Rebecca Landesman is our House of Lilac Content Intern. She sheds some light on the history of International Women's Day, a holiday she's been celebrating since she was just a little girl.
In the former Soviet Union the 8th of March was celebrated, like most holidays and the days between, with excessive amounts of vodka. What made this day different than all other days in the USSR, where any excuse to imbibe was welcomed, was that women were paid attention to, their existence acknowledged, as my grandmother claims, for just this one day of the year.
Women received flowers, attention, and care. On public transportation men would offer their seats to women, which was allegedly such a rarity that an international day of observance was required to warrant the behavior. International Women’s Day is observed around the globe, a day when the political, economic, cultural, and social achievements of women are officially recognized. On this day, we collectively and vocally support women’s empowerment and the progress that has been made towards gender equality, and the relentless effort to one day achieve it.
As far back as I can recall, we observed this day in my household. My mother would wake up to a fresh bouquet blooming on the kitchen table, we’d pick up my grandmother and rally for lunch. This was our Soviet version of Mother’s Day, an inclusive celebration of all women, not just mothers. I felt special on this day, not quite because we were celebrating me—I was, after all, just a girl, not yet having earned womanly status or contributed in any conscious way to the feminine cause—but because I felt exotic honoring this day, a custom my parents held on to post-immigration, one that came straight from the source of women’s suffrage. The day, now marked by international observance, was not as widely recognized in the United States in the 20th century because of the political affiliation to the Soviet Union, and it was only in 1975 that the United Nations officially established the observance of this holiday.
Clara Zetkin, activist and advocate for women’s rights, spearheaded the international campaign for suffrage. Her championing for women’s equality propelled National Women’s Day—led by the Socialist Party of America and celebrated for the first time in the United States in 1909—throughout Europe in the 1910s. In Russia, on the equivalent of March 8, 1917 on the Russian calendar, a pivotal International Women’s Day demonstration was held, mostly by women protestors, but quickly attracted workers from all sectors in the fight for food and rights and an end to dictatorship. This demonstration caused the collapse of the Russian Empire and ignited the political and social Russian Revolution, heralding socialism and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. The March protests also earned Russian women the right to vote, three years before the 19th Amendment in the United States, which celebrates its centennial this year.
This month at House of Lilac our theme is “Claiming Your Stake,” apropos for March, Women’s History Month, a time to unite in the global campaign for egalitarianism and to commemorate the achievements by and for women who fight for justice and dignity and respect, who claim their stake in the world because it’s theirs, too. I asked my mother and my grandmother to recount their experience with International Women’s Day, whether any specific moment of celebration stuck in their memory. They each told me an anecdote, both coincidentally featuring flowers. My mother recalled a time she and my father were on vacation in Italy on the 8th of March, as it turns out. In the bustle of their travels she forgot about the holiday, but vases of yellow mimosa flowers, fragrant blossoms symbolically given to women on this day, decorated the lobby and the table in their room. The celebration of women had permeated borders and cultures, beyond my mother’s city of Kiev, to the U.S., to Italy and beyond. My grandmother said, among other things, “Women decorate our lives like flowers, and men are the gardeners that care for them,” a notion I found poetic, albeit antiquated. “Grandma,” I said in Russian, “did you forget that some flowers have thorns?”