Today is the 100 th anniversary of International Women’s Day, the brainchild of socialist feminists at the turn of the 20 th century. The idea was to give women a day to come together and push for equal rights. Though it isn’t really celebrated in the United States, many countries continue to mark the date with an official public holiday. Here in Russia, it is a major holiday with its own long weekend, a legacy of the 1965 Soviet declaration to honor women’s contributions toward building communism and fighting off the Nazi horde.
The Bolsheviks may have been sons of bitches, but they had a few tough ladies in their mix and together they pushed through revolutionary measures to educate women and give them open access to the workplace. (First female ambassador* in the world? Soviet.) This is how two of my great-grandmothers became doctors, and one a professor of chemistry, how my grandmothers became a cardiologist and a chemical engineer, and my mother a physician and professor of medicine. When I was growing up in Soviet Moscow, International Women’s Day was a time to honor those achievements and encourage future ones. Exceptional working ladies were publicly honored by the State. On March 8, my father would give me paint or books. Today, more than 20 years later, I got a rose and a chocolate from the desk staff at my gym and the Russian Interior Ministry announced that, in honor of the holiday, it was not going to penalize female drivers “for the small stuff.”
I obviously feel very honored.
March 8 has become a travesty in modern Russia. In the 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has quickly shed all vestiges of egalitarianism and become ensconced in a deeply patriarchal social order. Women are now paid less than men, though they are more than half the workforce and are often the primary breadwinners in their families. On top of that reality, however, is a totally contradictory cultural expectation: Russian women are not expected to be financially independent-career ambitions are either considered adorably naïve or render a woman a sexless bitch. As a result, they have become commodities-pardon the cliché-purchased either for their bodies or for their ability to keep home and bear children. These two categories never overlap, of course, so naturally their husbands are expected to fool around on the side. On top of that, there’s the supposed chivalry that’s instead reminiscent of the way adults speak to children. (When the ballerina Anastasia Volochkova recently left the ruling United Russia party, the party made this statement on its site: “Women, like children, are inclined to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.”) They are bad drivers given reprieve, they are strange, volatile creatures we ply with flattery, not reason.
A poll released ahead of the holiday by a respected Russian pollster showed the top three qualities men value in women are, in order of importance: the ability to keep house, physical attractiveness, and attentiveness. Then come faithfulness, morality, and, in sixth place, smarts. (Of the qualities men said they typically associate with women, only seven percent chose “logic” and eight percent said “creativity.”) Women are, in other words, mothers and attractive accoutrements for one’s (male) world. Which is why, when prime minister and Russian heartthrob Vladimir Putin congratulated Russian women today in honor of International Women’s Day, he thanked them, first and foremost, for “giving us all life, which says just about everything.” He added, “Of course we men want women to be the ornaments of our lives.”
And so March 8 becomes a day representative of the way Russians do penance: Subsume the sin in saccharine words and do it with lots and lots of flowers.
Instead, I am taking my grandmother, still practicing medicine at 76, out to lunch.
Correction, Mar. 8, 2011: The woman referred to here, Alexandra Kollontai, was the world’s first female ambassador. The post originally referred to her as the world’s first female diplomat.
Photograph of Anastasia Volochkova by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images.