Whether you’re a historian or not you’ve probably heard of, or at least seen that poster of the women’s war work movement. Rosie Riveter – the ‘We Can Do It’ girl who donned her factory overalls, rolled up her sleeves, and took over work in the factories while the boys went off to France.
Although barely seen during World War Two, the image has become iconic for feminism and its ties to women’s war work; even though many women were forced back into unskilled domestic work once the war was over (Google the “Restoration of Pre-war Practices Acts” – which pushed women out of traditionally ‘male’ areas of work and back into the home to try to ‘restore’ society). Rosie’s image however, has lived on as an inspirational figure for women even today.
You’ve probably also heard of Peggy Carter – Marvel’s SSRO (Strategic Scientific Reserve Officer). Instead of being the classic and cliché damsel in distress, Agent Carter is a tough, no-nonsense, trained combatant with a series of successful missions under her belt. If you haven’t heard of Rosie or Peggy, you might have seen one of the BBC Dramas such as ‘Land Girls’, ‘The Crimson Field’ or similar series such as ‘Anzac Girls’ which focus on women’s achievements and participation in both World Wars. (I love a period drama so if you haven’t seen Anzac girls, it’s fabulous and I highly recommend it).
There’s been a small but gradually increasing presence of women’s war efforts in film and media with the discussion around women’s involvement in the military still continuing today. The British government is currently in the process of attempting to lift the ban on women fighting in close combat roles, yet in the past they have been notorious for struggling to understand the concept of women being fully involved in combat. It wasn’t until the 1980s that women were actually allowed to operate and handle rifles. All because the combination of a vagina and a deadly weapon made some people a little too uncomfortable. The idea of women being anything other than gentle, loving, nurturing, and pushing the boundaries of femininity was clearly too much handle.
I study History at university and it wasn’t until I started it that I realised that the way I have always been taught history is incredibly Anglocentric, which means that as a young girl, I was only ever seeing British women in military positions (if we even learnt about them at all). However, there are thousands of women from other countries who deserve to be mentioned in the history books because of the way in which they defied limitations and stereotypes.
Taking a step away from the traditional Anglocentric history of war, we can look at other countries that had a multitude of women who I think it’s really important we learn about; as they can be just as inspiring. Cue the Night Witches.
In the midst of World War Two, Soviet Russia gives us one of the best examples of women who overcame second-hand equipment, limited training and using nothing but wooden planes, the cover of darkness and their sheer bravery to succeed in precision bombing missions. These all-female regiments became some of the most highly decorated units in history, flying over 25,000 missions. They became known as the ‘Night Witches’ – a nickname given to them by German soldiers who were so scared of them, that the Kaiser promised an Iron Cross to any soldier who shot them down. The ladies who flew these missions would cut their engines, glide to the bomb release point and then restart the engine at a very low altitude; mimicking the sound of broomsticks (giving the bombers their nickname). All this was done without a parachute, under enemy fire and with crews of just two people.
The Night Witches’ male counterparts had better quality machinery, while the Witches were having to make do with sub-standard hand-me-downs. They were so skilled, brave and accurate that rumours spread through German camps that the Night Witches had been given night-vision pills. I wish such a thing existed (sadly it doesn’t – I’ve checked) but these types of rumours highlight the ability and skill of these amazing women who had to fight a lot harder to reach the same achievements as men.
As women, and thus facing many more social barriers than men, the Night Witches faced an already uphill struggle, yet they still managed to overcome these restrictions. Their skill and bravery put their achievements on the same level as the men who fought on the front lines in World War Two. Finally women could be seen as attackers and defenders instead of the protected; smashing the notions of femininity and what it meant to be “a woman”. Let’s not let them hide in the history books. The Night Witches were feminist as hell.
Words by Sophy Edmunds
Images Courtesy of Sophy Edmunds, ABC Television via Seattle Times, and Elinor Florence.