THE WRITING HAS BEEN ON THE WALL for at least 70 years. Consider Roza Shanina. She grew up in a small village near Arkhangelsk, in the far north of Russia, the daughter of a logger and a milkmaid. A good student, Roza worked her way though college, determined to become a schoolteacher. But in 1941, the year she graduated, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. After her eldest brother was killed in a bombing raid on Leningrad in December, Shanina—along with tens of thousands of other Russian women—applied to join the army, intent on turning back the Nazi onslaught. As Drew Lindsay recounts in “Why Not Send Women to War?” although the all-male Soviet leadership at first resisted the idea, it soon had no choice but to mobilize women against Hitler. By war’s end roughly a million women were in uniform and some 320,000 had served in the front lines as pilots, snipers, tankers, and rank-and-file foot soldiers.
Sent to sniper school, Roza was a natural, racking up dozens of kills with her scoped bolt-action Mosin-Nagant 1891/30 rifle. She was known for her ability to score “double hits”—taking out two targets in quick succession—and was the first female sniper to be awarded the Order of Glory for bravery. She died in combat in early 1945, still shy of her 21st birthday, but with 54 confirmed kills.
Despite the unimpeachable performance of such women soldiers in World War II and other modern conflicts, societies are still struggling with the question of whether women belong in combat. A lawsuit filed last year by four American women soldiers seeking to strike down the U.S. government’s no-combat rule again raised the curtain on that debate in this country.
Naysayers suggested female soldiers undermined unit cohesion and could not compete physically with men. Proponents called that hogwash, asserting those arguments veiled straight-out discrimination, with real consequences: Career female soldiers only rarely make it into the higher ranks of the military, because combat experience is so often a prerequisite to promotion.
As MHQ goes to press, the U.S. secretary of defense has announced he is lifting the ban on women in combat. It remains to be seen how the new rules will be implemented, and whether all units, particularly special forces, will be opened to women. But as always, a look back at history—and in this case at the achievements of Roza Shanina and other women at arms through the ages—offers valuable lessons on the path ahead.