8 March 2013 marks the centenary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. International Women’s Day has its origins at the women’s conference of the Second International in Copenhagen in 1910 with the aim of furthering the cause of women’s emancipation and it was celebrated in a number of countries before the Bolsheviks adopted the initiative in Russia for the first time in 1913. The International Women’s Day demonstration in 1917 is often credited as the starting point of the February Revolution. After the Bolshevik victory in the October Revolution of 1917, International Women’s Day was celebrated as an important date in the Soviet calendar as a public holiday.
The early Soviet celebrations of International Women’s Day highlighted the emancipatory agenda of the Communist Party and elevated some individual women to celebrity status in the 1930s.
In later decades, however, celebrations became more tokenistic, with men expected to offer gifts of flowers and chocolates to female relatives and work colleagues (a little like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day in the West). At its worst, the day became an opportunity for excess eating and drinking and male bonding, mostly serviced by women in the kitchen. The day itself was sometimes even lampooned in the satirical press. In one cartoon, at a meeting to discuss preparations for the 8 March celebrations, the only woman in the audience is berated by her neighbour: ‘but why are you still here? Go home, bake some pies: there’s a holiday tomorrow!’ In another, sitting at a table laden with food and drink, drunken men raise their glasses to congratulate the women, who are seen rushing in and out of the room with freshly prepared dishes and dirty plates. In yet another cartoon, a man is depicted asking his wife to deliver a box of chocolates to his boss’s wife.
Today, in Russia and around the world, International Women’s Day is still celebrated both in recognition of women’s achievements in a whole range of areas and also to highlight the work still to be done in the attainment of women’s equality.