“Flowers aren’t enough”: Changing views of International Women’s Day

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague International

Monday is International Women’s Day, celebrating women’s achievements and focusing attention on rights and equality issues. In this part of the world March 8 was a major celebration under the Communists – and there have been mixed feelings about it since 1989.

International Women’s Day can be traced back to 1909, when the Socialist Party of America organised a Women’s Day in New York.

March 8 later became a national holiday celebrating women in the USSR and the day was predominantly marked by it and other Communist states, though the United Nations began observing it in the mid-1970s.

In Communist Czechoslovakia MDŽ (Mezinárodní den žen) was a very big deal – and saw high-achieving women from around the country invited to Prague Castle for an annual gala event with the president.

A gem from Czech Radio’s archive captures this woman meeting head of state Antonín Novotný in 1962.

“I’m the head of a collective and I’ve been told to give you heartfelt greetings from everybody in Nová Ves. Our tractor drivers also send you warm greetings. We’re doing our best to make sure that our work improves.”

Illustrative photo: Czech Television

A decade later, under normalisation, this lady was overcome at visiting Prague Castle’s Spanish Hall under President Gustav Husák.

“I’m very grateful for this invitation. I can say that, when I saw the women here from all around the republic – the fact that we are all gathered together, and the honour we have received – believe me when I say I shed some tears.”

The fall of communism impacted perceptions of International Women’s Day among Czechs, with some associating it closely with the totalitarian period.

However it is not so unusual for organisations to still give chocolates and flowers to female staff, and florists report it is one of their busiest days of the year (though sales of carnations – common pre-1989 – are down).

A few years ago senators attempted to have the celebration struck off the list of national “significant days”, before MPs kyboshed the idea.

Petra Jelínková is a feminist and co-heads the political party Budoucnost.

She says the Covid emergency has again changed perceptions of International Women’s Day, with more respect now given to carers – and argues that women deserve more than bouquets.

“We actually need women, but also any other margainalised group, to get more power and to really be given equal opportunities.

“So I think that chocolates and flowers are not enough.

“On the other hand I think it would be definitely nice to appreciate the work of people in the care work sector.

“So if anybody wants to send flowers and chocolates, do that for social workers, do that fir nurses and doctors, do that for people in homes for elderly people, and all these other services.”