International Women’s Day is here — and maybe this year, don’t give flowers.

International Women’s Day (IMD), or Mezinárodní den žen (MDŽ) in Czech, is coming up on the 8th of March. Around the world, events and campaigns will be held to promote gender equality, and to drive progress on issues including discrimination against women, sexual violence and harrassment, and the gender pay gap. 

In 2023, the theme of IMD is #EmbraceEquity, which aims “to get the world talking about Why equal opportunities aren't enough. People start from different places, so true inclusion and belonging require equitable action.” 

In the Czech Republic, as in many other post-Soviet countries, the day is usually seen as a day to celebrate women through gifts and gestures. Although the traditional carnations of the Communist era have fallen out of fashion, gifts of flowers and chocolates remain common.

Although today MDŽ is a public holiday, the day has a complicated history in Czechia. To understand, let’s find out a bit more about International Women’s Day through the years, as well as its national context…

The Origins of International Women’s Day 

Although the exact date has varied, some form of Women’s Day has been marked since 1908, when the first National Women’s Day was organised by the Socialist Party of America as part of a broader movement campaigning for voting rights, better pay, and improved working conditions. 

Within a few short years it went international, spreading to Europe in the early 1910’s when Clara Zetkin, leader of the Women's Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, proposed an annual international event to advance the rights of women. Denmark was the first European country to mark the day in 1911, with Austria, Germany and Switzerland following a year later.

In 1913, Russia marked its first official IWD, and in 1917 the day was the beginning of a four day protest demanding ‘Bread and Peace’ — an event which is considered to be the beginning of the Russian Revolution. 

MDŽ in the Czech Republic

In Communist-era Czechoslovakia, MDŽ was a significant holiday, used to celebrate the participation of women in the workforce. High-achieving women were given awards by the state and invited to an annual gala at Prague Castle to meet the president. In the workplace and at home, female employees were thanked and given flowers or other gifts. 

Karen Kapusta-Pofahl, professor of sociology at Washburn University, examines the way this era is looked back on today: 

These narratives describe an absurd obligatory celebration in which men gave women flowers and thanked them for their work, then went out to get drunk. Having been thanked, the women continued on with their double burdens of employment and domestic responsibilities and nothing changed…  The flowers are symbols of the emptiness of the regime’s gestures toward the “emancipation” of women.

This legacy has given the post-socialist Czech Republic a difficult relationship with the holiday. Many argue that it has been so tainted by its association with the Communist Party that it should not be marked at all.

The first post-1989 IWD event was organised in 2001 by feminist groups. Kapusta-Pofahl describes the programme of the event, called Global Women’s Strike, as “based on an intersectional critique of sexism, fascism, racism, and capitalism… The organizers of the event handed out informational brochures that detailed their position regarding women’s rights throughout the world and made an argument about the ways in which capitalist systems perpetuate sexism: ‘We live in a system founded on inequality and exploitation. We refuse to scramble for profit, ruthless competition, social inequality, and the consumerist way of life. We demand a society founded on equality and social justice regardless of sex, age, ethnicity, nationality or sexual orientation’.”

Since 2004, following widespread national debate, the Czech Republic recognised MDŽ as a public holiday. Today, the holiday is relatively uncontroversial in the Czech Republic and flower-giving remains the most common way to celebrate.

Around the world

Around the world, the day is a focal point for the continuing battle for gender equality. Countries and communities come together to highlight the varied struggles faced by women in 2023, including access to shelter for victims of domestic violence, reform of the women-dominated care-giving sector, recognition of the disproportionate discrimination faced by women of colour, and solidarity with the women of Afghanistan and Iran who are who are bravely risking arrest and even death to demand basic freedoms. 

So this year, regardless of whether or not you’re giving or receiving flowers, also take a moment to honour the history of International Women’s Day, and the many women around the world demanding equal pay, better working conditions, and fundamental rights.