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Rome Notes: Women's Day; Rome's St. Frances

3/12/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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An International Event, Little Known in U.S.

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 11, 2004 (Zenit) - On Monday morning, Romans awoke to a city abloom with sweet-smelling yellow mimosas for the "Festa della Donna," International Women's Day. While this international holiday has been sponsored by the United Nations since 1975, not many people in the United States are familiar with it.

Women's Day dates to the early 20th century as women in Europe and America began to campaign for the right to vote. This, coupled with the battle for better pay and decent working conditions, especially in the textile industry, incited the socialist women of America to initiate the first Women's Day in the United States, in February 1908.

After women garment workers organized the Shirtwaist Strike in 1909 and the death of 129 female textile workers in the notorious Triangle Fire of 1911 in New York, feminists and socialists throughout Europe took an interest in Women's Day. One hundred women from 17 countries attended the International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1911. There, Clara Zetkin proposed an International Women's Day, which was unanimously approved.

It took longer to set the date for this holiday. Originally set for March 19, it was eventually moved to March 8. According to most Italian accounts, the choice of date, proposed by Marxist agitator Rosa Luxembourg, was meant to correspond to the date of the Triangle Fire. The fire actually occurred, however, on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, to this day known by British Christians as "Lady Day."

On March 8, 1917, (Feb. 23, under the Julian calendar then in use in Russia) working women of St. Petersburg protested for bread and peace giving rise to the so-called February Revolution. Alexandra Kollontai, one of the revolutionary leaders, convinced Lenin in 1918 to declare March 8 a national holiday in honor of the "heroic woman worker."

In her pamphlet written for International Women's Day 1920, Kollontai described the holiday as a "militant celebration" for "proletarian sisters." "Captive housewives" needed emancipation to attend meetings so they could be freed from the "shackles of the family, of housework, of prostitution."

The celebration of women finds a more comprehensive and less ideological expression in the writings of John Paul II, notably in the closing remarks of his 1988 apostolic letter "Mulieris Dignitatem."

The Church, writes the Pope, gives thanks for each and every woman, "for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family ...; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility."

The Marxist rhetoric and narrow definition of acceptable women's roles doesn't seem to disturb the Romans as they celebrate "la Festa della Donna" -- very few are acquainted with more than the Triangle Fire story. It is a day to give up a seat on the bus, smile pleasantly and offer a fragrant bouquet to mothers, friends, sisters and wives.

Italy can boast of having created Women's Day's most charming tradition, the yellow mimosa. Abundant at this time of year, the flower was chosen by the Union of Italian Women in 1946 for its vibrant, joyous color and its fragile appearance (which disguises a sturdy plant) as well as its traditional symbolism of life from death.

* * *

Workingwoman Extraordinaire

The day after Women's Day, Romans have further cause for celebration in the feast of St. Frances of Rome.

Born in 1384 to a noble Roman family, she married at the age of 12 and had three children, two of whom died very young. She persuaded many women of her social circle to give up a worldly, frivolous life to care for the poor and sick of Rome.

These women eventually became the Benedictine Oblate congregation of Tor dei Specchi. After her husband's death, Frances moved into the Oblates' convent and became prioress. Frances died on March 9, 1440, and was canonized by Paul V in 1608. She was buried near the Roman Forum, in the church of Santa Maria Nova, now known as Santa Francesca Romana.

Every year on March 9, the Oblates hold great festivities in honor of St. Frances. After the morning Mass, the sisters open the doors of their convent to the public for three days. One can visit not only the saint's room, but also the main hall of the building decked with delightful frescos, painted in the 1480s by the Renaissance artist Antoniazzo Romano.

The sisters chose a Roman artist to depict the life of their Roman saint. A series of lively, bustling scenes shows city life in the 15th century. The bright, ...

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