One of the many reasons I wanted to participate in this project was to be able to view the world from another culture’s perspective. Italy isn’t particularly exotic or bizarre, but it offers enough difference to reassess my own ideas and perceptions about the world. One of the things I didn’t expect was to learn new things about my own country.
One of the most recent new things I discovered was International Women’s Day. The other night we were all eating dinner and Maria Carla, my host mom, mentioned that on Thursday she would be going out with her girlfriends for the Festa delle Donna. A fellow language tutor (her blog here) and I at first thought she just meant a girl’s night out – we have those all the time. Through more interpretation and translation, we discovered that this is a day of some significance to Italians, not a simple “girl’s night.”
The family said that the holiday remembers a group of women who were killed in a factory fire. I immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in New York City. I thought it was slightly bizarre to set aside a holiday, or at least a day of remembrance, for an event that transpired in a different country over 100 years ago – even tragic as it was.
When we were heading to school this morning, Fabio, my host dad, presented Maria Carla, Chiara, and myself with a stem of mimosas (proper name, Silver Wattle). I made a joke that I prefer my mimosa’s in a glass, and didn’t really think much more of it. At school, however, little girls and boys kept presenting every woman or girl in sight with little stems of poufy, yellow flowers and the occasional chocolate.
It was all very sweet, and the young girls in particular were surprised that I had never heard of “Women’s Day” nor did we celebrate it in the United States. We had a brief discussion in one class about the different holidays we have in the US and Italy, though we have many more in common than different.
When I got home I decided that I needed to know more about this supposed “celebration of women.” I consider myself to be an at least moderately enlightened, empowered woman – how could I possibly be ignorant of something that sounds so profound as International Women’s Day?
And, apparently, incredibly ignorant I am.
International Women’s Day is recognized on the 8th of March. It was first celebrated as National Women’s Day in the United States after its proposal by the Socialist Party of America. Inspired by the Americans, German Socialist Luise Zietz proposed an international day of recognition for women, though a specific date was not yet selected. One year later, on March 18, 1911 more than one million women in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland marked International Women’s Day. The women used demonstrations to demand the right to vote, to decry sexual harassment, and to honor martyrs.
Lenin eventually made it a recognized holiday in the Soviet Union, but it remained a working day until 1965. On May 8, 1965 the Soviet Union declared it a national, non-working holiday “in commemoration of the outstanding merits of Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Fatherland during the Great Patriotic War, in their heroism and selflessness at the front and in the rear, and also marking the great contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples, and the struggle for peace.” (Source)
Since then the holiday has largely been celebrated in socialist and communist countries. In 1949, China declared that they would henceforth mark the holiday by giving women a half-day off of work on March 8th. In 1977 the United Nations invited it’s participating members to mark March 8th as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.
On March 8th, 2011, President Barack Obama declared March Women’s History Month and called on all Americans to recognize the great women in our past who have helped to build and shape our nation (where was I last March?).
IWD has maintained a rather strong political agenda throughout much of the world. Many demonstrations on March 8th are to call attention to the particular injustices that women face throughout the world – whether it’s discrimination, sexual violence, political disenfranchisement, or other social and physical ills.
The resurgence of International Women’s Day in the United States in the last few years draws correlations to current injustices with those of the 146 women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. The women were garment workers in a factory, sewing blouses. They endured inhumane, degrading working conditions for extremely long hours. On March 25th, 1911 a fire broke out. Because the factory owners had chained the doors shut to prevent women from taking breaks or leaving early, and the firefighter’s ladders were too short to reach the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the building in which they worked, within 20 minutes all 146 women had either burned alive or thrown themselves onto the pavement below. Their ages ranged from 14 to 48 years old and most were European immigrants.
This event spurred unionization and compelled government officials to create much more strict regulations for the working conditions of factory employees.
In recent years International Women’s Day has had themes. In 2010 the International Committee of the Red Cross called on the world to recognize the hardships of displaced women and the particular adversities they face. In 2011 the ICRC pressed for awareness of the rape and sexual violence that still takes place against women with alarming regularity throughout the world. This year, 2012, is themed for empowering women through ending hunger and poverty.
In some countries it is still marked with political demonstrations and rallies, but here in Italy it has become more of a day to celebrate the women in your life – similar to Mother’s Day. The men present women with gifts of mimosa flowers and sometimes chocolate. Many women gather for “girls only” dinners with their friends. In the schools it appears a day where the female students just feel happy to be female and singled out for appreciation all day long. A simple, but sweet notion I can admire. Sometimes it can be hard to just be happy being female.
I am heartily surprised that I had no clue about this holiday – and in fact a bit ashamed considering it began in the United States and has apparently been in the news. Hell, I lived in Washington DC on March 8th, 2011 and had no idea there was even a rally in town. To be fair, I likely had my nose buried in a textbook, but still.
I like this holiday though, and think there can’t really be too much recognition of the brave women who sacrificed so much before me so that I can have the rights I hold today. To look at countries like Saudi Arabia and know that women there still can’t even legally drive completely blows my mind.
So, in recognition of International Women’s Day, turn to the women in your life and say thank you. Thank you for being kind, thank you for being patient, thank you for being a strong, wonderful, amazing woman.