holiday giving workers the day off.

The early driving force behind the establishment of the Soviet holiday was a comrade of Vladimir Lenin named Alexandra Kolontai. Here is Ms. Kolontai explaining the meaning of the new socialist observance in a 1920 speech:

Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women. […]
Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Soviet power will save them from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes the life of the working woman in the capitalist countries so hard. The “Working Woman’s Day” turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!

One can celebrate many things — harvest, liberation from slavery, birthdays of people, countries and extraordinary historical and religious figures, but how does one mark the occasion of “struggle […] for the victory of communism” on behalf of the fair sex?

By 1965, when the Soviet subjects were allowed a day off to mark the occasion of female solidarity, Soviet women were obliged to work government jobs collecting government wages. With professional opportunities being bleak and stay-at-home motherhood not an option, women were torn between not particularly satisfying jobs and not always appreciating families. Without the free market working its magic to meet the needs of working families, this was a particularly difficult undertaking. American women justly complain about the double shift, but try working a double shift when you can’t drive up to a supermarket at 10:54 on Sunday night and buy everything you need to feed your family for a week.

There was also a problem with Russian men (and by “Russian” I mean the culturally Russian). It’s not just that they generally believed women to be all-around inferior, which they did and still do, but with the male/female ratio notoriously askew, there wasn’t (and there isn’t) enough of them. And it’s not that there were so few of them, but that the ones who manage to survive wars and purges are often plagued by problems like sloth and alcoholism. Women had to step up and do the men’s jobs, be strong when their men were weak. Ladies were frequently seen on Soviet streets lifting and towing heavy objects, which was understood to be a problem, not a giant leap for womankind. Those women were not perky coeds who thought it would be cool to compete with men or be on equal terms with them, because they weren’t like their men at all.

Add to all of this the tragic but not frequently discussed at the time issue of abortion as birth control. The exact number of abortions performed in the USSR is difficult to estimate because many of were done underground, but it’s not a stretch to say that all culturally Russian sexually active women capable of conception had more than one and often more than ten. This all took place against the background of high rate of alcohol consumption and other untreated mental illnesses.

In the 70's and 80's, when I was growing up, Kolontai’s talk of the overthrow of capitalism was absolutely alien to Soviet reality. But oh, did we hear about the inevitable victory of socialist labor and other related topics! Communist ideology was inescapable: pinned to the outer walls of highrises, spewed at politinformation meetings at work and schools, saturated on airwaves — virtually anywhere and everywhere, except for our apartments and especially our kitchens. What Russian society craved at the time was an escape from the officialdom into a private world, interpersonal relationships, inner feelings. Personal, not political, because the personal was interesting and tangible, and the political was gibberish.

When I set out to write this post, I tried to look up the quote I picked up in one of my seminars. It said something along the lines of: the anti-Soviet was Soviet too. I couldn’t trace it, unfortunately. It could be attributed to a well-known dissident for all I know, it could be late Soviet folklore. It meant that everything political is deeply flawed, that the Soviet system wrapped its subjects in the blanket of politics and that politics became inescapable, and that even to resist Soviet reality with a different kind of politics, like the dissidents, was to give into the Soviet system. Living a private life unbothered by the powers that be was, from that perspective, a true act of radicalism.

Soviet kitsch: postcard cuties bring early spring flowers to their love interests

That private life is what the holiday became. On this day Russian men give their women flowers, perfume and chocolates and children surprise their mothers with handmade crafts. Wives and mothers spend the A.M. hours in the kitchen toiling on the labor-intensive mayo-based salads for the holiday feast to be spent with family and close friends.

The irony of the situation was quickly noted: on the supposed women’s day off it was women who busted their butts while, in best case scenarios, men relaxed in front of the television sets. (Worst case scenario? They were drinking someplace.) To offer help with housework this one day a year was considered an act of a true chivalry, but I’m not sure it ever happened, or, if it did that it extended beyond the manlier tasks like vacuuming the rug or was accepted (because who can trust dad to boil the carrots, right?)

More Soviet kitsch: Serenading mom on March 8. Note the apron on the dad

The men watched TV, first national channel mostly — the other two channels were unwatchable — skipping the Supreme Soviets session honoring some proletarian femmes, and perhaps noting a program that bemoaned the way women are treated in everyday life and always enjoying the operetta. Lots of it was aired that day, with the aria of Boni from Imre Kalman’s Silva deemed particularly good fit for the occasion:

“One cannot live without women in this world, oh no,” croons Boni. “As the poet said, they are our happiness.”

When the Soviet empire came crumbling down some socialist holidays were disposed of, but there was broad consensus that the New Year’s Eve, which still remains the most important holiday throughout the Russian cultural space, and Women’s Day are worth keeping. It remains a deeply ingrained part of post-Soviet tradition. Ukraine’s controversial Institute for Historical Memory proposed abolishing this vestige of Communism a month ago last year, but that fell on deaf ears; March 8 is genuinely popular in this set-in-its-ways country.

In Russia and its former holdings the holiday continues to functions as a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day, but with a Russian twist. It’s perfectly normal for a Russian publication to make a list of hottest female politicians in the country, just to celebrate womankind. More western-oriented feminists in that part of the world (both of them) look at March 8 traditions with suspicion these days, but they are marginal creatures. There might be a different way to authentically commemorate a women’s day, but, not unlike the real communism, it hasn’t been tried yet.

Why the America and the West imported the holiday, I do not know.

America doesn’t need International Women’s Day because our consumer-oriented, individualist society developed different, better ways of showing appreciation of women. While Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day are true people’s holidays, March 8 was an occasion selected by the state that Soviet society made its own. And yet there is something that we, feminists especially, can learn from this Soviet holiday, namely the idea that private life is worth living for its own sake, that at the end personal happiness is all that matters and that it shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of second wave feminism.

I leave you with a song by Alla Pugacheva, a spirited redhead with clear, powerful voice, who, in the 70's and 80's became the embodiment of the personal, not political turn in the Soviet psyche. She sang of feelings and relationships, love and artists, childhood and motherhood, and it resonated. I didn’t appreciate Soviet pop at the time, but now, looking back, I get the phenomenon. So here is “One Million Scarlet Roses,” her mid-80's megahit we expected to hear on the first national channel at prime time on International Women’s Day.