The Secret History of Women’s Day: Or, How an American Strike Became a Soviet Tradition

Posted by: Eric A. Johnson, Public Affairs Officer

As March 8 approaches, Ukrainian women often ask me what Americans do to celebrate International Women’s Day. My short answer is: nothing. But before anyone can get offended, I rush to explain that we honor the important women in our lives on two other days. On St. Valentine’s Day (February 14), every right-minded American man celebrates the main woman in his life (be she wife, lover, girlfriend) by taking her out to dinner (or cooking it for her) in addition to buying a card, chocolates (often in the shape of hearts), and flowers (usually red roses to signify true love). And then on Mother’s Day (the second Sunday in May), Americans honor their mothers by taking them out to lunch or dinner – or, better yet, cooking it for them. But given that so many men can’t cook, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day tend to be the two days of the year when it’s almost impossible to find a free table in a good restaurant.

Starting in New York City in 1857, women workers made a tradition of labor actions and protests on March 8. In 1910, the first International Women's Day was celebrated on the same day. This photo shows an early Women's Day protest.

All holidays begin somewhere. Mother’s Day is the relatively recent invention of American Anne Jarvis who suggested a holiday honoring mothers after the death of her own activist mother in 1905. Jarvis – who never had any children of her own – first proposed the holiday in 1912 and by 1914 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had turned it into a nationally recognized day. By the 1920s, Mother’s Day was celebrated across the country.

St. Valentine’s Day has much older roots dating back to pagan celebrations in Greece and Rome which revolved around Hera (Juno), fertility, and her marriage to Zeus (Jupiter). With the death of the Christian martyr Valentine of Rome (killed AD 269 and buried on February 14), the holiday evolved into a Christian feast day. However, it wasn’t until English poet Geoffrey Chaucer was inspired by the Italian Renaissance to write his Parliament of Birds (1382) that St. Valentine’s Day became associated with romantic love – and love letters – in the popular imagination. The holiday, however, did not come to resemble something that we might recognize today until 1847 when another American woman – Esther Howland – began producing St. Valentine’s Day cards for her father’s store in Worcester, Massachusetts. The rest, as we say, is history.

And understanding history is important: I almost always get a surprised reaction when I mention that it is thanks to American women that Ukraine celebrates International Women’s Day. Unlike Jarvis and Howland whose names are known, International Women’s Day began as a series of strikes held on or about March 8 in New York City as early as 1857 by unknown women workers protesting low wages and poor working conditions. By 1908, the annual demonstration had grown so large that it prompted the Socialist Party of America to declare the first International Women’s Day on February 28, 1909. The holiday quickly spread to Europe when the Socialist International adopted the holiday (without giving it a fixed date) in Copenhagen in 1910. By the next year, over one million women and men attended International Women’s Day rallies across Europe. In 1913 and 1914, millions of women across Europe, the Russian Empire, and North America used March 8 as a day of protest against the coming of the First World War.

In 1917, women in Petrograd and other cities across the Russian Empire rallied on Sunday, March 8 (old calendar) for “Bread and Peace.” A week later, Czar Nicholas abdicated and the Provisional Government soon granted women the right to vote. The rest is Soviet history: Aleksandra Kollontai persuaded Lenin to make International Women’s Day an official Soviet holiday. In 1965, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet made International Women’s Day (now firmly established on March 8 in the new calendar) an official day of rest. And it has remained that way ever since – at least in Ukraine, Russia, and several other countries of the former Soviet Union.

The Russian Revolution started on International Women's Day, 8 March 1917 (22 February on the old Tsarist calendar), with a massive demonstration in Petrograd. (Photo credit: Wiki Commons)

By the 1930s, International Women’s Day was no longer really international. The United States – where it all began – was one of the first countries to abandon the holiday as both Mother’s Day and St. Valentine’s Day gathered steam. Much of Western Europe followed suit. Although the holiday is formally recognized by the United Nations, only about a dozen countries outside of Eastern Europe recognize the day as an official holiday (these include Algeria, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Italy, Israel, Laos, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Zambia). But even in the U.S. we did not forget about the day entirely. In 1981, the U.S. Congress designated the week around March 8 as Women’s History Week. By 1987, the U.S. Congress expanded the event to turn all of March into Women’s History Month. Throughout the month, government institutions, schools, libraries, and other organizations focus their public programming on women and their many achievements.

In Ukraine today, Women’s Day seem to have evolved to the point where it closely resembles a combination of St. Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day as the need to commemorate “the outstanding merits of women in communistic construction” once decreed by the Supreme Soviet has been forgotten. And so, as March 8 approaches, I wish all the women in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine a wonderful day and restful long weekend. I hope that each one of you receives a flood of cards, flowers, and chocolates. But most of all, I wish that the men in your lives will be inspired to cook a special meal for you. And perhaps this tradition will spread and continue far beyond just one single day of the year ….

3 thoughts on “The Secret History of Women’s Day: Or, How an American Strike Became a Soviet Tradition

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