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Hundreds of thousands of women have served in combat through the ages

Russia organized units of women fighter pilots early in World War II. (akg-images/RIA Nowosti)


GERMAN TANKS ROLLED toward Stalingrad as if leading a holiday parade in Berlin. Luftwaffe planes had pounded Soviet defenses for weeks, scattering the enemy and clearing the way for the ground assault. Through binoculars, the Germans could see smoke rising from the burning city. Victory seemed almost in hand.

Suddenly, shells exploded all around. Soviet antiaircraft crews had cranked down the barrels of their 37mm guns and opened fire. Their aim was a bit wild, but the barrage brought the Germans up short. Halting their advance, the tankers organized a counterattack. Stukas joined in, swooping down on the three dozen batteries, which had no infantry support. The fighting raged for hours until one by one, the Russian guns fell silent. Only later did the Germans learn that the men who had stood against them that day in August 1942 were not men at all.

‘I fear there is a complex against women being connected with lethal work,’ Churchill wrote to his secretary of war. ‘We must get rid of this’

What Soviet writer Vasily Grossman described as “the first page of the Stalingrad defense” had been authored chiefly by teenage girls, volunteers of the 1077th Antiaircraft Regiment, a unit assembled from the city’s high schools. A bunch of women—kids, no less. Many had fought to the death, impressing the enemy. Said one Wehrmacht officer, “It is completely wrong to describe Russian women as ‘soldiers in skirts.’”

The girls of Stalingrad weren’t the only women to inspire shock and awe in World War II. Great Britain, the United States, and other combatants put hundreds of thousands of females in uniform; the Soviet Union alone recruited roughly a million, sending many into combat as tank commanders, snipers, and pilots. Desperation, not egalitarian ideals, drove these mobilizations; there simply weren’t enough men to fight in history’s largest conflagration.

A Timeline of Women Warriors

Today, there’s a steady call in the United States and other liberal democracies to put women into combat. The chaos of modern war already throws female support troops into deadly shootouts with the enemy. Still, nations resist letting women fight alongside men. Judging by modern military history, however, they may ultimately have no choice.


NOT LONG AGO, military historian Martin van Creveld surveyed thousands of years of warfare and declared true women warriors “almost as rare as unicorns.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but his point is well taken: The history of women in combat before the 20th century is a story of exceptions to the rule.

The most well known are queens and duchesses who led armies in the roughly 2,000 years from classical antiquity through the end of the Middle Ages, at the close of the 15th century. By and large, circumstances thrust these women into command. Often they were widows of kings or feudal lords and inherited their armies. Others were forced to mount a defense of land or castle while their husbands were abroad.

Perhaps the most famous warrior queen is Boudicca, who led the Celts of Britain against occupying Romans in the first century and slaughtered tens of thousands. Others include Vietnam’s legendary Trung sisters, who fought marauding Chinese around the same time, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who rode in the 12th-century’s Second Crusade. 

Less well known than the warrior queens are an assortment of women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight. Binding their breasts and cutting their hair short, they typically passed themselves off as boys to explain their smooth, whiskerless faces. Stories of such deception abound in the ballads, plays, and literature of early modern Europe—often exciting tales of women who enlist to chase adventure or follow a lover. In truth, most of these women fought to escape poverty or a troubled family life.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, nations and armies were moving toward their modern form, which left no room for the warrior queen or the woman fighter in disguise. Laws of primogeniture had begun to guarantee that men alone would inherit land and armies. Royalty gave up campaigning and deputized trained officers to manage their armies. At the same time, military life grew increasingly regimented, with standard-issue uniforms and extensive physicals. As many as a thousand women dressed as men and fought in the American Civil War, but with the dawn of the new century, women were all but shut out of fighting. “War is men’s business,” Hector had said in Homer’s Iliad, and that was still the attitude of any Western country that considered itself civilized. It was almost inconceivable that women would abandon the kitchen and nursery for the battlefield.


THE TWO WORLD WARS of the next half century made such thinking a luxury no nation could afford. The conflicts raged over millions of square miles, across continents and oceans, and for the first time in the air. Each of the major powers built huge war machines that demanded ever more troops but also armies of planners, logisticians, transport specialists, and supply clerks. All together, roughly 150 million soldiers were mobilized.

In the face of critical shortages of men, military officials conceded that women had some­thing to contribute. Between the start of World War I and the end of World War II, many of the combatants—including Germany, Britain, the United States, Australia, Finland, and Poland—created auxiliary branches of their armed forces in which women served as nurses, typists, cooks, and the like. When the wars stretched on and losses grew, their work brought them closer to the action.

Britain was the first of the Allies to put women into formal military service for anything other than duty as nurses. In 1915, as hopes for a quick conflict faded, women suffragists organized a march through London for the right to join the war effort. They carried placards that announced: the situation is serious. women must help to save it. The next year, within months of the devastating Battle of the Somme (British casualties: 400,000), the government began planning for three auxiliary corps—one each for the navy, air force, and army—of women to work as nurses, ambulance drivers, mechanics, cooks, clerks, and other positions in the rear. Recruitment propaganda promised that every woman who signed on would free one man for combat. By war’s end, some 100,000 women had joined.

During World War II, Britain leaned heavily on its women’s auxiliaries, which were championed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Early in his political career, before becoming home secretary in 1910, Churchill had fought against women’s voting rights, winning the enmity of suffragists (one who confronted him with a whip). But his views had evolved over the years. Now, with Britain’s survival at stake, he pushed for women to take on critical and dangerous roles. “I fear there is a complex against women being connected with lethal work,” he wrote his secretary of war privately in December 1941. “We must get rid of this.”

That same month, Britain began conscripting unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30. Those called to duty could choose to work in civilian war industries or join one of the auxiliary corps. Auxiliary ranks eventually totaled 640,000—more than 10 percent of British armed forces. Serving in all theaters, these women manned jobs directly related to combat—as mechanics, radar and telegraph operators, torpedo handlers, intelligence officers, and more. A handful flew aircraft from factories to bases. Britain still couldn’t bring itself to insert women into combat. But it came close. General Sir Frederick Pile, who led the British antiaircraft command, persuaded Churchill that women could serve with men in AA crews. They would load the guns, fuse shells, track aircraft, and operate searchlights—virtually everything save pull the gun lanyard itself. That might damage the female psyche, the military feared.

More than 56,000 women were serving with Pile by late 1943—including Churchill’s daughter Mary, a 19-year-old debutante who jumped at the chance to be a “gunner girl.” When an AA crew recorded the first kill for a mixed-gender unit in April 1942, Pile observed of the women: “Beyond a little natural excitement and a tendency to chatter when there was a lull, they behaved like a veteran party.”

The United States watched the British deployment of women closely. The navy and Marines had introduced a few thousand women to their reserves during World War I—“We will have the best clerical assistance the country can provide,” declared navy secretary Josephus Daniels—and army general John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing had posted more than 200 civilian women to France as telephone operators, the so-called Hello Girls. But even as the storm clouds of World War II gathered, public opposition torpedoed efforts to introduce women to any more danger. Opposing a bill to create a women’s auxiliary to the army, one congressman said: “Think of the humiliation. What has become of the manhood of America, that we have to call on our women to do what has ever been the duty of men? The thing is so revolting to me, to my sense of decency.”

The exigencies of war, however, changed hearts and minds. By the summer of 1942, the army was projecting a shortfall of 160,000 men. Within a year of Pearl Harbor, Congress had approved auxiliary corps for each branch of the military. These would eventually enlist more than 350,000 women to work in some 400 military specialties. The navy trained women in radar, ship design, navigation, intelligence, and other select skills. Women pilots ferried military aircraft from factories to bases and flew radar and smoke-screening missions. When peace arrived, less than half of the army auxiliary troops had traditional clerical roles; most worked an array of jobs from sheet-metal worker to parachute rigger to control tower operator.

General George C. Marshall, the army’s chief of staff, wanted to put women in even more critical roles. Intrigued by the British mixed-gender AA units, Marshall set up a secret experiment in 1942 that introduced nearly 400 auxiliary troops to anti­aircraft crews protecting Washington, D.C. It was a big success; Major General John Lewis, AA commander in the military district around Washington, asked to make the assignments permanent and add even more women to his ranks. Marshall, however, concluded it wasn’t worth the inevitable backlash from Congress. Besides, the women were desperately needed in their administrative jobs. He closed the experiment and made sure the public didn’t learn of it until after the war.


THE SOVIET UNION entered World War II in very different circumstances than its allies. The USSR in the 1930s considered itself a country under siege, with enemies—both fascists and imperialist democracies—poised to invade and snuff out its experiment in communism. Russian society grew militarized, with citizens urged to acquire the skills to defend the homeland. Osoaviakhim, an organization devoted to the paramilitary training of civilians, built a network of military-sports groups—gun clubs, pilot schools, and the like—affiliated with factories, schools, and other institutions. Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organization, taught the values of the revolutionary soldier—courage, self-sacrifice, endurance, and, most of all, commitment to Stalin and the nation.

Publicly, party apparatchiks applauded the women who learned to fight. The Bolsheviks who had come to power in 1917 had preached equality of the sexes. It was fitting, Stalin said, that women defend the ideals of that revolution alongside men. “Should the thunder of war resound,” Pravda declared, Soviet women “will take up arms to defend the motherland.”

The Soviets were not unfamiliar with the idea of women in combat. A few thousand women had fought in World War I, some as part of a so-called Death Battalion of about 300 women. In the civil war that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution, as many as 80,000 joined the Red Army to fight counterrevolutionaries. The majority served as medical or administrative personnel, but Russian films and fiction of the 1930s turned these ordinary soldiers into machine-gun-toting heroes.


WHEN WORLD WAR II opened, young Soviet women naturally expected that they, too, would pick up guns and fight. Within hours of the Axis invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, thousands stormed party offices and recruiting stations to enlist. In some areas, women made up as many as half of Red Army applicants. “I was reared by the Komsomol to be hard as nails,” said one would-be sailor.

Most of these women were turned away. The government’s easy talk of equality had been a fraud; it maintained that women best served the country on the homefront. Stalin’s military leaders, meanwhile, believed that females in the ranks hurt morale and led to sexual mischief. The sacred duty of women patriots was to stay home.

The disastrous opening of the war made such a stand impractical. The Germans storming into the Soviet heartland inflicted catastrophic losses—nearly 6.5 million casualties in less than a year. In March 1942, Stalin’s regime quietly launched the first of what would be 12 major mobilizations of women. By the next year, at the height of the war, there were between 800,000 and 1 million women in uniform, roughly eight percent of the armed forces.

Conservative estimates suggest about 320,000 were sent to the front, with many kept away from the fiercest fighting. But unlike the United States and Britain, Russia put its women directly into infantry, armor, and artillery units. They were trained to drive tanks and fly planes and fire weapons—including rifles, light and heavy machine guns, mortars, and bazookas. And they were asked to kill.

In October 1941, the Soviet Union created three all-women air force regiments, becoming the first nation to send women pilots into combat. The new flyers were given six months of training, men’s uniforms—“right down to the underwear,” said one—and “boy-style” haircuts. They flew more than 30,000 sorties.

One unit, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, became notorious among Germans as the Night Witches. Flying at night in wood-and-fabric Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes, the pilots typically cut their engines and glided down behind the lines, the wind whistling eerily against the brace lines as they tossed bombs from the cockpit.

In 1943, the Soviets opened what’s thought to be history’s first military school for women. The Central Women’s School for Sniper Training put nearly 2,000 students through a rigorous course on weapons, telescopic sights, camouflage, hand-to-hand combat, and more.

“We fired and fired and fired,” wrote one student. “We fired from the shoulder, the hip and the chest, on the run and standing, in the open and camouflaged….Your legs pained, your eyes ached from the prolonged stress, and your shoulder throbbed from the recoil of the rifle butt.” The school’s alumni were credited with killing more than 11,000.

Russia’s most famous sniper, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, didn’t learn her craft at the school. The daughter of a Red Army soldier, she trained as a young woman with a shooting club affiliated with the arms factory where she worked. During the war, she racked up more than 300 kills and became legendary for her toughness—she was wounded four times—and endurance. Often, she’d lie in ambush for days.

Pavlichenko came to the United States in 1942 to help lobby the Allies to open a second front on the Germans in Europe. The novelty of a woman killer thrilled Americans; Woody Guthrie wrote a ballad “Miss Pavlichenko” extolling her virtues: “Your smile shines as bright / As my new morning sun. / But more than three hundred nazisdogs fell by your gun.”

The press surprised Pavlichenko with questions about her makeup and hairstyle. “Don’t they know there is a war?” she said. One reporter even questioned her fashion sense, saying her uniform made her look fat.

Soviet women had perhaps their biggest impact working in the AA units. As many as 300,000 were assigned to gun crews. As with the men, some didn’t handle the stress, noise, or danger well; there were reports of women who grew ill and vomited. But many thrived. Twenty-year-old Yekaterina Razumovskaya, a farm milkmaid before the war, proved she could load heavy shells better than men and was quickly promoted to weapon commander. She explained matter-of-factly: “If you strongly want to achieve something, you will.”

The Soviets came to depend on the women gunners. At Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad, females eventually replaced all the men, to great effect. One German pilot, a veteran of the Africa theater, said: “I would rather fly 10 times over the skies of [British-controlled] Tobruk than pass once through the fire of Russian flak sent up by female gunners.”

Judging by the honors bestowed upon them, Soviet women performed well in this impromptu experiment in egalitarianism. As many as 150,000 were decorated, and 91 received the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest award for valor.

In the next half century, the Soviet women fighters became folk heroes and models for revolutionaries elsewhere. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara welcomed women into the ranks of their guerrilla armies. During the Vietnam War, the Vietcong and local militia units included thousands of women; by one count, 40 percent of the regimental commanders were women. When Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, women made up some 30 percent of its soldiers.

Yet World War II did little to change the centuries-old attitudes of the major powers. Soviet leaders had never been comfortable sending women into battle. Women in combat units reported sexual harassment and abuse. Many were executed by German soldiers who considered women soldiers so morally repugnant that they killed any they captured.


AFTER THE FIGHTING, Soviet propaganda once again promoted the theme that a woman’s primary duty to the state was motherhood. By 1959, there were only 659 females in the Red Army.

Today, thanks largely to changing cultural norms and pressure from advocacy groups, women in the military in several countries have nearly equal status with men. At least eight nations—including Israel, China, North Korea, and Taiwan—draft women for the military.

In Israel, which in 1948 became the first country to conscript women, they make up more than a third of the armed forces. Though the country still balks at sending women into close-quarters fighting, 93 percent of Israel’s military positions are open to women, including some with border-patrol combat units that regularly face danger.

The United States since World War II has moved grudgingly to open the military to women. Though Congress integrated the armed forces in 1948, it also limited women to 2 percent of total active personnel. That cap held for nearly 20 years—to be lifted only when the Vietnam War drained the military’s reserves.

Though the Department of Defense formally banned women in combat in 1994, it has slowly opened up roles for them in front-line units. Last year, it dropped gender restrictions on 14,000 combat-related jobs. Women can now work in combat battalions as chaplains, intelligence and logistics specialists, tank and artillery mechanics, and even rocket-launcher crew members.

Most recently, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the department would lift the ban on women in combat. At press time, Congress still had to weigh in, and the services reportedly will have the right to petition to close certain jobs to females. But if the decision holds, women will be eligible for more than 230,000 new jobs, including infantry positions.

In many ways, Panetta’s decision is simply a recognition that women are already fighting in combat. The United States has deployed nearly 290,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. More than 140 have died, many killed by insurgents. With the blurry front lines of modern warfare, even women assigned to noncombat roles sometimes wind up in battle. In 2005, assigned to a protection detail for a military convoy, Army National Guard sergeant Leigh Ann Hester landed in a firefight with Afghanistan insurgents. Jumping from her Humvee, she ran to a ditch where several Americans were pinned down and about to be taken hostage. Opening fire with her M-4, she held off the insurgents, killing three and helping to rescue the men. Hester became the first woman to receive a Silver Star for a direct engagement with the enemy.

Still, Panetta’s decision will be fought hard. Citing reports of sexual harassment in the ranks, some officials worry that women will disrupt the cohesion crucial to combat unit. They also argue that females physically can’t handle the duty.

IN THE END, some people will never accept women in battle—at least, that is, until women are needed.

Drew Lindsay is executive editor of MHQ.


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