Please note: this post was originally published in 2015 with information about the Italian tradition of offering mimosa flowers for International Women’s day and has now been updated for the current year.
I know, I know: the expression is ‘to paint the town red’, rather than yellow, but my title is not an incorrect idiomatic way to invite you to celebrate International’s women’s day going on a crazy night out tomorrow (which, by the way, it’s a plan I have no problems with, so please go and have fun!)
The reason why I am talking about the colour yellow has to do with a tradition for Internation Women’s day that we have in Italy but that I haven’t, so far, encountered in other parts of the world: the tradition of giving women, on the 8th of March, a present of silver wattle or yellow puffy mimosa flowers.
International Women’s day in Italy
Mimosa flowers are absolutely ubiquitous in Rome and in Italy in general on International Women’s day (or la Festa della donna, as we call it): men give them to women, women give them as a present to other women, mothers give them to daughters and students normally present their teachers with big fluffy yellow bouquets.
If you walk to work or school on the morning of the 8th of March, you can be sure to notice how widespread the giving tradition is: street vendors abandon their usual umbrella and lighter business to sell flowers and office workers rush to them to purchase a token of appreciation for colleagues and female bosses.
But what is International Women’s Day?
Despite the mimosa tradition, International Women’s Day (IWD) is not an Italian invention: it has been observed since the early 1900’s in many countries of the world, from the US to the then USSR and I usually see it described as ‘a collective day of global celebration and a call for gender parity‘. As far as I know, there is no specific organisation behind it but rather it is an occasion to raise awareness about the gender issue and the fact that, despite all our progress, we are still very far from real parity.
In case you are wondering if it is true, that parity is still a faraway goal, I thought it would be useful to share with you a piece of data I found: ‘The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn’t close entirely until 2133.’
This is, for me, definitely food for thought. I knew the gender issue was real but I hadn’t realised that we were actually moving further and further away from equality!
So, while my blog post will not make a real impact on improving the situation of women around the world, I decided anyway that I would share with you this Italian tradition in the hope this will raise awareness about it.
How did the mimosa flowers tradition start in Italy?
This tradition is not particularly old and it is said to date back to the month of March of 1946. That year Rita Montagnana and Teresa Mattei, two activists fighting for equality of women, came up with the idea of marking the UN international women day (8th of March) with a symbolic gesture and started offering branches of mimosa to other women, as a gift and a sign of mutual respect and support. They made the humble flower the symbol of the day and, since then, the tradition took hold: for the delight of some women and the displeasure of others, who feel flowers are a patronising, stereotype-perpetuating gift, the tradition is still very much alive today.
There are many reasons why la mimosa was chosen to mark this day. One, practical, is that this is one of the not many plants in full bloom in the winter, so it’s a flower instinctively associated with this time of the year.
The second, more symbolic, is that mimosa is a spontaneous plant, one that naturally grows and flourishes in Italy, exactly what the women movement was working to achieve for the women of the world: making the world a place where women can also prosper, without having to fight for it.
The third reason is that the mimosa looks fragile, with its little yellow puffs, but is actually a very strong plant, able to resist adverse conditions. Once again a trait that many would say is typical of women too.
How to join the giving tradition
If you are in Italy and want to partake of this tradition, you sure can: all you have to do is to buy some branches of mimosa and offer them as a gift to a woman you love or anyway are fond of. But before you rush to the florist, a word of warning, if I can call it this way… as I mentioned above, while many women will love the gesture, some (maybe many) might not appreciate the gift. Some women do not like to only receive flowers on the 8th of March, wishing they was no need for a ‘special’ day for it; others consider the gift a way to re-affirm stereotypical gender roles in society and find it patronising and plain annoying.
So, before running the risk of offending someone or to be misunderstood, ask yourself: are your actions during the rest of the year respectful? Are you treating the women in your life as peers, do you show appreciation for them as much as you do for the men in your life? If you do, then I hope you will buy mimosa for them today: and I hope people who don’t know about the tradition will notice and ask why suddenly the city is painted yellow: on learning the reason, they might become aware of an issue that is still, sadly, too often ignored and might be one more small step towards change.
Do you celebrate International Women’s day where you are? Is there a special tradition observed? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!