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Happy International Women’s Day! How Hungary has celebrated the occasion down the ages

Every year on 8 March, Hungarian menfolk visit florists to present the women in their lives with bouquets of flowers. But since when? And why?

The history of International Women's Day in Hungary can be divided into three periods. The first lasted 35 years and although menfolk could honour the women in their lives, it was not an officially recognised holiday. Socialism elevated Women’s Day to official holiday status for more than 40 years until the change of régime. Though it is celebrated today, 8 March now has political overtones.

Early Women’s Day

The issue of women’s rights, equality and employment opportunities has been addressed since the 17th century. It was only towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries that concrete proposals and changes took place. International Women's Day itself, universally recognised in the 1910s, sprang from the workers' movement. At first, women demonstrated aggressively, and later peacefully.

The first major event took place on 8 March, 1857 in New York. A total of 40,000 workers in the textile and clothing industry went on strike to demand equal pay and better working conditions, including reduced working hours. The next important step was the adoption in 1866 at the first congress of the International Workers’ Union of a resolution on the professional employment of women, which put an end to the long-established notion that women should be at the stove.

In another such gathering in 1889, one of the heroines of the workers' movement, Clara Zetkin, also proclaimed the woman’s right to work and participate in national and international events. Twenty years later, in February 1909, the first official – then national – Women’s Day was held in the United States.

A year later, in the autumn of 1910, at the VII International Congress, it was proclaimed that there should be an International Women’s Day, with the aim of giving women the vote. On 19 March 1911, International Women’s Day was finally held in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

Hungarian daily Pesti Hírlap reported on it at the time, the journalist not referring to International Women's Day but Ladies’ Day, and predicted that the march for full equality might cover the whole country, if

...the celestial powers do not interfere in the matter, while the multitude of Austrian ladies demonstrating in favour of the extension of rights provide an unusual sight and curiosity.

Two years later, in 1913, the date was changed to 8 March, commemorating the events of 1857 as well. Although some sources refer to another incident that also occurred on 8 March: a fire broke out in a factory in New York in 1908, killing no fewer than 129 workers.

On 8 March 1917, a huge crowd of women took to the streets in Russia and four days later, the Tsar resigned and a civilian government was formed which, of course, sided with the Women’s Movement. With this event, the fact and date of International Women's Day became final.

Women’s rights in Hungary

Hungary joined the Women’s Movement early on, although International Women's Day was a marginal event for some time, this all changed after World War II. In 1913, the National Women’s Organising Committee distributed leaflets for women's rights, and a year later Women's Day celebrations were held in several places across the country.

In 1925, Hungarian daily Népszava wrote about Hungarian Women’s Day, which had been postponed a few months earlier, in an article entitled The Army of Hungarian Proletarian Women:

...Women’s Day is a recurring international celebration of the world’s proletarian women and a testament to the cross-border fight for solidarity among Socialist women. The women fighters of the Hungarian Workers' Movement observed this holiday last Sunday, so that together with the other proletarian women of the world, they could demonstrate their opposition to capitalist reactionaries and the most horrific manifestation of capitalism: war.

The most important speech of the Women's Festival of 1925 was given by Anna Kéthly, one of the greatest heroines of Hungary’s Workers' Movement:

The worries of finding their daily bread and their inhumane, humiliating struggles make the lives of proletarian women, above all, unbearable. The revolution of hearts and minds through the shopping bag has become a reality".

Moreover, the key woman of the age, deservedly popular, also asked the important question that:

"…is there a sculptor who would carve the statue of the unknown Hungarian proletarian woman, the statue that would perpetuate the sufferings of the Hungarian proletarian woman bleeding from a thousand wounds, like the unknown soldier?"       

Although the statue was never made, after World War II, all obstacles to making International Women’s Day official were removed. For the first three years, left-wing parties held more and more elaborate Women’s Day events, although not always in March. The Social Democratic Party, for example, celebrated International Women’s Day on 2 June 1946, according to the Alföld Newspaper, which even wanted this to be the official date for Women’s Day, adding that women's rights were not the main focus of the year, but Hungarian females marching for peace. According to the article, all this will be done with such passion that:

…the country and the rest of the world will also see from this movement that women are also significant fighters in Hungarian democracy, and the new country can only be built with them.

In the so-called Blue Ballot Election of August 1947, the Hungarian Communist Party consolidated their majority and the following year, destroyed the one-party system and installed a dictatorship. One of the few positives was that in 1948, International Women's Day of 8 March was made both official and mandatory. The way was clear.

A year later, Népszava published a small article entitled Unforgettable on its front page: 

...Hungarian workers – men and women together – celebrated International Women’s Day with unforgettable enthusiasm. In factories, workers decorated the machines of their fellow women, as well as the walls of the factories and public buildings, and coloured ribbons fluttered on trams. This great enthusiasm, this holiday, was a worthy recognition of the fair share of hard work Hungarian women accept every moment in the building of a popular democracy". 

Changing decades, changing women

During the decades of Socialism, International Women's Day was celebrated every year. In the meantime, women looked differently at those in power and the way they regarded themselves was constantly changing.

After the war, then in the Rákosi era before 1956, until the end of the 1950s, women's appearances were not feminine, but neutral and strong in physique. Make-up and fashionable clothes were considered imperialist and bourgeois. Change was then brought about after the fall of the Rákosi régime.

After the Uprising of 1956, and especially in the 1960s, the Kádár era broke with the rigours of the earlier dictatorship, and the artificial image of women, previously exemplified as victims of the system, was disregarded, and women could be whatever they wanted

The official female ideal changed in the 1960s. On the one hand, women were encouraged to follow the path to self-realisation. On the other, the traditional housewife stereotype also started to become popular. Women cooked, cleaned and raised children, while fewer and fewer built their own careers.

Socialist policy even helped to promote this role, by granting maternity leave with the 1967 Childcare Aid Act. The two-sided female ideal of the decade was also difficult to accomplish: to succeed at work, run the household, raise children, take care of your husband and avoid activities incompatible with Socialist morals. All this is impossible to be carried out at the same time, though if they female androids had existed, they could have done so.

This period is well characterised by a 1969 article: Why is there no Men’s Day? published in the newspaperVörös Zászló (‘Red Flag’). According to the somewhat ironic columnist, there is no need for the men's day indicated in the headline because, in a secret, disguised form, International Women's Day actually favours men. Because ladies will be “kinder, quieter, more fragrant, more enchanting, more understanding than usual” on that day, they will put aside their worries and hysteria, so even a quarrel is off the table.

On the evening of International Women’s Day, young or even independent women were more amenable to any man who courted them, and married men could look forward to an intimate, tender, quiet and harmonious occasion. And the icing on the cake was that on International Women's Day, men could drink as much as they wanted, because it was a holiday, and even women indulged.

This period made the concept of being a Budapest woman popular among young girls in the provinces. Not all women were looking forward to the prospect of becoming a housewife. They would have preferred a freer, more self-fulfilling life, and this ideal was embodied by living and working in Budapest, wearing high heels, sporting a modern hairdo and fashionable clothes, so that every man notices them on the street.

It was from this dynamic that the modern, metropolitan type of emancipated woman was born in the 1970s. The preference for traditional female roles was more a characteristic of provincial Hungary, while in the cities, especially in Budapest, the femininity took the lead. Most women didn’t want to sacrifice their careers after starting a family. And the saddening results were illustrated in more and more failed marriages, broken families and divorced women.

Sad as it was, the process could no longer be stopped. In the '80s, this development only increased. Attractive women dressed in miniskirts, high heels and fashionable hairstyles seemingly from the pages of Western fashion magazines.

By this time, Socialism had so loosened up that almost nothing could be kept out of the country – not even contemporary fashion or Western ideas about women. The question of consistency with Socialist morality was no longer important. By now, Dallas was on TV, local beauty queen contests were held, and Western TV channels were legally available.

The really huge difference then came with the change of régime in 1989. International Women’s Day itself has remained a global event to celebrate, but it has lost all its previous political and social colour.

At first, the whole thing was simplified and men were just obliged to buy flowers and/or chocolates for women that day. Then, as NGOs appeared in Hungary, the issue of the current situation of women became more and more pressing.

Of course, women still get flowers and chocolates, but they no longer demand special attention.


Hajnalka Kovácsné Magyari: Ideals, Roles & Trends – Women's Transitions in the Kádár EraMagyar Tudományos Akadémia Könyvtár
Pesti Hírlap, March 1911
Alföldi Ujság, May 1946
Népszava, March 1949
Vörös Zászló, March 1969  


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