As a young girl, Pamela D. Toler was inspired by women such as Joan of Arc and Emma Edmonds, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the American Civil War. Toler is now a historian, and her latest book, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, chronicles the stories of women who have gone into battle, not only as nurses, regents, advisors, and spies, but also as soldiers.
“The arguments against women in combat are as old as war itself,” writes Toler, “and yet women have gone to war.” She highlights well-known national heroines, like Boudica, Hua Mulan, and Lakshmi Bai, but it’s in her descriptions of lesser-known fighters that her eye for detail shines. Like her account of Maria Vasilyevna Oktiabrskaya, a Russian mechanic in World War II who drove a tank christened the “Fighting Girlfriend,” and took out several enemy machine gun nests during her first battle. (She was promptly promoted to sergeant.) Or Cheng I Sao, a prostitute from Canton who became the leader of a pirate clan that terrorized the South China Sea in the early 1800s. One of the book’s most vivid, dynamic, and courageous characters is Maria Bochkareva, who led Russia’s all-female battalion on the frontlines of World War II.
In late May 1917, despite having serious reservations about the value of such units, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky approved the creation of a single all-female battalion under the leadership of Maria Bochkareva (1889–1920), a semiliterate peasant from Siberia who had already fought for two years alongside male soldiers.
Bochkareva’s story is similar to that of women who joined the army disguised as men in earlier centuries. She was born into a desperately poor peasant family and went to work at the age of eight. When she was fifteen, she married a local peasant, Afanasi Bochkarev, in an attempt to escape her father, who was an abusive alcoholic. Afanasi proved to be as brutal as her father. She fled again, this time with a petty criminal named Yakov Buk. They lived together for three years. When Buk was arrested for fencing stolen goods in May 1912, Maria followed him into exile in Siberia, where he began to drink heavily and became physically abusive.
When the war began in 1914, Bochkareva saw it as an opportunity to escape. She traveled to her childhood home of Tomsk and attempted to enlist in the Twenty-Fifth Tomsk Reserve Battalion. The commander explained it was illegal for women to serve in the imperial army. Bochkareva pushed. The commander sarcastically suggested she ask the tsar for permission to enlist—not that far-fetched a suggestion as it turned out. Bochkareva convinced (or perhaps bullied) the commander to help her write a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II. To the amazement of everyone, and the possible chagrin of the commander, she received a thumbs-up from the tsar.
With the tsar’s permission, she enlisted in the Fourth Company of the Twenty-Fifth Reserve. Her unit was sent to the western front in February 1915. For two years she served with distinction. She was wounded three times—the third time a shell fragment pierced her spine, leaving her paralyzed. She learned to walk again and returned to the front. She earned several military honors for valor, including the St. George Cross.
Bochkareva was an avid proponent of an all-female brigade. She began to recruit for the First Women’s Battalion of Death as soon as she received approval to form the unit, helped by the Petrograd Women’s Military Organization. Some two thousand women enlisted initially, far exceeding expectations. The realities of war and Bochkareva’s rigid leadership style whittled the battalion down to three hundred by the time they were sent to the front.
The social backgrounds of the women who enlisted varied. Bochkareva was barely literate, but roughly half the women who served under her had a secondary education, and 25 to 30 percent had completed some degree of higher education. Professionals and women from wealthy families trained alongside clerks, dressmakers, factory workers, and peasants. Some had already served in the war in medical or auxiliary positions and were eager to do more; as one woman said, “Women have something more to do for Russia than binding men’s wounds.” At least ten had fought previously in all-male units. Thirty of them had been decorated for valor in the field.
Bessie Beatty, an American journalist who reported on the Russian Revolutions and the subsequent civil war for the San Francisco Bulletin, spent ten days living with the battalion in its barracks. When she asked the women why they had enlisted, many told her it was “because they believed that the honor and even the existence of Russia were at stake and nothing but great human sacrifice could save her.” Others joined because “anything was better than the dreary drudgery and the drearier waiting of life as they lived it.” A fifteen-year-old Cossack girl from the Urals, who managed to enlist despite the requirement that all volunteers be at least eighteen, joined because her father, mother, and two brothers had all died in battle. “What else is left for me?” she asked Beatty.
On June 21, after less than a month of rigorous training, their hair cut in a style any modern recruit would recognize, and wearing uniforms that didn’t fit, the First Women’s Battalion of Death marched in procession to St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the consecration of their battalion standards. Enthusiastic crowds cheered and a group of soldiers and sailors boosted Bochkareva onto their shoulders. Bessie Beatty trumpeted the significance of the unit and the event to her readers. This was “not the isolated individual woman who has buckled on a sword and shouldered a gun throughout the pages of history, but the woman soldier banded and fighting en masse—machine gun companies of her, battalions of her, scouting parties of her, whole regiments of her.”
Excerpted from Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela Toler, (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission by Beacon Press.
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