Celebrating the Festa delle Donne, 8th March

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?

International Women's Day 2015

International Women’s Day 2015

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.

Striking for better pay and conditions

Striking for better pay and conditions

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.

Marching in memory of the 146 who died in the factory fire

Marching in memory of the 146 who died in the factory fire

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.

Commemorating Russia women's strength in overcoming household slavery and

1932 Soviet poster dedicated to March 8 holiday. The text reads: “The 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!”

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.

Early publicity for the Festa delle donne

Early publicity for the Festa delle donne

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.

Mimosa bouquets ready for Sunday's celebrations

Mimosa bouquets ready for Sunday’s celebrations

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!

Corteo delle donne - Parade for women

Corteo delle donne – Parade for women

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!

A women's team practice out in the lagoon - possibly in preparation for the parade

A women’s team practice out in the lagoon  this week – possibly in preparation for the parade

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!

Shops and bars are full of suggestions for ways to help the celebrations go smoothly!

Shops and bars are full of suggestions for ways to help the celebrations go smoothly!

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.

Lindt chocolates for the ladies in your life

Lindt chocolates for the ladies in your life

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).

Mmmmm....Mimosa cake

Mmmmm….Mimosa cake

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!

Make it happen!

Make it happen!

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?

Plaque to mark the birthplace of Elena Cornaro Piscopia in Venice

Plaque to mark the birthplace of Elena Cornaro Piscopia in Venice

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!

Useful information

International Women’s Day website – www.internationalwomensday.com/default.asp

For breaking news follow #womensday
Join in on facebook/internationalwomensday
Discuss at LinkedIn/internationalwomensday

Venice parade & regatta http://vivavogaveneta.org

Rowing lessons http://rowvenice.org

Mimosa cake recipe http://www.academiabarilla.com/italian-recipes/step-step-recipes/mimosa-cake.aspx

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.

I Have Confidence in Me

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5 Responses to Celebrating the Festa delle Donne, 8th March

  1. Buona festa della Donna a little late! I really enjoyed this post because I didn’t know all the history behind the holiday .. It’s not much celebrated in the US but I think it should be!
    Ps: I love mimosas to look at but I’m especially allergic to the smell… The cake would suit me just fine:)
    Saluti da NYC !

  2. Interesting post! I always loved to receive mimosa, but I remember many of my friends not being too sure about it 😉

    • lizbert1 says:

      Yeah I asked around and got a very mixed response from my Italian friends too – I guess its a personal choice. Personally any publicity that might make people think about equal rights, equal pay, freedom from domestic violence or sexual violence has got to be a good thing. The struggle for equality continues!

  3. Mary Gangemi says:

    Please do not be surprised if you ask a women what the 8th of March represents, their answer would be a night out with the girls. It’s so sad.

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