This weekend Italians are preparing to celebrate the Festa delle donne, otherwise known as International Women’s Day, with Mimosa flowers, cakes and festive events. The revelries are a little over-shadowed by a report, published this week, showing a yawning pay gap still exists between men and women in Italy and around the world. Add to that many Italian women believe the festival is becoming too commercialised and promoting stereotypical gender roles. So where does the Festa delle donne originate from, how do we celebrate it and is it effective at promoting positive images of women?
The United Nations’ International Women’s Day has its roots in two countries, the USA and revolutionary Russia. Originally a political event, the earliest celebration was organised in 1909 by the International Ladies Garment Union in support of New York workers striking for shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
The day gained momentum after a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911 when 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, either died in the fire or jumped to their deaths; fire exits had been locked to prevent theft and unauthorised breaks. More than 100,000 people took part in the funeral march in New York and the cause was taken up around the world to promote equal rights, including suffrage, or votes for women.
Later, in 1917, demonstrations by women in Russia demanding an end to the First World War, an end to food shortages and an end to Tsarist rule spectacularly started the Russian Revolution. The strike for “Bread and Peace” in St Petersburg led to mass strikes across the country and ultimately to the October Revolution. As a consequence International Women’s Day was instituted as a national day in the Soviet Union to commemorate the rebellion of women against kitchen slavery and their heroism and selflessness in the struggle for peace.
The 1932 Soviet poster dedicated to March 8 holiday. The text reads: “8th of March is the day of rebellion of the working women against kitchen slavery” and “Down with the oppression and narrow-mindedness of household work!”. Originally in the USSR the holiday had a clear political character, emphasizing the role of the Soviet state in the liberation of women from their second-class-citizen status.
In Italy, celebrations date back to March 1946 when two activists, Rita Montagnana and Teresa Mattei, decided to mark International Women’s Day with a symbolic gesture offering branches of mimosa to other women as a sign of mutual respect, sisterhood and support. Mimosa was chosen for a number of reasons. On a practical level, it is one of the few plants in flower at this time of the year. Furthermore, despite having tiny yellow puffs for flowers, the Mimosa is a strong plant that can survive adverse conditions and flourishes in Italy. It therefore became a perfect symbol for the equality movement who wanted to make Italy a place where women could grow and prosper.
Today the flower blossom is everywhere – in shops, piled high in markets and tied up in bouquets across the country. People are encouraged to give a bunch of Mimosa to the women in their lives including mothers, wives, daughters, friends and colleagues. But beware, whilst some women appreciate the gesture, others believe that commercialism has taken over, much as Valentine’s Day has been hijacked, and that the festival actually re-affirms stereotypes of women being “delicate flowers”. So be careful that you don’t misjudge the women in your life and cause offence!
Here in Venice the day kicks off with a procession down the Grand Canal. The parade of women in decorated boats will gather at San Marcuola at 9am, setting off for the Church of the Salute at 9.30am to arrive around 10am. The women’s arrival will be serenaded by soprana Rachele Colombo who will entertain with arias from the 17th century. This is the first year that such a procession has been held through the centre of the city so make sure to look out for the ladies as they row past in the early morning sun!
In addition to the parade there will also be the regular regatta for female rowers that was originally inaugurated in 1999. Racing in traditional flat-bottomed caorline boats the women will row in the ancient Venetian standing style promoting female achievement in sport. The event is being organised by VIVA, a voluntary sports and culture organisation, in conjunction with the Giudecca and Bucintoro rowing clubs, the regatta will start off behind the Giudecca island, racing along the Giudecca canal and ending at the Salute to the cheers of the waiting crowds!
Other parts of Italy will be celebrating with free or lower priced entry for women at chosen museums or sightseeing destinations. Men may greet you with an extra wide smile or welcome you with a warm “Auguri!”, or Best wishes. And generally there is a sense of celebration with women taking the opportunity to meet up with friends for lunch or a long aperitif! Chocolates are also an obvious part of the festivities along with the unofficial cake of the festival – the Torta Mimosa, or Mimosa cake.
A super moist cake filled, covered with creamy custardy and sponge puffs to mimic the Mimosa flowers the cake is a tasty addition to lunches or as an afternoon treat across the country. Plus its very easy to make, so if the ladies in your life have pollen allergies why not get baking (Recipe in the Useful Information section).
Generally the festa delle donne seems to be a largely social rather than socialist occasion these days and I’ve not seen much of the political side so far this year. So although Italian women earn an average of 41% less than men across all professions and the pay gap could take 70 years to close, it seems unlikely that Italy will see much protest on the festa delle donne.
Look out, however, for demonstrations around the world calling for sexual equality, equal pay and freedom from domestic or sexual violence. The day’s theme is #MakeItHappen whilst the UN is promoting the day with the title of “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity : Picture it!” Keep an eye on social media to see how women are marking the day around the world!
And finally, in the original spirit of the day, lets not forget to celebrate the achievements of Italian women through history. Did you know, for example that the first woman to graduate from university was Italian? Elena Corner Piscopia, born in Venice, graduated at Padua University receiving her Degree in Philosophy on 25 June 1678. In fact, the first 4 women to ever graduate were Italian and included Laura Bassi Veratti from Bologna, who graduated in Natural History and Medicine in 1732; Cristina Roccati, who graduated in 1751 in Philosophy and Physics again from the University of Bologna and Maria Pellegrina Amoretti, who graduated in 1777 in Law at the University of Pavia. Who would you nominate as a modern day role model for young women?
So whether you are parading down the Grand Canal, rowing in the regatta or celebrating with family and a sprig of mimosa, Sunday March 8th is a day for women around the world; our achievements, our strengths, our skills and our rights. Here in Venice women are gradually breaking through the gender barriers to become gondoliers, for example, and women continue to out-perform men at universities across Italy. In the name of International Women’s Day lets continue to strive for equality, celebrate our achievements and ensure young women everywhere have the opportunities to reach their goals through education. If you’re celebrating Women’s Day, leave me a comment to let me know how you’ll be marking it and who your female heroines are!
International Women’s Day website – www.internationalwomensday.com/default.asp
Venice parade & regatta http://vivavogaveneta.org
Rowing lessons http://rowvenice.org
Note : Mother’s Day falls the following weekend on 15th March in the UK and on the second sunday of May, which this year is 10th May.