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Berlin marks first official Women's Day holiday

Kate Brady
March 8, 2019

This year, for the first time, March 8 is a public holiday in the city-state of Berlin. But the concept of Women's Day in Germany is a centurylong work in progress.

Women's Day demonstrator in Berlin
Thousands of women are expected to march in Berlin for women's rights on March 8Image: imago/IPON

It was in 1910 at the Conference of Socialist Women — held that year in Copenhagen — that German women's rights activist Clara Zetkin first suggested the idea for International Women's Day.

A year later, along with Austria, Switzerland and Denmark, Germany celebrated Women's Day for the first time on March 19. Demonstrations demanding women's suffrage — a right that was finally handed to German women in 1918 — dominated the day.

Berlin - Netzwerk-Treffen von Müllwerkerinnen: Franziska Giffey Bundesfamilienministerin
German Family and Women's Minister Franziska Giffey in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska

A century later, dressed head-to-toe in bright orange overalls, Germany's Family and Women's Minister Franziska Giffey traveled through a Berlin suburb on Thursday on the back of a garbage truck. Her aim: to challenge gender stereotypes in male-dominated jobs.

"When it comes to gender equality, a lot has been achieved in recent years," she said on the eve of the first Women's Day considered an official public holiday in Berlin. "We're in the 100th year of women's suffrage but we still have a lot to do."

"We need to ensure that women can not only be active in leadership positions, but in every profession. We have to make sure that social professions are valued. We have to make sure that more is done against domestic violence, especially against women."

But in the 101 years since Zetkin's initiative, the understanding and concept of Women's Day has seen many changes.

German women's suffrage poster from 1914
'Onward for women's voting rights — Women's Day, March 8, 1914' reads this German poster advertising a suffrage demonstrationImage: picture-alliance/akg-images/K.-M. Stadler

Read more: Gender equality at work could take 'more than 200 years'

Revolutionary start

The date March 8, which has been earmarked for Women's Day since 1921, was in fact the idea of Alexandra Kollontai, comrade of Vladimir Lenin. It was originally intended to commemorate the women workers' strike in Petrograd [today St. Petersburg] on the same day in 1917. The walkout is widely considered the prelude to the October Revolution in Russia, eight months later.

During the era of Germany's Weimar Republic, however, the ruling Social Democrats rejected the date, due to reservations about Lenin and the revolution. The date also faced fascist opposition.

East-West divide

In the German postwar era, March 8 was largely rejected by the former West Germany, which argued that the day was one of self-adulation for neighboring former East Germany (GDR). But across the border in the GDR, Women's Day was one of considerable importance.

The public holiday in the East aimed to promote equality and appreciate the work of women, who were often handed red roses. The GDR also awarded a Clara Zetkin Medal to women and organizations deemed to have supported feminist and socialist causes in the country.

It wasn't until the 1970s that women in West Germany began make their voices heard on March 8. In 1977, the UN declared the day International Women's Day.

Demonstration for International Women's Day in Hamburg, 1980
International Women's Day in Hamburg, 1980: "Children, kitchen, home and stove, aren't everything in life"Image: picture-alliance/Keystone/H. Lückert

'Celebrate, strike, fight on'

This year marks the first time that March 8 will be a public holiday in Germany — but only in the city-state of Berlin, making it the first of Germany's 16 states to take the measure.

Thousands of men and women are set to take to the streets across the German capital, with demonstrations taking place at the monument to Clara Zetkin as well on the city's iconic Alexanderplatz.

Under the motto, "Celebrate, strike, fight on," trade unionists and representatives from women's organizations for migration and refugees are set to descend on the square, before marching to the lively district of Kreuzberg for a "global scream."

Read more: The news media has a woman problem

The minute-long "scream" in unison, is about "shouting out [our] rage without restraint," organizers said. 

The main issues of this year's march are old-age poverty and the unequal, unpaid labor burden that falls upon women. Germany's gender wage gap of 21 percent is also a priority for demonstrators.

Berlin Senate absent 

Despite the decision to make March 8 a public holiday in Berlin, the state Senate itself has little planned. Berlin Mayor Michael Müller's calendar is also free of any official appointments to mark the day.

Among Germany's top politicians, however, the day hasn't gone unnoticed, with many highlighting the lack of women in politics. Just 31 percent of MPs in the current German parliament are women. Fewer than 20 years ago.

Read more: Female representation lagging on German public boards

German Justice Minister Katarina Barley at SPD Ash Wednesday events
"Prost!": German Justice Minister Katarina Barley raises a glass at the Social Democrats' (SPD) Ash Wednesday eventsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

Speaking at the Social Democrats' Ash Wednesday events — a century-old tradition across Germany's political parties where political leaders are allowed to push the rhetoric to the limits of fairness (much to the delight of beered-up party supporters) — German Justice Minister and former Women's Minister Katarina Barley took aim at the Bavarian conservatives, the CSU.

"This thing about women," Barley said. "Not everyone's grasped it. When I look at Berlin, at the Cabinet, I see the CSU holding three ministries. And who's sat there? A man, and another man and a third man […] And what kind of men too!"

Pondering what it means to be a feminist, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, too, stressed on Thursday that equality "is about representation, participation, equal opportunities and equal rights." Every "sincere democrat" has to campaign for women's rights and equality "without any ifs and buts," he underlined. "If that means being a feminist, then we need 82 million feminists in Germany!"

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