Ukraine's women soldiers remind of history's female warriors

In the 20th century, more women became frontline soldiers as desperate countries turned to them out of necessity

As the Ukraine war drags on and causalities mount, more women have joined the frontlines. But women have a long history of fighting in wars. Al Majalla explains.
Mona Eing
As the Ukraine war drags on and causalities mount, more women have joined the frontlines. But women have a long history of fighting in wars. Al Majalla explains.

Ukraine's women soldiers remind of history's female warriors

On the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died in the war so far.

However, US officials in August put the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at 70,000 and as many as 120,000 injured. Ukraine’s shrinking number of battle-ready troops has sparked a recruitment crisis, which has led to more women being recruited.

It is believed that 40,000 women are currently serving in the Ukrainian military. The figure has increased rapidly since 2021 as women are not just filling support roles but also fighting on the frontlines.

Given the population imbalance favouring Russia, Kyiv will likely increase efforts to entice women to join the military, and should the war increasingly turn in Russia’s favour, pressure on them along the lines faced by Ukrainian men.

The latter, aged 18 to 60, must register for military service, and between the ages of 27 and 60 face being conscripted.

But just how typical is the Ukrainian experience regarding the history of women and warfare? The answer, as we shall see, is that it is one part of a trend that has seen increasing participation by women in warfare, both behind the scenes and in bloody combat.

As the Ukraine war drags on and causalities mount, more women have joined the frontlines. This is part of a trend that has seen increasing women's participation in warfare.
As the Ukraine war drags on and causalities mount, more women have joined the frontlines. This is part of a trend that has seen increasing women's participation in warfare.

Read more: Ukraine no closer to victory two years after Russia invasion

Not a new phenomenon

The participation of women in fighting is not new. Many have fought across past centuries in the era before modern organised warfare.

However, this participation has been limited, and the women involved are often viewed as exceptional or atypical of the female norm. Indeed, positioning women as extraordinary through participation in warfare encourages recalcitrant men to join in by, in part, shaming them. 

Equally, these women's singularity and perceived uniqueness made them less threatening to male domination or even male egos because they were widely viewed as an aberration instead of a trend.

Take these two famous examples of this phenomenon.

In 60 or 61 AD, Boudica, a queen of the Iceni tribe in what is today Great Britain, led an uprising against the occupying forces of Rome.

After initial success and the destruction of an entire Roman city, along with the deaths of thousands of soldiers, the rebels were defeated, and Boudica vanished from the scene, possibly through suicide.

However, her inspirational story has lived on and been embraced by various causes over several centuries. In the 21st century, she has been embraced by popular culture through movies, television, and even computer games.  

Even more famous than Boudica was Joan of Arc. Commonly remembered as a woman warrior, she never actually fought despite accompanying male soldiers into battle. 

A dusting of snow covers the bronze equestrian statue of Joan of Arc by French sculptor Paul Dubois, created in 1895, on Place Cardinal Lucon in central Reims, eastern France, on January 18, 2024.

Instead of wielding a banner or ceremonial sword, she rallied French soldiers against the English during the Hundred Years' War in the 15th century.

Eventually captured, she was tried and executed. She went on to become a religious saint and a major symbol of pride over the centuries for defending the French nation.

The helpmate

These past prominent examples were women associated with martial matters. But with the rise of modern armies, particularly since the 19th century, women have frequently played a more traditional role that conformed to gender expectations: the helpmate.

Think the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856. Arguably, the most famous figure of all those involved to emerge from that conflagration and remain known in the 21st century was a woman: Florence Nightingale.

Serving as a nurse to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War along with helping to professionalise wartime nursing more broadly brought her international renown.

The example of Florence Nightingale in the mid-19th century represents a strand of indirect female participation in warfare that would become more prevalent over the next 150 years, particularly during the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century.

The strand had two aspects. One was that women were active outside of the home during wartime through, for instance, factory work, replacing men who had gone off to fight.

By World War II, women replacing men in factories had become such an accepted practice that, in 1942, in the United States, a cultural icon emerged of a female factory worker nicknamed "Rosie the Riveter."

Most famously, she appeared on a poster with bare arms as she laboured to the slogan "We can do it!"

Ultimately, however, to reassure the wider society anxious over social change, the emphasis on this phase of female involvement in the war effort was on temporary change with women returning to the home or traditional female jobs in peacetime.

The other part of the Nightingale helpmate strand involved women directly in uniform and in military service, albeit not in combat roles.

Instead, they served as nurses, secretaries, truck drivers, supply pilots, and in other military support roles to help the war effort by freeing up additional men for fighting. This trend began during World War I with its mass mobilisation and expanded further during World War II.  

Women played support roles in several national militaries; for instance, nearly half a million women worked in such jobs in the military of the Soviet Union alone.  

In the 20th century, more women became frontline soldiers as desperate countries turned to them out of necessity.

Necessity and gender equality

The second part of female participation in modern warfare ultimately brings us directly to the battlefields of Ukraine in 2024. In the 20th century, groups of women began to engage equally with men by directly fighting as frontline soldiers.

The general pattern that explains this development often connects to nations using women as soldiers because their national values encouraged equality between men and women or because desperate countries, during a war, turned to women out of necessity.

A bit of both categories applied between 1936 and 1939 to the Spanish Civil War, where the ultimately losing Republican side had as many as 1,000 women, often known as Milicianas, fighting on the frontlines, usually side by side with men. 

Many were women who had been active in labour unions and strikes in the lead-up to the outbreak of hostilities and thus had a history of challenging traditional boundaries.

Although not extensive, some women fought in World War II. This occurred in the Soviet Union with a founding communist ideology that had long emphasised equality between men and women in theory. They played a particularly key role in the infamous battle of Stalingrad.

For the most part, however, women's combat role was not on the ground but came through the air with all female aviation units formed that directly fought against German-piloted aircraft.

After World War II, militaries shrunk, although women continued to play a uniformed role, albeit in a non-combatant position of the type that dated from the mid-19th century.

Political battles in several locations would ensue over whether women should play a permanent combat role not just at sea and in the air but on the ground.

Over the decades, a few countries moved to treat women on an equal basis to men in relation to war. Scandinavian nations were especially progressive and emphasised equal treatment of male and female recruits, although only Norway and Sweden conscripted both sexes on the same basis.

While a growing number of countries now allow women to serve in combat roles, such as fighter pilots or onboard ships, as of 2023, only a small number include women in front-line fighting: Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, of course, Ukraine.   

Given the growing pressure on Ukrainian human resources in what is increasingly becoming a war of attrition, it is not difficult to envision an increasing number of women fighting in the country's war with Russia.

In doing so, they represent the latest version of a historical evolution that has been underway for nearly 100 years.

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