Sarah Percy is the author of Forgotten Warriors: The Long History of Women in Combat.
On June 24, 1945, 40,000 soldiers paraded through Red Square, celebrating the hard-fought Soviet victory against Nazi Germany. It was the largest military parade Moscow had ever seen, and included men from every branch of the Soviet military forces.
But not all the victorious soldiers were represented on the long march through the throngs. Between 800,000 and a million women had served in combat with the Red Army, but they were barely visible in the parade. In fact, demobilized female soldiers were required to sign a pledge of silence about their wartime service. This enforced silence helped contribute to a much older and longer fiction, based on a misremembrance of the past: that warfare is strictly the province of men. The contribution of women to the battlefields of the past, especially in combat, was largely forgotten for decades.
Even as late as the 1990s, the noted military historian John Keegan argued in his 1993 book A History of Warfare that “warfare is … the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart. … Women … do not fight. … If warfare is as old as history and as universal as mankind, we must now enter the supremely important limitation that it is an entirely masculine activity.” This belief was so dominant because the memory of female combat had dwindled. In fact, women’s battlefield contributions were dismissed, ignored and even actively suppressed, reinforcing the incorrect view that the world’s battlefields always had been an entirely male domain.
Women have long participated in combat, but it has been all too easy to dismiss women’s fighting as an “exception.” While female generals are historically rare – after all, only a small subset of soldiers rise to the heights of command – they have had military accomplishments that are hard to deny. Joan of Arc, for example, led her French troops to victory against the English before her capture. Military historians note that there are signs that Joan was an expert in gunpowder warfare, the leading military technology of the day. They speculate that because Joan was an ordinary girl, and the gunners around her were ordinary men, she may have been more able to listen to and accept their advice than a high-born man.
Joan’s military accomplishments were inexplicable to her contemporaries. A teenage girl with military skill could only be explained by one thing: magic. For the French, Joan’s military skill was a miracle, given to her by God; for the English, Joan’s accomplishments were driven by witchcraft. Joan’s divinity (or her witchcraft) conveniently allowed and continues to allow her military skill to be dismissed. Joan could fight, but she was no ordinary girl, and ordinary girls could not fight.
She was not the only great female general to have her military skills dismissed by contemporaries. Njinga, a 17th-century queen in what is now Angola, ruled and led her troops for nearly 40 years in a world full of violence, rivalry and betrayal. She used her military skills to hold onto power and become the chief adversary of the colonizing Portuguese. After her death, her kingdom changed hands five times in 18 years. Holding power in this context, all the while fighting against European and local adversaries, is a remarkable accomplishment.
And yet, dismissing Njinga’s military skills was easy for contemporary Western observers, not least because of practices that seemed totally outlandish to outsiders, including keeping many male lovers dressed as women. Not only was Njinga a woman, she became a byword for a type of barbarian, rapacious sexuality. When the Marquis de Sade wrote about her, he did not discuss her military accomplishments but rather her lustful and bloodthirsty ways, including the alleged murder of her lovers after sex. Once again, it was easy to write off women who fought as an exception or even an aberration.
Women showed military leadership in another context that was all too easily dismissed. Between 1550 and 1714, sieges were 10 times more common than pitched battles. Women may not have been common as soldiers on the battlefield, but they did commonly fight in sieges. Women rushed to the defence of their homes and cities, hacking at the limbs of attackers scaling the walls and fighting for their own survival. Women also commanded siege defences. Noblewomen were expected to command the house in the absence of their husbands. A good housewife would keep the house provisioned with flour and sugar, but also with shot and powder. Sieges, though, are not “real” battles – those are the fights that occurred between two opposing armies. So while women may have fought in sieges, the fact that this fighting did not occur on a battlefield and between armies meant it could easily be dismissed.
Regular battlefields, though, also saw women fighting. Women who dressed as men in order to fight were present in almost every European army, as well as on both sides of the U.S. Civil War, which saw as many as a thousand women fight while disguised as men. The presence of these women was especially well-documented (and even photographed). But by 1909, their existence was officially denied. The investigative journalist Ida Tarbell asked the U.S. Army for records of the number of women who had served in the Civil War. She received this in reply: “I have the honour to inform you that no official record has been found in the War Department showing specifically that any woman was ever enlisted in the military service of the United States … during the Civil War.” This was either a lie or sheer laziness, because not only were there records of women’s military service, women had even received official pensions.
The Second World War was a watershed moment for female combat. British women were trained in combat techniques as part of the Special Operations Executive, and were dropped behind enemy lines. Pearl Witherington, described by her trainers as “the best shot, male or female, we have yet had,” entered occupied France as a courier but swiftly found herself in charge of a private army of 3,000 resistance fighters. Her group was so successful that the Germans placed a million-franc bounty on her head. And yet officially, Pearl Witherington was not fighting, because British women were not allowed in combat. At the end of the war, Ms. Witherington was offered a civilian honour, because as a “non-combatant” she was not entitled to a military one. She declined, pointing out that she had done “nothing remotely civil” during the war.
The largest number of fighting women were in the Soviet Union. Women in the Red Army fought in every imaginable military role, from tank units to artillery to snipers, and in the air as bomber and fighter pilots. In fact, almost as many Soviet women as American men fought during the war. Their service was almost totally suppressed, and they were not only banned from the first victory parades in 1945, but in parades for decades afterward.
The Soviets were not alone. At the end of the war, no matter how they had served, women returned to civilian life. Most militaries capped the number of women allowed at around 2 per cent of total forces, and in most places legally barred women from combat. Women were not allowed to carry weapons, something only introduced in many Western militaries in the latter half of the 1970s.
But even militaries could not resist the social change prompted by the feminist movement, and by the late 1970s social pressure forced open the question of whether or not women could engage in combat – and authorities turned to the historical record to help answer the question. But by this time, years of dismissing female contributions and even actively suppressing the roles women had played overpowered the historical truth – even recent historical experience. Military historians and military experts confidently asserted that there was simply no history of women in combat. When confronted with evidence to the contrary, such as Soviet women in the Second World War, a U.S. presidential commission in 1992 noted simply that Soviet women had “problems” with upper-body strength, asserting that “there were instances of women being killed because they were unable to throw grenades effectively.”
This would have come as a surprise to two Red Army snipers, Natalya Kovshova and Mariya Polivanova. Surrounded by the enemy at Novgorod in 1942, they killed 300 Germans before deliberately detonating their grenades to avoid capture. Earlier in the war, Kovshova had written a letter to her mother telling of her desire to kill the enemy. “I will hit them point blank,” she wrote. “I will pump bullet after bullet into their foul skulls. … I will fight them to the very end, until the full joy of victory.”
Dismissing the history of women in combat – in failing to remember it, in deliberately forgetting it – allowed militaries to perpetuate the myth that women were physically incapable of fighting, which in turn had a profound effect on gender equality. The feminist movement told women that they were capable of anything, but keeping women out of combat served as a constant reminder that no matter what they were told, women couldn’t do everything. Women weren’t strong enough, or brave enough, or capable enough to defend themselves or fight for their country. Men had to do that for them.
Putting the history of women in combat back into its proper place in military history is an act of remembrance. It corrects the historical record, but it also breaks one of the longest-lasting and most potent myths about female capability. Canada admitted women into combat as a result of a legal decision in 1989, an integration that occurred with little fanfare. Other similar countries have taken far longer. The United States allowed women in combat in 2015, and Australia opened all front-line positions in 2016. Britain didn’t allow women in all combat roles until 2018. This is a startling anomaly. Short of religious leadership, it is hard to imagine any other occupations that, by the late 20th century, formally banned women. In fact, the U.S. managed to recruit female astronauts 30 years before allowing women in combat. Without remembering women’s combat history, it was all too easy to continue to claim they couldn’t fight.
More recent wars confirm the lessons of the past: that women are entirely capable of fighting. Remembering the history of women in combat demonstrates that women were never inferior to men, not even on the battlefield. It was never the case that women could not fight, or lacked courage, or could not stand up to the rigours of the battlefield. When given the opportunity to do so (or when they took that opportunity themselves), women demonstrated that there was little difference between men and women even in warfare, the most masculine of pursuits. As women continue to break into combat around the world and bring down barriers in the military, it may well serve as a reminder that the barriers keeping them out were artificial in the first place.