Domesticating March 8th

Roses, tulips, and other colorful flowers extend from the hands of Russian women like prostheses.  One day a year they replace the broom, the pot, and the child.  The flowers, like the wedding bands on women’s fingers, are a symbol of property.  Almost every woman strolling through the metro or down Moscow’s avenues has one hand around a man’s arm while the other clutches a bouquet. Thus, the object on their left hand says, “I’m taken” while the man on their right says, “by him.”

What an ironic scene International Women’s Day has become in Russia.  What was once a day calling for a “struggle against patriarchy,” has in many ways become patriarchy’s reinforcement. Nothing says this more than the popular gifts bestowed on this day of “struggle.” According to the Russian polling service VTsIOM, flowers are the most popular gift for March 8.  Forty-four percent of women want them, and 54% of men are willing to give them.  Candy comes in second with 19 and 39% respectively.  This is followed by make-up and perfume.  Gender equality has been substituted with gendered commodities.

The sense that today’s International Women’s Day, which also happens to be its 100th anniversary, has lost its revolutionary feminist punch has not escaped some.  As Tim Wall writes in the Moscow News:

Yet today the struggle for equality is still a long way from over, and the holiday in Russia (as in many other countries) has been reduced to a ceremonial and commercial event.

Instead of women’s meetings and marches to mark the day, now all that appears to be left are gifts of flowers, chocolates and a day off work.

It’s a far cry from February 23, 1917 (March 8 on the modern calendar), when women textile workers in Petrograd began their strike for “Bread and Peace”. The movement triggered the Russian Revolution and brought down the Tsar.

Indeed. As Wall reminds us, when it comes to wages Russian women are hopelessly behind their male counterparts.  “Statistics show that men earn an average of 19,000 rubles per month ($630) ­- almost double what a woman in the same job earns – 11,000 rubles ($360).”

No surprise here.  Days like today give the opportunity to bring such issues back into the light.

But the status of International Women’s Day in Russia has worse reminders.  Namely, as Olga Balla writes, how since 1917 International Women’s Day has been stripped of its public/political content and reduced to a private/personal holiday:

In 1917 women received the right to vote in Russia. In 1918 the Bolshevik Constitution secured their equality in national politics.  So the aim [of legal equality] had been achieved.  As a result, March 8th entered the official calendar as a state holiday and since 1965 it’s been a day off (which consequently allowed it to be quickly imbued with private meaning). After 1991, when Soviet power collapsed, though it was still a day off, March 8th became a completely empty cell on the calendar in which practically nothing but private meaning and personal celebration were invested.

Thus the meaning of the holiday has changed into its opposite.

Balla goes on to argue that International Women’s Day has been fully domesticated.  What had been subversive now cultivates the very values it sought to overturn: “thoroughly bourgeois holiday of consumer society.”

Thus the picture above–taken during a recent trip to St. Petersburg–speaks volumes.  The bourgeoisie and proletariat can be reconciled in an ad that reads “Bourgeois flowers at proletarian prices!”