From state propaganda to populist marketing ploy: the slippery meaning of International Women’s Day

Sara Jones (University of Birmingham) and Maija Spurina (Latvian Academy of Culture) explore the contradictions of International Women’s Day around the world.

 International Women's Day in 2022 in Spain.

International Women's Day in 2022 in Spain.

What exactly is International Women’s Day (IWD) for? What does it commemorate and how should we mark it? Those are all questions that members of the COST network on Slow Memory are asking themselves.

Led by Professor Jenny Wüstenberg (Nottingham Trent University), the network brings together researchers from across Europe to explore those aspects of memory that are not based on ‘events’ but on ‘multi-sited’ and slow-moving phenomena. One of the network’s working groups, that we co-chair, focuses on the slow transformation of politics, exploring commemorative sites and practices that allow us to daylight long-term changes, continuities and trends.

This group met in Denmark last year, where Sara Jones gave a brief talk about her work on post-socialist memories in Britain. She showed an image taken by one of the participants in the project’s photography club featuring a market stall selling flowers with the sign ‘Rose Gifts for Ladies Day’. Jones recounted how the participant had told the group that Polish migrants had brought the tradition of giving flowers to women on the 8 March to the UK.

This story sparked a lengthy discussion. Why do people buy and give flowers on 8 March? Who is expected to give them to whom? Is it a day of celebration or protest? Wasn’t it a day to celebrate mothers? Or a long-forgotten hangover from Soviet times? Or was it just an opportunity to sell things? Each nationality represented in the meeting seemed to have a different perspective. We struggled to trace its history, despite the group including experts in social movements.

Rose Gifts For Ladies Day sign in Florist shop window. Photo credit: Sylwia Ciszewska-Peciak.

Rose Gifts For Ladies Day sign in Florist shop window. Photo credit: Sylwia Ciszewska-Peciak.

The IWD website offers some answers, providing a timeline for the development of the day, which locates its birth in 1911 in the context of industrialisation, growth of radical ideologies, and nascent women’s liberation movements. The ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City that killed more than 140 working women shortly after the very first IWD shifted the focus to working conditions and labour legislation.

It was clear from our discussion that the celebrations have taken a variety of directions since those early years. So we asked network members to tell us what IWD meant for them in their national context.

Workplace ‘emancipiation’ and gender-based violence protests

Gilda Hoxha (University Mesdhetar i Shqiperise) and Maija Spurina offered insight into IWD in the post-socialist/post-Soviet context. Under state socialism in both Albania and Latvia, IWD was an opportunity for state propaganda. Women were given (typically red) flowers to celebrate their emancipation into the workplace in societies that nonetheless remained deeply patriarchal. As Monika Vrzgula (Slovak Academy of Science) puts it in reference to socialist Czechoslovakia: “women were praised as emancipated [being] able to be excellent at work and in the home. This was false and far removed from the real life of women and their real position in society."

Poster from the German Empire for Women's Day, 8 March 1914, demanding female suffrage and civic rights.

Poster from the German Empire for Women's Day, 8 March 1914, demanding female suffrage and civic rights.

Indeed, neither Spurina’s mother nor her grandmother associated the day with women’s emancipation or knew its origins. Her grandmother remembered the day as causing additional work, as she was tasked with arranging gifts and flowers for the hundreds of women at the factory where she worked. In the post-socialist period, in both Albania and Latvia, IWD has often been used by younger generations to protest gender-based violence against women and girls. Vrzgula notes that in Slovakia it is associated with the previous regime and either ignored or marked (especially by the political left) in ways that look like a “populist marketing ploy”.

Kim Groop (Åbo Akademi University, Turku) noted that, in Finland, IWD has also been typically associated with the workers’ movement and the political left. In a quite different context, Clara Sarmento (Polytechnic of Porto) presented an image of IWD in Portugal in 1975, a year after the April 1974 revolution that established democracy in the country. The image shows men and women marching side-by-side in a celebration of antifascist and working women.

Greek indifference and divided movements

Vicky Karaiskou (Open University of Cyprus) notes that demonstrations around IWD in Greece are also politicized and mobilized by the left, but overall “people do not care very much”. In contrast, the Greek Church tends to promote a much more traditional image of women with the Virgin Mary as a role model.

For others, the day appears to have retained meaning as an important moment to come together to celebrate women’s emancipation and fight for change. Layla Zibar (KU Leuven) pointed us towards the works of a young generation of Kurdish artists and activists. Disillusioned by party politics and political organizations, they place women at the centre of their art and address traditional gender roles, body politics, and suffering in brave new ways.

Johanna Vollmeyer (University Complutense de Madrid) describes attending demonstrations for the first time in Madrid where there were thousands of people on the streets. She laments that the feminist movement in Spain has recently been divided by debates around transgender and prostitution laws and she has not felt able to participate. Hanna Teichler (Goethe University Frankfurt) also sees IWD as a day for action, but one that makes her feel exhausted. “I can‘t believe that women are still paid less, appointed less, and have to campaign for their basic rights again and again,” she says.

‘Slow commemoration’ of a slippery event

Seen transnationally, the 8 March is a date of contradiction. It is about presenting flowers and reproducing traditional gender roles, but also about raising awareness of social injustice and strengthening women's solidarity. It is in a dialogue with other commemorative dates, such as Mother’s Day and the Red Army Day. It has been helpful for top-down political ideologies and bottom-up social activism.

We are calling this ‘slow commemoration’. Slow commemoration refers to dates in our calendar that appear to commemorate or celebrate something specific yet whose meaning is slippery. Slow commemorations attach themselves to multiple histories and multiple meanings: they can be filled with content to persuade you to fight for something, vote for something, or simply buy something.