Tuesday, March 7, 2017

International Womens' Day And The Russian February Revolution Centennial

It is now March 8, 2017, here in Italy where I currently am, so Happy International Womens' Day everybody!  I note that today is the centennial  of the beginning of the Russian February Revolution, so called because Russia was still on the Julian calendar back then, and the date was February 23, 1917, even though it was March 8 in the rest of the world on the Gregorian calendar, which they switched to a few years later.  This is not entirely a coincidence, and is deeply connected with why while the first "National Woman's Day" ever happened in the New York on February 28, 1909, it is not only not a holiday in the US, but is widely unknown even to many American women, even while  it is a national holiday in 26 nations around the world and has been internationally recognized since the mid-1970s by the United Nations (either 1975 or 1977, sources seem to disagree).

There are many conflicting stories and myths surrounding the origin of International Womens' Day, but it does seem that the first celebration was organized by the American Socialist Party and held in New York on Feb. 28, 1909, emphasizing both working womens' rights and the suffragette movement's  demand for women gaining the right to vote.  The most famous line from that first celebration was probably due to author Charlotte Gilman Perkins, speaking in Brooklyn, who declared that "...a woman's duty is to her home and...home includes the whole country."  The following year the idea was picked up and endorsed by the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen under the name "Working Woman's Day," and then spread gradually throughout most of the world, initially in Europe. No specific date was set for it, and it would not be until 1945 that it became the plural form of "Womens' Day." In Germany in 1912, the slogan "Bread and Roses" was adopted.  In Russia the date for celebrating it was selected in 1913 to be the last Sunday in February, Julian calendar.

So it came to pass that the last Sunday in February in 1917 was on February 23, or March 8 in the Gregorian calendar. At that time a new food rationing system had been announced by the tsarist government as Russia's participation in World War I was going very badly, and the economy was in ruins.  On that Working Woman's Day, women protestors took to the streets banging pots and pans in protest of this new system and calling for "Bread and Peace," demanding an end to the food rationing, distribution of land, and an end to tsarism.  They went to factories where many male workers joined  them in the streets.  The protests grew and increased, and four days later troops ordered to fire on them refused to do so, always the sign that a revolution is at hand. Three days after that Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and the Provisional Government took over led by Prince Georgi Lvov, backed by the Constitutional Democrats (CaDets) party.  His government would be replaced not long afterwards by one led by Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Aleksandr Kerensky.  This government made the mistake of continuing to fight the war, despite its growing unpopularity. John Quiggen pointed out in a column in yesterday's New York Times that Kerensky may have missed a chance to make a peace offer in July to Germany, when he was at the height of his power, but he continued the war effort.  This paved the way for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to stage their coup on Julian October 25 (the Great October Socialist Revolution as it was called during the Soviet period), or November 7, Gregorian calendar, overthrowing the Kerensky government.  The Bolsheviks held a Duma election in December, but when the SRs won it, they threw the result out and simply assumed power, not giving it up until the Soviet Union ceased to exist on Christmas Day, 1991.

As Quiggen notes, this sets up a great counterfactual "what if"? What if Kerensky had successfully made that peace offer and remained in power?  Aside from possibly preventing the rise of Stalin and Hitler and the occurrence of World War II and all its horrors and much else awful that happened.  Russia might have turned into a Nordic style social democracy.  Then again, maybe this was impossible due to its tangled history of authoritarian rule.  In any case, it did not happen, Russia became the USSR, and we got the twentieth century that we got.

Even though the Bolsheviks overthrew the government arising out of that first February Revolution, they did not repudiate that revolution, indeed honored it as the first step to their revolution, and as part of that made Woman's Working Day one of celebration, with it becoming an official national holiday in 1965, and today it is a national holiday in 26 nations, 12 of them former Soviet republics.  As it is, it largely became depoliticized, with it in Russia now functioning as a sort of substitute for Valentine's Day in western nations, with Russian men traditionally giving women flowers, preferably mimosas, and taking them out to dinner and giving them chocolates, and so on.  In other nations such as Italy, where it is widely celebrated (women will get into museums free today) but is not a full national holiday, women go out together to have a good time while the men stay home and take care of the kids or whatever, but also giving women mimosas (I do have not managed to get a definite explanation where the mimosa thing came in).  Different nations do different things on this day.

But in the US, its original home, it never really caught on.  Not only that, but due to its connection with socialism and then Soviet communism, it was actively suppressed during the 1950s Cold War period, which is why many people, including many women, are simply unaware of it in the US, even as it is celebrated in various ways in well over 100 nations around the world.

However, this may be changing, and it may be at least partly due to a partial re-politicizing of the day, with the womens' March in Washington after the Trump inauguration triggering a call for a womens' general strike today in the US.  I do not know how many will respond to that, but there has been more publicity about the day than in the past, so things are changing.  There has also been some return to focusing on poltiical issues elsewhere as well, with some marches in Italy protesting violence against women around the world.  The day is going back to its roots, even as those roots are part of why it was suppressed in the US for so long.

In any case, it is worth remembering indeed that the day is associated with the beginning of one of the world's most dramatic historical events one hundred years ago, when those women in Petrograd went out to call for bread and peace while pounding on their pots and pans.  They shook the world, and women can still shake the world.

Barkley Rosser

PS: Among the myths that I have heard is the claim that the original Woman's Day event in New York was organized by Clara Zetkin.  This is false. She was a German socialist and later communist who never set foot in the US.  Her connection with the day is that at the 1910 Socialist International meeting that endorsed it, she seconded the motion to do so, and later argued for its celebration prominently, being a friend of Rosa Luxemburg, and eventually became a famous figure in the communist world, fleeing to Moscow after Hitler came to power, with many streets in the former East  Germany named after her.

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