As you stroll the streets of Florence this Saturday, March 8, you will no doubt notice the presence of fluffy yellow mimosa flowers everywhere – pinned to lapels, carried in bouquets and decorating table-tops. The mimosa flower has become the symbolic gift to offer to Italian women on this day, International Women’s Day, known to Italians as the Festa della Donna. A holiday that today would appear to be about light-hearted socializing with female friends, the Festa della Donna is actually a day of commemoration, one with a politically charged history tied to the international Socialist movement for fair labor practices.
In the early 1900s, oppressive, unsafe work conditions and inequality in the workforce were at their height, while Socialist Party movements for change, such as campaigns for equality, suffrage and better working conditions, were thriving. In these early years of the twentieth century, against a backdrop of the fight for equal rights, International Women’s Day was commemorated on various spring days, but never on March 8. It wasn’t until 1910, during an international Socialist meeting in Copenhagen, that an International Women’s Day was officially established. The proposal was met with unanimous approval by representatives of more than 100 women from 17 countries, on the grounds that it would be a day to celebrate the progress made by women over the years.
The movement for fair and safe labor practices gained momentum after the event known as the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire on March 25, 1911, in which 146 employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist company died, the majority of them women and including many young immigrants from Europe. Some workers died in the fire and others from jumping out of windows to escape. Later testimony revealed the insufficient escape routes for workers and rumors spread that doors to the factory had been intentionally locked. After the fire, groups such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which had in the two years prior to the fire been organizing [XX] with New York City garment workers, grew in number and influence. In discussions of the Festa della Donna, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire represents the culmination of the women’s rights movements around the world, and is one of the specific events remembered on this day.
In Italy, the tradition of giving a mimosa flower on March 8 began during the WWII years. On March 8, 1945, Women’s Day was celebrated to honor freedom in liberated Italy, and the following year throughout Italy the mimosa appeared as a symbol of this day, most likely because the mimosa blooms in early March. Three Italian women who were participants in anti-Fascist politics (and two of whom were active partisans) are credited with the idea. They are Teresa Noce, Rita Montagnana, and Teresa Mattei.
Lingering leftist associations with Women’s Day provoked reaction in the Cold War climate of 1950s, spurring some to indict the mimosa-gifting tradition as a “public disturbance.” Attempts were made in Italian Parliament to make the Festa della Donna a national holiday, but failed. In the 1970s, the feminist movement in Italy brought about a rebirth of the mimosa as symbol of women’s solidarity.
In addition to celebrating with female friends, Italians might observe March 8 by serving a torta mimosa, a yellow cake very similar in appearance to the flower. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs will offer Women’s Day specials, and many museums and galleries offer free entrance to women. Political rallies and protests may take place around town on March 8 as well.