Today women (and men) worldwide celebrate International Women’s Day. In more than 100 countries, from the United States to Turkey, the day is an opportunity to advance the cause of political, economic, and social equality. In Russia, where the day has its historical roots, it is a time to “remember the importance of women” by showering them with flowers and expensive gifts. After all, it was the working women of Petrograd who helped usher in the defining moments of Russian history exactly one hundred years ago.
International Women’s Day is dated March 8 (February 23 in the Julian calendar Russia used at the time) in honor of the female textile workers whose massive demonstration for “Bread and Peace” spurred Russia’s 1917 February Revolution. Women became active political agents in their society as they protested food shortages and demanded an end to Russian involvement in World War I, which had claimed the lives of over two million Russian soldiers. The strike led to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication and the establishment of a provisional government which gave women the right to vote.
After the October 1917 Bolshevik coup that suffocated Russia’s democratic interlude, Vladimir Lenin declared a holiday to commemorate women’s contribution to the Revolution—the first official Women’s Day in history. However, as with so many other promises broken, communism did not give women equal rights in society. Communism crushed free agency. No woman or man in the Soviet Union had the right to speak freely or protest the regime’s abuse of human and civil rights. Collectivization led to starvation on an unprecedented scale.
In Women of the Gulag, historian Paul Gregory brings to the forefront the particular trials of women who endured Stalin’s reign of terror. “Most belles-lettres on the Gulag, starting with the classic accounts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, explore primarily the travails of men,” he explains, “In so many cases, it was the wives and daughters who survived to tell what happened.”
Communists judged women according to their husbands’ perceived crimes, not as individuals. Women suffered not only the violence of rape, but also worked alongside men in the brutal conditions of the Gulag, the only “equal-opportunity institution” in Soviet Russia. Women whose husbands and sons were executed or imprisoned by the intolerant and paranoid regime bore the responsibility of keeping together their families in a society that did not protect single women. The poet Anna Akhmatova remembers waiting outside a prison in Leningrad for 17 months to see her son. In “Requiem,” she writes, “I stand as witness to the common lot, survivor of that time, that place.”
The Russian women who resisted the Tsar and then the communists are the model foundation for International Women’s Day—especially for those women who continue to suffer under Marxist-Leninist totalitarian regimes. Cuba’s Ladies in White—the wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of political prisoners—march every Sunday to protest the Castro regime’s oppression of dissent. These women are often harassed, beaten, and jailed themselves for their peaceful demonstration. Likewise, in China in 2015, five young women were arrested by state security services for passing out stickers condemning sexual harassment.
Chinese communists first began celebrating International Women’s Day in 1922, following the example of the Soviet Union. The arrest of the “Feminist Five” during the 2015 celebration highlights the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in China. While these activists were arrested and physically and psychologically abused, men raced through shopping malls in high heels to celebrate Chinese women’s achievements and President Xi Jinping told a United Nations Women’s Conference: “Chinese women have the opportunity to excel in life and make their dreams come true.”
This cannot be true, while the Chinese Communist Party continues to implement policies that target women. The regime not only harasses women’s rights activists, such as renowned lawyer Guo Jianmei, but enforces control even over how many children a woman is allowed to have. The Party’s coercive population control policies, which now limit a woman to two children, have provoked sex-selective abortion and infanticide at levels that Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, terms “gendercide.” There are currently up to 23 million abortions a year in China, according to the US State Department, many of them involuntary. Children born in defiance of population restrictions are often unregistered, legally “blacklisted” and stripped of any rights.
The active political agency of women helped usher in the February Revolution in 1917. When the United Nations adopted International Women’s Day in 1975, it claimed the day for women’s freedom. Communist regimes cannot hide behind the language of equality while they continue to oppress women. Today we celebrate the women everywhere who are fighting still for equal rights and protection under the law.