Soaring Above the Glass Ceiling

While the Soviet Union still lagged behind Western nations in areas like technology and industry during World War II, their advances in gender equality were internationally innovative. The female call to civil and national duty was fulfilled in flight, surpassing their conventional positions in fields, factories, and homes.


Mariya Dolina of the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment

The Russian army included 800,000 women, but the Soviet Union was the first in the world to allow women to fly combat missions. This militaristic modernization was driven by Marina Raskova, the “Russian Amelia Earhart, who began teaching air navigation at age 22 in the Zhukovskii Air Academy. Raskova used personal connections with Stalin to support the creation of three female aviation units: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. The 46th and 125th were given the title Guards due to their strong performance as offensive units, while the 586th was a lesser known defensive team.

Songs of Night Witches

A Dance With Death: New York Times 1994

Despite persistent gender discrimination and extensive red tape used to discourage females from pursuing aerial combat positions, female aviators made an unforgettable impression in the military. Female fighters and bombers “destroyed the enemy just as well as the men did”, recalled a male pilot, who also described the young women as having “…an iron character, a steady hand, and an accurate eye”. Led by Raskova in a rickety plywood Polikarpov Pro-2 biplaneRodina, the 46th regiment was nicknamed “The Night Witches” by the Germans because of their lethal nocturnal attacks. Lieutenant Polina Gelman remembers how “we hated the German fascists so much that we didn’t care which aircraft we were to fly; we would have flown a broom if we were able to fire at them”, attacking Germany, Lithuania, and Poland with the 46th.


Pilots of the 46th Taman Regiment (The Night Witches)

Their presence and surprising success in a male-dominated, violent environment made the women perfect targets for Soviet propaganda. The plight of the female aviators inspired women in the Soviet women as well around the world. Soviet women were portrayed as capable of anything, raising the standard for patriotism and casting Stalin in an egalitarian light. The young trailblazer Marina Raskova was the most celebrated in this group, as she commanded the 125th until her death in a crash in 1943, for which she received the “first state funeral of the war.


Valentina Grizodubova, Paulina Osipenko, Marina Raskova : Polikarpov Po-2 biplane Rodina

Though the Soviet Union made significant progress for women in aviation, the movement digressed into a passing trend when they were rapidly demobilized from active duty after the war. Some view the movement as an act of desperation due to lack of manpower in the war effort. Although short lived, the inclusion of women in aviation during The Great Patriotic War depicted the Soviet Union’s ability to adapt, in addition to setting a precedent for women in the military for the future.


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  7 comments for “Soaring Above the Glass Ceiling

  1. ccubberly
    October 20, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    It’s interesting to see how the Soviet Union responded to the idea of “total war” by encompassing women in their actions. The US saw an increase of female factory workers, but the Soviet Union was one of the only nations that saw the most prominent fighting forces comprised of women. Female Soviet soldiers and aviators were regarded as more skilled then men in some cases, however it does seem like it was out of desperation. Hopefully, the respect toward these women still continues though this historic period.

  2. jslattery
    October 20, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    I agree that the Soviet Union probably enlisted women out of an act of desperation, when they needed every able body, regardless of gender. The United States had the luxury of being picky in WW2. Even today, a debate rages on as to whether or not we should allow women into the infantry.

  3. Jimmy Jewett
    October 20, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    It is interesting to see how a country backwards in so many ways could be progressive when it comes to gender equality. Even though this was short lived, I am interested in knowing if woman were used by the Soviets in such a way at another time in their history. If not, I agree with the prior comments that the use of women may have been more out of necessity than anything else during the Great Patriotic War.

  4. Kelly Cooper
    October 20, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    Great primary sources! I agree with Jimmy that it is surprising to see this progressive action in the Soviet Union for women in combat, however short lived. However, you make a great point in the end that allowing women into action may have been a desperate call for manpower. This posts gives some food for thought!

  5. October 20, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    Love the primary sources and range of materials you used for this post. Wow.

  6. afoutz
    October 21, 2014 at 2:25 am

    I had no idea women would have been allowed to fight in WWII especially in aviation battles. Just the mere 800,000 women used in the army is amazing to me. I always knew Russia favored women in a more equal view comparative to their neighbors to the West and especially their Asian neighbors to the East. I liked the comparison of Marina Raskova to Amelia Earhart as well in this article. Very good post and nice images used.

  7. GPittard
    October 23, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Like WW1, when women fought in the war, the Russians seriously needed troops on the ground. Men were dying fast and Russia, to this day, has not recovered. Now that the war required a whole new size of force in the air, why not put women up there since there is no bronze and only brains required. Makes complete sense to me.

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