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Soviet Women During and After the Two Great World Wars

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A proper understanding of Soviet women requires an understanding of the political and social framework of a particular historical period. This context is a product of the interplay of socio-cultural factors and the complex heritage of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet regime. Such complexity results in varying perspectives as to the role of Soviet women in shaping Russian history as well as the impact of their experiences in asserting their identities and rights. There is more inclination however to share the view that generally, Russian women waded history through a “double-edged progress” which characterized the general trend from the Tsarist through the Soviet era, that is, the roles of Soviet women in the wider social and political realm expanded but they are still burdened by the onus of traditional roles in the family (Hutton, 1996, p. 63).

The Soviet woman during the first half of the 20th century assumed a dual role; that of a loving a loving mother at home and diligent laborer at her place of work, which she is expected perform well in terms of work productivity as well as a clean and healthy home for her family. This huge responsibility is nearly impossible to achieve, considering the predicaments of the dynamic and uncertain socio-political environment of the Soviet Union. Thus, the state resorted to propaganda, social policies, and initiatives to be able to adjust to changing expectations for women laborers in the Soviet workforce. (Kubilius, 2008).

The advent of the two great world wars gives a more nuanced picture of the status of Soviet women in Russian history. This paper attempts to describe the role that Soviet women played before and after World War I and World II and analyze key factors and events that affected their plight. During these wars, a great number of Soviet women ventured into new jobs in war industries not only because of better income prospects and less dreary career opportunities but also because of their patriotic zeal to fight hand in hand with their male counterparts. The transformation of female status and roles concomitant to structural and ideological changes in Russian society and culture started even before pre-revolutionary Russia (Farnsworth & Viola, 1992, p. 8).

It is contended however that throughout Russian history, the patterns of continuity and change suggested changes in labels of women status and rights but not in tendencies (Hutton, 1996). Women’s economic and social positions were still subject to male-dominated and class-oriented government policies that treated Soviet women as second-class citizens.  Although the women in Tsarist Russia had more privileges than their European counterparts such as inheritance, property rights, and voting by proxy, the educational and employment programs of the government run counter to what is theoretically declared policies and thus incongruous to the principles of equal rights and opportunities (Hutton, 1996,  p. 63). Article 35 of the Soviet constitution provides a legal basis for equality:

Women and men have equal rights in the USSR. Exercise of these rights is ensured by according women equal access with men to education and vocational and professional training, equal opportunities in employment, remuneration, and promotion, and in social and political and cultural activity, and by special labor and health protective measures for women, by providing conditions enabling mothers to work.…

Notwithstanding this firm declaration in the highest statute of the Soviet Union, it is the enduring Bolshevik tradition that the woman is a “mother” that impeded role transformation and the accordance of more rights and privileges. Thus, equal status of men and women in the family, society and politics, although written in Soviet laws, was merely “on paper” (Rule, W. & Noonan, N. 1996, p. 77).

Mamonova & Maxwell (1989, p. 138) likewise assert that equal rights laws exist only in theory, both in the workplace and in the home. Women continue to bear the onus of performing their traditional roles as mother or a wife in addition to whatever professional work they have assumed, while men are not obliged to share family responsibilities. Torn between the advantages and disadvantages of modernization, Russian women lived a variety of lives either in submission to traditions or in attempts to assert their rights to equal status. Their efforts to assert their identity not being limited to mother/wife function are best expressed in their participation in military efforts of the Soviet Union, specifically during World War I and World War II. 

Soviet Women Before and After World War I

The Russian Revolution occurred during another monumental military conflict and unleashed a mixture of “democratic and egalitarian forces” along with “patriotic and martial sentiments” (Stockdale, 2004). The worsening class conflict against the backdrop of growing popular hostility to the war pushed women to the forefront of Russian history. Their struggles during these historic moments signalled that Soviet women were ready to venture into unchartered social and political territories only reserved to men.

However, Fansworth and Viola (1992, p. 3) who view the Bolshevik Revolution not as an isolated event but as part of a historical continuum, assert that the changes in the position of peasant women in Russian society brought about by a variety of economic, social, and ideological factors have started well before 1917, although the Revolution spawned more palpable evidence of changing social roles as when the revolutionary regime declared and acknowledged equal rights for women. However, despite some efforts to address women issues such as the social experiments and the zhenotdels of the 1920s and a much later liberal focus in the 1960s, equality of the sexes is still far from becoming a reality (Mamonova & Maxwell, 1999, p. 138).

Way before the Revolution, the acceleration of capitalist relations and the expansion of non-agricultural employment brought about by the diminution of serfdom gradually resulted in changes in family dynamics, albeit slowly. Women began to immerse themselves in jobs previously occupied solely by men. However, the advent of World War I saw a dramatic shift in work opportunities. Prior to World War I, the Russian Army was virtually all male, although women had previously participated with men in civil wars. The breadth and depth of World War I however compelled civil mobilization, thus the Russian Red Cross and the All-Russian Union of Zemstvos recruited more than 30,000 women to assume non-combatant roles. (Stockdale, 2004). Because the able men went to war front, Soviet women assumed the male jobs. They became service workers (streetcar drivers, porters, and concierges), industrial workers(munitions, metalworking, and coal industries), railroad employees, in addition to war-related services and support as nurses, relief volunteers and ammunitions carrier. Women also were formally recruited into the Soviet army for active military duties.

The formal entry of Soviet women in military combat was marked by the celebrated assembly of female recruits to St. Isaac’s Cathedral on June 21, 1917. Attended by various sectors of the society including key political and religious leaders and witnessed by hundreds of spectators, the consecration of uniformed Soviet military women signalled an unprecedented shift in gender role and status and acknowledged the contribution of Russian women who had served as regular soldiers, with and without formal approval, since the very start of the World War I (Stockdale, 2004).

Figure 1. Women soldiers numbering around 1,500 were formally admitted to the Russian Army in 1917 (From Russian State Archive of Film and Photographic Documents (RGAKFD), Krasnogorsk).

This event was precipitated by the aftermath of the Revolution. Desperate for fresh military units to continue the war with Germany, the Provisional Government mandated all female doctors under age 45 to report for military duty and subsequently ordered the creation of the Women’s Battalion of Death, also called Legion of Death (Stoff, 2006). The magnitude of the World War I which forced Russia to mobilize populations and demand their labor and sacrifices on an unprecedented scale, in a way modified prevailing social conventions and tipped the scale of social expectations (Goldstein, 2001; Stockdale, 2004).

The patriotic zeal and acts of self-sacrifice shown by women recruits and volunteers was also seen as an impetus for the further development of citizenship rights. This is because service in the war could be considered as a basis for claims of Russian citizenship by the women who were previously denied membership in the community of citizens, or partially curtailed of rights and privileges concomitant to citizenship. The famous event of June 21, 1917 was hailed as the “heroic voluntarism of Russia’s newest citizens” (Zarechnaia, as cited in Stockdale, 2004) seeing in the Battalions of Death proof that women were more than ready for equal rights. (Stockdale, 2004).

Figure 2. The female members of the Legion of Death in one of their camps. (Source: Collections of the Library of Congress)

Soviet women and volunteers however had varying reasons for joining the army or for volunteering in war related efforts. The women had either one or a combination of the following reasons: patriotism, desire for adventure to escape the drudgery of home, commitment to defend the country, desire for glory and honor, compassion for male soldiers, and vengeful feelings for lost lives (Goldstein, 2001; Stockdale, 2004). Furthermore, feminist ideology is also considered as a driving force. A former member of the Battalion of Death claimed two decades after World War I that feminist beliefs streamed through the minds of the women soldiers by considering themselves not just Russian women defending their country but also as a representative of the female half of the population to prove that they can be as worthy as male soldiers. (Stockdale, 2004).

The pioneer leader of the Battalion of Death Botchkareva (1919, as cited in Goldstein, 2001) considered the battalion as a way to “shame the men into fighting” and as an example to the entire front. Insisting the Death Battalion strictly follow military discipline, Botchkareva (1919) wanted that the female soldiers be given similar treatment as that accorded to their male counterparts. This is just one reflection of how the war has changed how gender was constructed in Russia (Stockdale, 2004). Still, even in the midst of the fighting, some women soldiers were not spared of male dominance and abuses indicative of the prevailing masculine philosophy which the men would not readily abandon (Botchkareva, 1919).

The 1,500 women recruits were organized as 1st Russian Battalion and 2nd Moscow Battalions of the Russian Women’s Legion of Death. Moved by the public event of June 1917 in St. Petersburg, other units composed of women conscripts were subsequently formed all over Russia. Coming from different walks of life and social classes, a few of them were from royalties and elite classes but mostly rural peasant women, these six thousand women served in the frontlines of World War I and achieved some important accomplishments notably the Kerensky Offensive launched into combat against the Germans (Eger, 2007; Goldstein 2001; Stoff, 2006).

Figure 3. Soviet women soldiers also fought on the frontlines of World War I (Photo from hubpages.com)

It is worthy to note that Russia did not recruit the women volunteers to become human sacrifices but to inspire patriotism among the general citizenry. Affording the women equal rights in terms of combat exposure as well as pay and privileges is considered by many as a revolutionary precedent (Stockdale, 2004).

In summary, the combined effects of the Russian Revolution and World War I in Russian society catapulted major shifts in social and gender boundaries most notably gleaned from the admission of women into social roles previously reserved for men. While it is argued that the conscription of women was only temporary, the memories of the Battalions of Death and the testimonies of the thousands of women who indirectly served in the war and in the February Revolution gave lasting impressions and created legal, symbolic and moral grounds that radicalized gender ideology and social perspective. The emergence of active women participation in the war that spanned the social spectra not only inspired patriotism but also awakened democratic ideals.

The absence of men in their households also created an opportunity for the Soviet women to show that they could perform the tasks of orthodox male jobs and earn for their family. The expanded gender role altered the outlook of what women could do and their place in the workforce. However, the extent of this change, according to some scholars, is open to historical debate. As soon as the war ended and the men resumed their role back home; the women were expected to return to the kitchens and hearths as before. But socio-economic development saw more Soviet women in the years following World War I enter the workforce in greater numbers than they had prior to the war and the Revolution. During the 1920’s, much discussion centered on women issues like motherhood and reproduction as well as measures that would enhance women productivity as well as protect their health especially those who suffered from poor working environments, exhaustion and illness. This shows that pre-WWII Soviet women were given theoretical considerations for their de facto physiological differences rather than their perceived weaknesses in other areas. (Kublius, 2008)

The succeeding years characterized by efforts of the communist regime to establish itself and the events and environment that accelerated the declaration of the Second World War showed the re-emergence of Soviet women in the forefront and further proved that their plight is not static.

Soviet Women Before and After World War II

March 8, 1929 marked a momentous occasion in the history of Soviet women. On that day, Russian publications focused on the achievements of Soviet women spanning decades of war and conflict. The discursive content dealt heavily on the new roles of women in employment, government, and education, the ongoing effort to surmount historical challenges, the unity of women behind the Soviet government and Communist Party, and the claims that Soviet women were the most equal and most emancipated women in the world compared with those of America and other European countries. Newspaper articles reflected how women and women issues were used for propaganda campaign. Excerpts of a newspaper article entitled “On the Path to a Great Emancipation” (Pravda, March 8, 1929) are reproduced below:

…the day of the woman worker has been consciously designated as a political and cultural “great day.”

…the conscientious, advanced women workers will today demonstrate their dedication to the cause of the international revolution and their indestructible solidarity with the working women and men of the Soviet Union…

…All of the striving of the woman worker toward the light, toward freedom, and to a human existence were snuffed out by the criminal arm of the autocracy. The exploitation and debasement were tripled: in politics, in factory labor, and in daily life…

…The most brutal blows of capitalist “rationalization,” unemployment, and hunger in the midst of plenty descend upon the female half of the proletariat…

Only we in the Soviet Union have at hand all of the preconditions and foundations for the complete emancipation of working women. Only our women have been emancipated in practice, acting as conscious builders of a new society and a new governing commune, and speaking out as active citizens with fully equal rights in the socialist family.

…She stands in the most advanced ranks of our working collective in the present-day glorious and productive period of socialist construction…Everywhere the vigorous stream of activism of our women workers is flowing. With ever more firm and certain steps they are advancing on the path to complete emancipation under the tested leadership of our Party.

… without the conscious and active participation of the working woman we will not fulfill the tasks defined by Lenin… We will not achieve the rapid tempo of socialist industrialization if the woman worker turns out to be passive. We will not achieve the complete cultural revolution if the woman worker remains “on the side,” or is somehow pushed off toward “the second rate plan.”

For the successful completion of all these tasks we must mobilize the entire women’s active…ensure the actual emancipation of women who remain backward in comparison with our general levels of economic and cultural development.

…The maximum activism of all women proletarians and conscientious working peasant women is one of the indispensable guarantees of our further successes and our victorious socialist growth…

…The path to the complete emancipation of working women is clear. No force has concealed it. And not only today, on the red holiday of March 8, should we take note of and strongly emphasize the great challenges facing the women’s proletarian movement. These should be remembered constantly, they should become part of our everyday “routine” of socialism. For surely we are talking about one of the greatest tasks that has been set by history: the complete liberation and emancipation of working women from any kind of exploitation, from material need, from lack of culture, and from barbarism.

In another newspaper appeared a caricature that contrasts the symbols of woman’s oppression in the “old way of life,” such as cooking utensils and makeup products, with one of the most evocative symbols of the new Soviet order: a young woman driving a tractor.

Figure 4. Caricature of a modern soviet woman that appeared in a March 8, 1930 issue of Izvestiia.

After the turmoil wrought by collectivization efforts of the Communist government had subsided and the new agrarian order more firmly established, what followed in the 1930’s in terms of legislation and government policy saw a deviation from the previously declared commitment for women’s liberation in 1929. The 1930’s is described as the time of the “great retreat” because it saw the hegemony of  conservatism in many policy areas, especially those concerning women and the family which run counter to liberal ideals. The legislative decrees of June 27, 1936, providing for the strengthening of the family, restricting divorce, outlawing abortion and encouraging birth rate by giving subsidies to women with large numbers of children are meant to temper the women’s hunger for emancipation. This is seen as a “retreat of the Communist party from its earlier pronouncements to address inequality issues and to promote women’s liberation (Manning, 1992, 206).

However, this notion of retreat in so far as women were concerned, was hardly noticeable in the rural areas not only because the rural women were amenable to these conservative policies but also because of the continued thrusts of the Russian government in encouraging rural women to engage in non-traditional jobs and to serve in Soviet and Communist Party positions that did not limit the options for women. For Manning (1992, 206), the real retreat came on as the refusal of peasant society as well as lower-level officials of peasant origin to support women who opted to deviate from their orthodox roles to take non-orthodox jobs. These legislative fiats which were actually designed to sway the women sector away from the real ideals of women’s liberation showed that the emancipator goal was restricted to an emphasis on the traditional responsibilities of women to the family and the joys derived from filial duty.

This snail-paced course of social advancement was disrupted by the outbreak of hostilities in the Second World War where thousands of men took army jobs and the housewives who were left in the family either joined the war effort or took over the jobs vacated by men.

Deriving from women’s experiential knowledge of war, women’s roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the World War I. By 1944, more than 2.3 million women were working in the war industries in the U.S., building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and also drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers and entered professional areas of work that were male-dominated.

He traditional status attributed to women however did not escape the plight of women soldiers during military action. The Soviet Union is one of the first contemporary societies to employ women extensively in its armed forces during the First World War, the Revolution and the Second World War. Soviet women engaged in combat in every branch of the armed forces. Around 800,000 Soviet women served in the Soviet military during World War II and nearly 70% saw front line action. However, while 40 percent of the medical officers at the front were women, the greatest percentage of women served in rear areas to release men for combat duty. (O’Brien & Jefferies, 1982). While participating in combat, Soviet women still found themselves thrust into the traditional, cultural role of caregiver (medic/nurse), even during combat.

Figure 5. A greater percentage of Soviet women fought in the frontlines of WWII than those who did in World War I (Source: UoN Cultural Collections,)

Women service as combat pilots was the most famous accomplishment of female participation in the World War II. If World War I had the Battalions of Death, World War II had the Night Witches comprising of an all-woman squadron of bomber pilots, who flew only at night because their canvas and wood bi-planes were too slow to fly day-light missions. A Soviet woman by the name of Raskova headed the female contingent of pilots. These regiments flew a combined total of more than 30,000 combat sorties, produced at least thirty Heroes of the Soviet Union, and included at least two fighter aces (Pennington, 2007; Sakaida, 2003).

Figure  6. Soviet women pilots of World War II.  Fighter aces Lilya Litvyak, 12 German kills (left) and Katya Budanova, 11 German kills (center). They both died in combat. On the right is fellow pilot Mariya Kuznetsova. (Source: Coppermine Image Galleries)


The aftermath of World War II saw the re-assertion of patriarchy but in the guise of extolling the virtues of the working woman. Soviet women were pressured to reproduce at home and to over-produce at work to help the state recoup from heavy war costs. Forced greater productivity as well as changing gender expectations necessitated a propaganda campaign to encourage women to seek employment. As a result, Soviet women contended with a double burden. Patriarchal morality, thought to have been eliminated with the advent of revolutionary ideals, had, in many ways re-emerged and even strengthened. To require the women to be like “super working mothers” which was an impossible feat, the state launched a propaganda highlighting success stories of women performing a dual role to convince the female population of the importance of both work and motherhood. (Mamonova & Maxwell, 1989, p. 167).

As a result of her old and new responsibilities, the Soviet woman found herself saddled with too many burdens, she failed make it into the highest ranks of academe, or to the Politburo, but this inability is blamed on her by the  patriarchal system. (Butcher, 2000; Mamonova & Maxwell, 1989, p. 168).  Clearly, women’s participation in politics actually was limited and women were far less equal than described in society’s official documents. As Pennington contends, when the demands of the war slipped away, the cultural demands of the masculine over the feminine reasserted itself, and the military institutions of the Allies stood again as bastions of masculinity.


It is undeniable that Russia was built on the backs of Russian women who were pulled into the labor force by the intense industrialization drive of the 1930s and into the Soviet war machine during the two world wars. Russian women were also granted rights and privileges that were even broader than other European nations. These are written in laws and in formal policies, however, equality is still elusive. The deeply imbedded patriarchal nature of Soviet society deterred any meaningful change in women’s status and social position and relegated her to her orthodox role as a mother and wife with the addition of her simultaneously being a worker.

There was a change in female role. However, this shift in gender roles brought about by a combination of socio-cultural and political factors actually consists of the “double-burden” or “dual role” that women assumed and still continue to practice. The double burden requires the Soviet women to balance their profession and their responsibilities at home. It is evident that the traditional role of a woman, that of being a mother and wife still persists to a great extent even in the present. Even as they permeate almost every nook and cranny of the labor force, Soviet women have failed to occupy positions of power and authority in the government and in the Communist party.

Although the status of Soviet women improved in the twentieth century, it never met the promises made by political leaders. The Leninist factions that have gained the reins of the government reneged on their promises expressed in their policy declarations, and failed to institute concrete programs and actions to bridge the gap between the status of men and women in the society.


Botchkareva, M. (1919). Yashka: My life as peasant, exile, and soldier. As told to Isaac Don Levine. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.

Butcher, G. (2000). Struggling to survive: Soviet women in the postwar years. Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 12, No. 1.

Eger, C. (2007). Russian women’s legion of death: The organization and record of the women’s Battalions. Modern War. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from http://modern-war.suite101.com/article.cfm/russian_womens_legion_of_death

Farnsworth, B. & Viola, L. , eds. (1992). Russian peasant women. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goldstein, J. (2001). War and gender: How gender shapes the war system and vice versa. Cambridge University Press.

Hutton, M. (1996). Women in Russian society, in Rule, W. & Noonan, N., eds. Russian women in politics and society. Wesport: CT: Greenwood Press.

Izvestiia. Old way of life. March 8, 1930.

Kublius. (2008). Soviet women labor expectations: Changing gender roles in pre- and post-WWII Russia. East European History. Retrieved December 10, 2008, from http://eeuropeanhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/soviet_womens_labor_expectations

Mamonova, T. & Maxwell, M. (1989). Russian women’s studies: Essays on sexism in Soviet culture. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Manning, R. (1992) (11 / Women in the Soviet countryside on the eve of World War II, 1935-1940, in Farnsworth, B. & Viola, L. , eds. Russian Peasant Women.  New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Brien, ML & Jefferies, C. (1982). Women and the Soviet military. Air University Review, January-February 1982.

Pennington, R. (2007). Wings, women, and war:  Soviet airwomen in World War II combat. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Pravda. On the Path to a Great Emancipation. March 8, 1929.

Rule, W. & Noonan, N., eds. (1996). Russian women in politics and society. Wesport: CT: Greenwood Press.

 Sakaida, H. (2003). Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-45. UK: Osprey Publishing.

Stockdale, M. (2004). “My death for the motherland is happiness”: Women, patriotism, and soldiering in Russia’s great war, 1914–1917. American Historical Review, Vol 109, No1.

Stoff, L. S. (2006). They fought for the motherland: Russia’s women soldiers in World War I and the revolution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas

Union of Soviet Socialist Republic. Constitution, Article 35.

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