Ever try to get tech help from a former Soviet state on March 8? I did a few years ago, while working on a project with a website managed by a Ukrainian company. When the site crashed on the eighth and I emailed for help, every message bounced back saying cheerily, “We are celebrating International Women’s Day, and will not be in the office.”
This was a dude-heavy tech company, and there I was sitting at my desk in the U.S., not celebrating much of anything. Not only had I never heard of such a holiday, but I couldn’t imagine that in other parts of the world everyone got time off work to celebrate women.
Some years, the holiday falls on a Monday, that most sacred start of the working week, which seems right given that the holiday has its roots in the socialist movement. According to Internationalwomensday.com, the day was first introduced in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, but scheduled for February 28.
It went international in 1910 when leading German socialist Claire Zetkin offered that there should be a set day in every country for women’s rights demands to be specifically stated. The importance of such organization was reemphasized when, only a week after the first observance in 1911, more than 140 women were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, highlighting again the dangerous inequality that workers, especially women, were subjected to.
In Russia, the day was first celebrated in 1913 as women protested World War I, and, according to this video by Russia Today, was made official by Lenin to motivate women to be part of the socialist movement. It became an official day off in 1965, and continues to be regarded as a classic Communist holiday that has grown into a UN-sanctioned global event.
In several countries, the day is a mishmash of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, while in other places there will be protests and rallies for women’s rights. In Russia, men will wake up early to buy the women in their life flowers and chocolates. In Portugal, restaurants will be filled with women-only dinner parties. In Poland, there will be marches for reproductive justice. In Pakistan, rural workers will discuss sustainability and climate change. Over 690 events will take place internationally, a mix of the celebratory and the concerned.
While started in America, the holiday’s heavy socialist influence explains why it never fully took hold in the American workplace or as a federally recognized holiday.
Still, I wish it was a larger part of our culture. While flowers and greeting cards are lovely, the women behind International Women’s Day weren’t organizing a celebration as much as a unified call for alarm. Just as women do today, they marched for safe workplaces, peace and equality.
Exploring even a brief history of the event, I realize it’s not just simply about honoring women: It’s about recognizing the very hard labor of women as workers, mothers, partners and activists.
So, my Ukrainian tech friends had the day off—and because of women like Zetkin, I was working at a job with fair hours and an ergonomic keyboard to protect my wrists.
It’d be great to have the day off next year, but according to its tradition, it wouldn’t be a day of rest.
Read more Ms. coverage on global women’s rights here.