Women Combatants in World War I: A Russian Case Study

TitleWomen Combatants in World War I: A Russian Case Study
Publication TypeBook
Year of Publication2003
AuthorsSowers, Susan R., US Army War College, and Defense Technical U.S.)
Number of Pages70
PublisherU.S. Army War College
CityCarlisle Barracks, Pa.

World War I was a watershed event for women. The record of women's singular and nationally unsanctioned participation in warfare goes back for centuries, but it is not until WWI that governments, across the globe, were willing to officially allow women to join the armed forces, wear the uniform, and participate openly as women. This paper initially demonstrates that WWI was the first modern era war, where women, in large populations, participated in the conduct of warfare. It compares the degree of utilization and the roles of women by four of the major powers in WWI: Britain, the United States, Germany, and Russia. While Britain, the U.S., and Germany allowed women to support the war in various degrees of uniformed integration, none of them armed their women nor located them dangerously close to combat. In general, women were used to supplement the manpower shortage and free able-bodied men to serve as combatants. Russia, however, stands apart from all other nations in its extraordinary use of women in combat. Focusing on Russia's great divergence from the popularly accepted norm that women should not be armed in war, the majority of the paper demonstrates the extent of Russia's use of women in combat roles superimposed on the political backdrop of WWI and the Russian Revolution. A strong emphasis is given to Maria Bochkareva and the infantry unit that she created during the Provisional Government period in 1917. Her unit, the Women's Battalion of Death," was the first of such women's combat units, and the only one to be tested on the front lines. In addition to providing a case study on the historical use of women in combat, Bochkareva's unit may also provide insights to the ongoing discussion within the U.S. military today of allowing women to serve in all branches, including infantry and other restricted fields. What makes this historical account so enigmatic is that even today, after 85 years of continued breakthroughs of women into "traditionally male roles," most nations still view women combatants as the exception rather than the rule.

Short TitleWomen Combatants in World War I
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