8 March 2009

Have you ever wondered just what was the spark that ignited the flame of the Russian Revolution in 1917? Russia was at war in on its eastern front and sending supplies to support that effort.  In St. Petersburg, it had been a long winter.  The men had largely been conscripted into the army, leaving women to support their families alone.  There was hardship and hunger.  On International Women’s Day in 1917, thousands women marched on the Palace to demanding "peace, bread, and land." 

Fearing unrest, and with most of his Army away from the city, the Tsar Nicholas II was desperate enough to keep order that he commanded the Palace Guard to fire on the marchers.  The guards refused to fire on the unarmed women, and joined them instead.  One thing led to another; things snowballed and escalated.  The rest is history. All because of International Women’s Day and the distaste of the Palace Guard for firing upon women who were marching for food for their children.  [For one reference available online click HERE].

I was shocked to learn, however, that the first precursor to International Women’s Day was in the same year my grandfather was born, in 1908.  In the year of my grandfather’s birth, 15,000 women marched in the streets of New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and voting rights [for full reference click HERE].  In 1909, the National Socialist Party in the USA declared the first IWD. Once the ball was rolling, the cause was also taken up in Europe.  At a conference attended by women from 17 countries, Clara Zetkin proposed that one day in particular be designated internationally, and the date was standardized.  Well, guess what day that is?  Today!  March 8th!* 

The link of IWD with socialism and condition of the working class is significant.  IWD has particularly been associated with class struggle of socialism and the seeking of worker rights.  Immediately after the Russian Revolution, great advances for women were written into Russian law.  Some of those changes are written about HERE.

Women still have a long way to go.  Statistics show that women still earn a FRACTION of the pay of similarly situated males.  (I note that in the USA, women received the right to vote some decades after did the freed male slaves.  Perhaps we’ll have a female president in about the same amount of time after we have an African American, male president?) 

Women still have a long way to go in China in terms of reaching equality in that society.  While it is possible for women to achieve positions of leadership in government and business, it is more often the exception than the rule.  More typically, a woman considers herself "middle aged" in the working world when she is over 30 years old.  As just one example, I one time asked a tour guide how she chose that profession.  She replied:

I used to work as a waitress in a restaurant, and then I became the manager.  I worked as a waitress for two years.  I worked several more years as the manager.  About four years.  I really loved my job, and I was good at it.  My boss was great.  He was the owner.  I did really well and the business grew by leaps and bounds.  But after a few years he told me, "You’re not so young any more.  I really like you, but I’m going to have to hire someone younger.  Take some time, maybe a year, but you need to find another position."  You know [she explained to me], when people come into a restaurant, they want to see a really pretty face.  I wasn’t so young anymore.  I wasn’t so pretty as I had been when I was younger.  So, that’s when I started to look around.

Advertisements sometimes plainly state that only pretty girls need apply, and many women over age 30 believe they are no longer marketable.  I had one friend, for example, who had worked for a large multinational corporation until her first (and only) child was born.  Now that he was older, she wanted to return to work.  I suggested that she reapply to the same company where she had previously worked.   "Oh no," was her reply.  "I’m much too old.  I’m all washed out.  They’d never hire me."  This was a woman who was 36 years old when we were speaking. 

I also noticed a double standard socially, in terms of behavior that was accepted for women and men.  I once turned heads when I ordered beer in a restaurant, because all the other people with me were Chinese women.  In my group of friends, women did not generally order beer.  Old enough to have lived through the Cultural Revolution, they still thought it was unladylike.   I had not realized this, because when I had been out with Chinese people before it had always before been in mixed company.  Under the particular circumstances, I decided that I would break the rule and have the beer anyway.  One of my friends asked me, "In America, do all women drink beer?" 

"No," I replied, "Only San Ba Nu. Wo shi [I am a ] San Ba Nu." 

To explain what is a "San Ba Nu," I refer you to this video!  Enjoy! 

And ….  San Ba Fu Nu Jie Kuaile!




*According to one web site, IWD is now an official holiday in China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.   For a more detailed history with references see THIS history by Alexandra Kollantai, translated from its original 1920’s source.



Filed under Holidays


  1. привет

    The beer thing is strange. I am a woman and I always dranked beer while lunching or going out more than 10 years ago while in China. I don\’t think anyone eve batted their eyelid. Is it that the society has gone backward? Or perhaps that I was simply out with others as a group of typical white-collar, lap-top carrying young professionals and so others simply accepted our behaviour as normal?And don\’t you find it funny that this so called \’holiday\’ is now only official in China and some other former Soviet-bloc countries? Your list is rather novel to me. The other day I read it in the London Times that it\’s \’official\’ only in China and Russia. Anyway, the communistic connection is indelible. I guess it might have to do with the struggle of communist regimes of the time to push women into the workforce to pop up their pathetic economy. Salaries in these places are mostly far from enough to have only one bread winner in the family. The funny thing is, if women had no worries of financial security or constraints, most would choose to not \’work\’ to earn a living but do whatever they like, or as a \’stay at home mum\’. Just today in the Times an article is saying that the current financial crisis seems to have toppled the idyllic picture of full-time mum and women had to find work to top up their family income. In the last few years, the rage to be a stay-at-home mum or wife was incredible.

  2. Alex

    Thanks for your comment!

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