On a winter’s morning in Petrograd, women begin streaming onto the streets.
Two million men have died, food is running out, and women have reached breaking point.
By late afternoon, some 100,000 workers walk out of their factories to join them. On their way, women smash windows of stores, raid the shelves for bread and food.
Thousands make a dangerous dash across the frozen river to reach the city centre — police are firing shots at those using the bridges.
Another 50,000 odd workers join them the next day, overturning trams and carriages, occupying the river, and hijacking the enormous statue of Alexander III in Znamenskaya Square.
The sight of strikers scaling this icon of autocracy, nicknamed “the hippopotamus”, convinces the crowd the revolution has whirred into action.
The riot continues for four days despite the military opening fire: when it’s over, police find the word “hippopotamus” engraved on the statue’s plinth.
Seven days after International Women’s Day of 1917, the tsar is gone, and women win the right to vote.
“We did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate a revolution,” wrote Leon Trotsky. “But in the morning, all went out into the streets.”
From revolution to breakfast
While the first “Women’s Day” was held by American socialists in 1908, it was soon picked up by others worldwide. By 1913, it had reached Russia: one of its founders there was Lenin’s wife, Nadya Krupskaya (they married, quite literally, in Siberian exile).
Nadya was a formidable organiser — as Trotsky recalled, “in her room, there was always a smell of burned paper from the secret letters she heated over the fire to read”.
What would Nadya think of the business brunches, the fun runs, the branded IWD-themed T-shirts, scarves and mugs now?
In 2019, International Women’s Day looks very different. Instead of striking for “peace and bread”, women are more likely to gather for platitudes and breakfast.
While it’s been a public holiday in Russia since it triggered the revolution, these days, it’s like a combination of our Mothers’ and Valentine’s Day, where Russians buy gifts to celebrate the women in their lives.
In the West, more than a century after suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak at IWD 1914, there are still marches in most cities but far more women take to social media than the streets, posting loving tributes to their favourite women.
In the countries where many women feel most compelled to protest, they’re often not able to. Tehrani police beat hundreds who were planning to rally in 2007, only releasing some activists from jail after a 15-day hunger strike.
In 2011, hundreds of Egyptian men harassed women who’d marched to Tahrir Square, while police and military watched.
Meanwhile, in the West, the very conditions that make it possible to protest leave many feeling confident they don’t need to.
‘More PR than politics’
While IWD may’ve lost its revolutionary edge, it seems it’s never been more prominent in our consciousness.
That’s in part thanks to a new set of champions: brands.
“Without sounding cynical, brands are seeing the commercial value of being involved”, says Business Chicks CEO, Olivia Ruello.
“It’s an opportunity for corporates and brands to demonstrate brand values in an overt way, and to stand for something that matters.”
It’s a curious turn for an event first organised by the Socialist Party of America, before being picked up by socialist powerhouses worldwide.
For feminist and UTS academic Eva Cox, IWD is now “more PR than politics”.
But Ms Ruello says that brands and corporates have the scale and influence to affect real change.
“Corporates can give women and men equal access to opportunities and the flexibility they need to run a home and have a career.
“Brands also have an opportunity to influence in very powerful ways, so I think joining the conversation is positive.”
But her confidence comes with a caveat: “I would suggest that corporates are probably better to spend time on the actual issues, rather than putting on events for one day a year and doing nothing for the rest. They should do both.”
Dr Lauren Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne shares this view.
“While we can be cynical about brands vying to be seen as “woke”, providing sponsorship money to enable hard work to be done is, at least theoretically, great.
“This becomes more concerning however, if corporations begin dictating the agenda for celebrations.”
Last year, Esprit was criticised for sponsoring IWD while engaging Bangladeshi women as sweatshop labour.
“This is often the problem with such corporations,” wrote Celeste Liddle.
“Their politics are performative while their practices are exploitative. As a result, the very real struggles of some of the most disadvantaged get white-washed via ribbons and cupcakes.”
‘Not-so-international women’s day’
A common critique of brands’ involvement with IWD is that their messaging is, necessarily, conservative. Women’s empowerment is spoken about in broad, general terms — there’s little reference to specific issues facing women, like sexual violence or reproductive rights.
“This is a watering down of any kind of feminist message and selling us a feel-good feminism, that encourages women to invest in their aspirations, be empowered and ‘lean in'”, says Catherine Rottenberg, author of The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism.
“This is a palatable and marketable feminism because it is non-threatening: it doesn’t address the devastation wrought by capitalism, misogyny and sexism.”
For some commentators, talking about “women” as a single group is also a problem, as it ignores the spectrum of women’s experiences.
Ms Liddle, an Arrernte woman, has argued along with many others that IWD must start with the issues facing disadvantaged groups first:
“IWD started as a working women’s movement”, she tweeted under the hashtag #takebackIWD.
“Working Aboriginal women are still waiting for the payment of Stolen Wages. Still experiencing a pay gap larger than 16 per cent. Yet corporations are using IWD as a profitable photo op.”
Meanwhile, Noha Aboueldahab from the Brookings Doha Centre told RN this week that “not-so-international women’s day” has been dominated by “Western narratives of women’s rights”.
She described a “crisis of solidarity”, where non-Western women’s experiences were either ignored or discussed in a superficial way.
“When you look at stories about women in other parts of the world, they’re mostly to do with image, for example, ‘these women are oppressed because they wear the hijab’. They significantly overlook how the plight of these women extends way beyond that.”
‘Very limited changes’
For Ms Cox, IWD is a symbol of how Western feminism is tinkering around the edges of real reform.
“In Australia, we are focussing on very limited changes, mainly to allow us to share more of male-defined benefits, like paid work and top jobs, rather than changing the structures to suit less gender-stereotypical roles,” she says.
On IWD 2016, she called for more ambitious reform: rather than pushing for women to gain a greater foothold in paid work, we should interrogate why caring and domestic work remains unpaid, she argued.
A year later, little had changed: “there were breakfasts to raise money, events to celebrate individual success and some interesting talkfests, but no political plans to implement the ideas,” she wrote.
“It seemed to be more social and celebratory than a political event, at a time when major changes and retro populism are threatening both what we have gained and an equitable future.”
For Dr Rosewarne, IWD might not be revolutionary, but it still serves a purpose.
“I’d like to think that every time I do any engagement on IWD, be it radio interviews or public talks, that someone might leave thinking about things a little differently than they did before.
“If we think of IWD more broadly as doing this — and not raise our expectations too disproportionately — I think it provides a key annual reminder for us not to trick ourselves into thinking the work of feminism is over.”
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