On International Women’s Day, Bouquets or Marches?

If March 8 happens to fall on a day when I’m teaching in Lexington, Kentucky, I valiantly remind students that it’s International Women’s Day and try to rouse some enthusiasm. A couple of feminists in the room look pleased at the validation, but for most the event is likely to fall into the usual morass of ‘celebratory’ days and months.

How are we to sell the uniqueness of a century-long global celebration when it follows close on the heels of National Pancake Day (February 23, sponsored of course by IHOP), Valentine’s Day and National Gumdrop Day (February 15)? An e-card for ‘Women’s Day’ (forget the “International”) addresses its recipient as “Glorious Woman” and is illustrated by a bouquet of pink carnations and framed by ads for a dating site for seniors.

eCard from 123greetings.com

When I was growing up in India, IWD was hardly an event for cultural celebration in our family. But it was and continues to be a day that women’s organizations use to mark their space and presence.

Typically, newspapers and television reports carry a story about the day’s marches, and hence a reminder that women’s movements carry on. In my research years in Delhi in the early 1990’s, I remember the pleasure of being in a huge, unruly crowd sitting down on a main thoroughfare to hear the day’s speeches. The women’s movement literally stopped traffic.

photo of women marching in Mattampally, India, for International Women’s Day (courtesy of Hearts’ Cry India)

This year, the political salience is remembered in the Indian government’s frantic attempt to announce the passage of a bill for a one-third quota for women in Parliament before March 8. Meanwhile, the national air carrier Air India attempts to boost its pathetic reputation with a timely gimmick–flying an all-women crew on March 8.

In Russia, there’s no missing IWD. It’s a public holiday, a day to ‘honor women’ in ways that the original socialist proponents of IWD would hardly recognize. It’s Valentine’s Day and Spring Festival and Mother’s Day all in one: Women are to be given flowers and poems, given the day off from cooking and household chores and made to feel special.

As Russian friends have pointed out, the set-aside day only seems to confirm the other 364 as days of women’s domestic labor. The emphasis is on reproductive (and romantic) roles, not labor or politics.

photo of Russia’s International Women’s Day from RIA Novosti

It’s worth broadcasting International Women’s Day in order to take a look at these very divergent paths, and not just for nostalgia or political capital. Everything from neo-liberalism to left feminism to maternal thinking to global chic shows up in mapping this narrative.

It sheds light on a long history of women’s global activism, from its origins in the U.S. Socialist Party’s National Women’s Day (1909), to its official founding as an international holiday by German socialist Clara Zetkin in 1911, to the transnational organizing that created the U.N. Decade for Women (1975-1985).

It lets us tell a nuanced history of feminism, of resilience and transformation and conflict, linked moments and lived differences.

Read more Ms. coverage on global women’s rights here



I live in Lexington, KY, and teach in the Gender & Women's Studies Department at the University of Kentucky.