The Herstory Behind the Holiday

By Fiona Clancy

Women are pretty important. I mean – none of us would be here without them. As an American, I am used to celebrating mothers once a year (Mom, if you’re reading this, I mean 24/7/365) on Mothers’ Day in May. Until moving to Russia, I had no idea that other countries celebrated all women for just…being women. What a GREAT idea.

International Women’s Day, March 8th is not as international as its name suggests. It is not at all marked or noted in America. It is known, but not really recognized, in Ireland and the UK (Mothers’ Day in these countries falls in early March and therefore eclipses Women’s Day). In Russia, Women’s Day is a public holiday. This year there are two days off as Women’s Day falls on a Thursday and Friday is a freebie day. You’re welcome, guys. Anytime.

Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1913 in the Soviet Union. In 1917, Women’s Day changed the history of the Russian Empire. February 23rd (March 8th in the modern calendar) 1917 was the beginning of the February Revolution, which laid the groundwork for the unrest that overthrew the Tsar and orchestrated the subsequent Bolshevik takeover. On this day, women in St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, took to Palace Square to protest food shortages and female workers’ rights. Most were in the textile industry. How ironic that February 23rd (March 8th) is now fashioned “Men’s Day, but it is in fact the day that women helped to change the course of Russia – and world – history.

March 8th became a public holiday in the Soviet Union after women won the right to vote in 1917. In the early years of Soviet socialism, feminism had a stronghold within social justice. One of the champions of women’s rights in the USSR was Soviet feminist Alexandra Kollontai, who worked alongside Lenin to make March 8th an official holiday. For many years in the USSR, Women’s Day celebrated the role of the women in the February Revolution, and women’s crucial contribution to Soviet life as a whole (including female service in the Great Patriotic War, or World War II as it’s known outside of Russia. Read more about that hereNow, the holiday holds less historical and feminist value and is more a truffle-laden, and potently floral, combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.  

Today, men and fellow women honor the females in their lives – aunts, grandmothers, mothers, teachers, friends, daughters, sisters, coworkers, nieces, wives, girlfriends, etc. – with cards, chocolate, jewelry, cosmetics, and flowers. If you’re a gal, you might hear “С восьмым Марта! (Happy 8th of March!)” or “С праздником! (Happy holiday!)” from well-wishing people on the street. Many times, greetings and wishes to all the девушки (girls) are written in the snow or with chalk on pavement. Women might get discounts in stores or promotional gifts while out and about (Ladies – take to the streets – who doesn’t love a good discount, am I right? Especially to combat the Pink Tax!)

In a corporate setting, men in the office often mark the holiday for the women they work alongside. Celebrations can range from the more traditional – like buying all women in the office flowers and presents – to the more elaborate, with schemes and excursions planned by men to honor their female coworkers. For example, men might create and cook for a Breakfast Blini Buffet Bar (blini are the Russian version of crepes, can be either sweet or savory, and are always delicious), or take the women in the office to a shooting range. Yes, you read that right. Men cooking women breakfast and taking them shooting. Is this heaven?

While some would argue that Women’s Day in Russia is celebrated in a slightly patriarchal or patronizing sense with flowers and chocolates, progressive, modern ideas are surely weaving their way into the fabric of the holiday (ahem, excursions to a shooting range). Whatever way you choose to celebrate Women’s Day, remember to honor women around the world and their contribution to the arts, sciences, and society as a whole. Whether you’re protesting for equal pay and gender equality with Day Without a Woman, or eating blini in Russia made especially for you by your male coworkers, enjoy your day, ladies. You deserve it!