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Why March is Women’s History Month: A Tangled Cold War History

Vietnamese teachers line up in matching dresses and take photos, recognizing International Women’s Day. Photo from VBC’s 2018 Tour of Vietnam

On our VBC trip to Vietnam in 2018, we checked into our hotel at Halong Bay on March 8. As each woman in our group entered the lobby, including my 17-year-old daughter Libbie, she was handed a lily and offered a sweet drink. Libbie, an astute observer and savvy student of history, leaned over and said, “I think they’ve forgotten what International Women’s Day is supposed to be.”

It turns out that many in Communist Vietnam understand precisely what International Women’s Day was founded to be, and they don’t want to have any part of it. In North Vietnam especially, Confucian patriarchal values persist, and International Women’s Day is seen as a threat. So, they treat International Women’s Day like Mother’s Day, taking the edge off a politically-charged holiday.
In 1909, the Socialist Party of America—the only US party to endorse women’s suffrage at the time—declared the last Sunday in February to be “Woman’s Day.” Inspired by striking garment workers, the day entailed rallies and speeches in support of women’s rights, mostly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 1910, European Socialists adopted the holiday to promote women’s suffrage and the end to employment discrimination.
Then, on March 8, 1917 (which was the last Sunday in February on the Russian Julian calendar), Woman’s Day sparked a revolution which overthrew an empire. The empire was Russia, which had been brought to its knees by Czar Nikolas II’s colossal mismanagement of the World War against Germany. Russian soldiers not killed, wounded or captured increasingly deserted, while the Russian homefront starved. Hungry women in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) marked Woman’s Day by streaming into the streets to demand bread and competent leadership.
Communist Party revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky disapproved of these wildcat protests, which they couldn’t control. But the protests continued after Woman’s Day. By the end of the week, Czar Nikolas had abdicated. The 300-year-old Romanov Dynasty had come to an end. Then, the new Russian Provisional Government granted women the right to vote, three years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in the US.

Soviet poster: “8th of March is the day of rebellion of the working women against kitchen slavery. Down with the oppression and narrow-mindedness of household work!”

“We did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution,” Trotsky later wrote. That Russian Revolution would end in October 1917 with the triumph of the Bolsheviks. International Women’s Day was declared a public holiday in the new Soviet Union, and it would be inextricably linked with international Communism for the next seven decades.

Because of its Communist associations, this March 8 holiday, though born in America, would not be recognized in the land of its origin until well after the fall of the Soviet Union. The year 2011 saw a breakout of commemorations in western Europe and the United States. But the holiday has never really caught on in the US. For Americans, International Women’s Day still carries a whiff of its disruptive origins.
To compete with International Women’s Day, we’ve created and embraced a less-ideological alternative: Women’s History Month. Instead of one boisterous day, we have an entire month stretched out like a canvas upon which we can paint our own versions and visions of women in history.
Women’s History Month doesn’t have the radical ring of International Women’s Day. But at least it will never be mistaken for Mother’s Day.
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