As its name suggests, International Women’s Day is, indeed, a global event. Yet in spite of its reach–and age (almost a century old)–recognition of IWD in the US is almost nil. In spite of efforts by various presidential administrations to turn up the volume on “women’s issues” during the month of March, acknowledgement of the month, and more precisely the day (March 8), are pretty much ignored. This is not the case in nations with a long history of observing the date, including eastern European countries and Russia (where it began), Scandinavia, Australia, and recently in Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Cambodia, Angola (among dozens of others). It’s notable that in the latter countries–none of them the picture of civil rights awesomeness–that IWD is an official national holiday, not just a day for potential local celebrations, which is the way it is observed, hit or miss, in many industrialized, democratic nations of the west, where it enjoys prominence neither on the national calendar nor in the national consciousness.
In the places where it is observed, the manner in which IWD is recognized has, and does, differ across time and geography, from a highly politicized event marked by marches and protests, to a holiday that prompts the gifting of flowers to ladies. This variety of interpretations and manifestations is clear in the great variety of graphic art–much of it pretty wonderful–related to IWD. Much of it runs in the vein of the image on the left, celebrating IWD as a kind of happy and feminine (rather than feminist) holiday. Lots of flowers and ethnic frocks, images of women isolated in abstracted backgrounds: no context of work or even home life, no men to suggest father/husbands, no children to make this another mothers’ day. These are lovely images, some of them more graphically superior than others. (We like the clever figure eight in this card from 1970, suggesting a dance as well as the date of the holiday.) Such an image is there to remind you, if you are not a woman, you’d better go buy some bouquets for someone who is.
Another common theme in the IWD posters, and Revolutionary art overall, is the elevation of women from traditional spheres of work in the home and recognition of the huge amounts of labor required of running a household. The Russian image on the left shows a multi-limbed mom, each of her arms indicating the amount of time required of various tasks, leaving only 17 minutes per day to care for her child. Surely what is required is for this femme-mill to be energized by winds of change, both to alleviate the drudgery of home labor (other graphic messages demonize “kitchen slavery” and encourage literacy among women) and focus her domestic tasks not solely on upkeep of the house, but instead on raising the next generation of Bolsheviks, as one of her contributions to the state.
These are pretty interesting images, but perhaps the most compelling posters are the ones with more overt political significance. The Soviets have a great number of these, which is not surprising in consideration of the tradition of mass-produced Constructivist art following the Revolution. Indeed, IWD was launched during those years and as a means to formally acknowledge women’s contributions to the Communist and Socialist movements. Thus the posters are populated with Frauen waving flags of political change, bolcheviques commanding farm equipment in Ukraine and handling machinery in Soviet factories. The posters reveal a blend of ideology and reality: women are valued contributors, and expected participants, in all aspects of society.
That is the overall message of International Women’s Day anywhere it is not just a strategy to boost flower sales–and not even to that low status does it reach in the US. However, for that economic possibility alone, one might expect that the Land of Hallmark to elevate the date. Think of it: not just the purchase of posies, but the mimosa brunches and gifts of jewelry and chocolates adding to the economy at this heightened season of potential male guilt wedged between the Superbowl and March Madness. Yet good capitalists steer clear of this thing, probably unaware of the Socialist/Communist history of the holiday, all too wary of the potential of a movement that challenges the longstanding power structures in America: systems firmly rooted long before the advent of IWD in other countries. The suffrage bill was still winding its slow and tortured way through Congress when the Soviets were calling on women to stand up with men to support and defend their country. After contributing to the American war effort at a huge scale, helping to enhance the US as the industrial powerhouse it became at mid-century, middle-class female citizens were rewarded with one-way tickets out of offices and factories and into suburban tract housing. Today, American women are like the windmill-woman above, but with less support from the state: maternity leave lags far behind Canada, Norway and Denmark (usual suspects) and even Mexico, South Africa and Pakistan (that hurts). A study from 2006 shows that gender pay gap in the US (22.4%) and Canada (27.5%) keeps company with Botswana (23.3%), Madagascar (26.1%) and Singapore (27.3%); it’s not as bad as Kazakhstan (38.1%) but well behind the EU, Egypt, Iran, Mongolia, and Australia (all 14-20%). Granted, numbers can be beguilingly straightforward, and never tell the full nuanced story–but their consistency certainly refutes the prevailing myths that suggest that the issue is irrelevant or even non-existent.
Overall the data confirms the continued economic and social discrimination against women in the US. For that reason, IWD could be an important opportunity to raise awareness and prompt change. However, even among the most interested parties there seems to be a split opinion about how to go about making such progress. Perhaps this is another curious and somewhat ironic manifestation of the general freedoms enjoyed in North America. Witness the posters below, from British Columbia (left) and Québec: if the real IWD stood up, would she be revealed as a scarf-wearing radical, fist raised before some kind of rising sun motif, à la imperial Japan, leading the charge of eagles and helicopters? Or would she totter between a political rally and a shoe sale on psychedelic go-go boots? In alternate decades, Russia and Eastern Europe have treated the day either as a celebration of feminine prettiness or female strength; the poster at the top achieves a certain middle-ground, with the pretty lady adjusting a headscarf whose pattern intermingles blossoms and leaves with the hammer and sickle. L’état est la femme. Considering the posters below, Canadians might want to work out which way they mean to go, and if it is possible to blend feminine softness with a feminist edge.
Their neighbors to the south might wake up and do something. But that would take a different kind of political will in the US–where women comprise 18% of the House and 20% of the Senate, and a whopping seven women serve as state governors. Fabulous as poster artists and local organizers might be, they cannot alone affect the means by which a holiday–Socialist in its roots–might be woven into the national calendar as a symbolic measure of women’s actual participation in American life. That requires a recognition that Socialism is the enemy neither of capitalism nor democracy. The New Deal, the Great Society, public education, food stamps, Social Security and Medicare are all pretty Socialist–and pretty American too. Putting basic human rights aside, it’s also a very American trait to make the most of available resources to achieve economic advance–even when there is little social and political will to invest in other kinds of progress. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the wasted resources embodied by 51% of the global population, imagine a way forward to make the most of it and, finally, for heaven’s sake, pave the way to make it happen.
Several images are from this interesting blog.