Russians practically invented International Women's Day... so let's hear from the Western media about how Russia is doing it wrong
Vladimir Putin, noted Asperger’s sufferer, gunslinger, KGB hitman, cancer patient, and Parseltongue is also a sexist jerk, according to the Western media response to his comments on International Women’s Day.
Let’s get one thing clear straightaway: Russia first began celebrating International Women’s Day in 1913, and it became a national holiday in 1965. In the West, it was not observed as an event until 1977, so simply because Westerners have co-opted the day, that does not give them exclusive license to dictate what kind of commentary is acceptable and what is not.
The Washington Post thought Putin was asking women out and mansplaining because he said this:
Dear women, you possess a mysterious power: you keep up with everything, juggle a myriad of tasks, and yet remain tender, unforgettable and full of charm. You bring goodness and beauty, hope and light into this world. We are proud of you and we love you.
I am not sure how Putin’s comments qualify as sexist. It’s not as if he said, “Ladies, thank you all for being our babymamas. Isn’t it cute how you can have careers now? Now get on into the kitchen and make me a sammich.”
Gender roles are, on average, more rigid in Russia than Westerners perceive their own to be, and that is partly due to culture and partly due to history. According to Russian-American journalist Diana Bruk, there is a pretty compelling historical context for this:
The iconic Soviet female, often portrayed in national leaflets with a sickle in one hand and a spoon in the other, was minimalistic and productive rather than glamorous. It’s no wonder then that with the fall of the Soviet Union, as psychologist Yulya Burlakova explains, Russian women welcomed a return to traditional gender roles and felt the urge to overcompensate for years of subjugated femininity.
It is true that Russian women on average tend to be more put together than their Western counterparts. Russian women can juggle a marriage, a job, school, a kid, and regular exercise, while their make-up, hair, and clothes remain on point. All I have is a full-time job, and I can’t manage to get to the store in something nicer than Fabletics.
Of course it is Western media’s job to find fault with Putin’s statement, and if one wants to interpret what he said as sexist, I suppose that is their choice. Honestly, I don’t expect a whole lot of cultural sensitivity out of the Western press when it comes to Russia, but their critique does display a lack of understanding of Russian culture and how International Women’s Day is celebrated in Russia.
Putin’s statement plays into the Western narrative that Russia is a singularly sexist country. What Putin said may be rejected by Western feminists, but why does that matter when most Russian women reject Western feminism with cause?
Western feminism, which is dominated by upper middle-class white women, tends to reward and praise women who take on stereotypically masculine traits. Comedian Amy Schumer is considered a feminist icon because she burps and swears. Even pro-Western, anti-Putin Russian women reject Western feminism, not because Russia is “backward,” as the West likes to believe, but because of historio-cultural context. Writes Bruk:
The obvious question here is: how did this intense aversion to feminism develop? The answer begins, as it often does, in the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1917, Russia became one of the first places in the world to give women the right to vote, and egalitarianism was promoted as one of the great ideals of the revolution.
Like many of those ideals, however, it was somewhat of an illusion. Women were still expected to take care of all the domestic duties, but now they had to take on the burden of labor as well. The appropriation of male responsibility unsurprisingly escalated after Russia lost 10 million men in World War II and another 18 million passed through the gulag.
The overwhelming load that women now had to carry was expressed in the rhyming Russian saying, “I’m both a horse and a bull, I’m both a woman and a man,” which echoes the complaints made by my mother and her friends when they used to tiredly grumble, “Before feminism, all you had to do was be a good wife and mother. Now you have to do everything.
And what has Western feminism got to offer them, anyway? According to a new poll:
An overwhelming majority of Russians (93%) are certain that women are capable of making successful careers in business no worse than men, as follows from an opinion poll by the national public opinion studies center VTsIOM.
On average, most Russians approve of women’s participation in politics, and about a third would like to see a female president in the next 10-15 years.
Russian women already have paid maternity leave, unrestricted access to abortion after age 16, and more females in executive business roles than the United States. Valentina Matviyenko is the Russian Federation Council Speaker. Maria Zakharova, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, has put American women like Jen Psaki and Marie Harf to shame. The head of the Russian Central Bank is Elvira Nabiullina, a former Putin aide who also happens to be a woman.
The shortsighted interpretation of the Western media narrative is pretty typical, as is their selective quoting of Putin. Most sources are taking one quote from his speech and running with it, when he actually had more to say:
Dear women, I sincerely commend you on this International Women's Day, which is marked with special warmth in Russia, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. It is filled with gifts and flowers, as well as the kindest feelings towards our mothers, wives, daughters and colleagues – women who all are close to our hearts.
International Women’s Day is, in fact, celebrated as a particularly special holiday in Russia and CIS countries as a sort of combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, albeit with some extra days off work, as it is a federal holiday. Except condescending lectures on how IWD is hurting Russia’s carbon footprint, the way former Soviet countries celebrate goes more or less unreported in the West. The holiday traces its origins to early 20th century socialism, but the political bent of celebrations in the post-Soviet space has lessened with their shift away from the Soviet system..
Although International Women’s Day is a political holiday in the West, in Russia it is generally not. It is instead a day of men appreciating the women in their lives. Men present their wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, girlfriends, and female coworkers with flowers, chocolate, and candy to show their affection. Its counterpart is Defender of the Fatherland Day, originally meant to honor those in the armed services, but which has evolved into a day on which women give gifts to significant men in their lives. If the WaPo wishes to find fault with Putin’s Defender of the Fatherland Day statements, they can be found here.
Putin’s chauvinist comments continued:
I would like to specifically extend gratitude to the women of the war generation. Your fortitude, your feat taught us to become real men and win against all odds.
Putler, you sexist pig, you. He should learn a thing or two from the Saudis, and ban the womenfolk from driving.
Hey, here’s a thought: Perhaps the president of the country that is planning to send an all-female mission to the moon is allowed to say whatever the heck he wants on International Women’s Day. Perhaps he should be allowed to do this without individuals who are committed to viewing Russia in the most negative light editorializing on cherry-picked quotes. America has already decided that nothing Russia does will ever be good enough for their lofty standards, so if Americans want the world to believe that they are a more progressive society, perhaps they should elevate some of their social policies to be more in line with Russia's. Maybe hire some female spokespeople who aren't a punchline. Or appoint a female UN ambassador who isn't a pathological liar. To paraphrase British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, it is deeds that matter, not words.