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[ Home > International Historic Films Complete Online Catalog > Historical Essays/Reviews > Historical Essays by Blaine Taylor > * Women At War ]


Women At War
by Blaine Taylor


The 2007 national showing of famed filmmaker Ken Burns’ television documentary, The War, focused some attention on American women on the home front during World War II.

On the Allied side of the ledger, working women---in uniform and out---played a vital part in the American war effort, just as they had in the First World War, but in far greater numbers.

Only in the radical Red Army of the Soviet Union, however, did women actually see combat alongside their men, a phenomena that made itself felt during World War I, and even more so during the Russian Civil War of 1917-20, when whole battalions of infantrywomen were raised.

During the Great Patriotic War---the Russian term for the Second World War---more than 400,000 women were utilized, primarily as doctors and nurses, orderlies, and stretcher-bearers. Indeed, more than 40% of all frontline medical personnel were females, and by the end of the first full year of the German attack, women counted for some 8% of overall Red Army troops. By the end of the war in 1945, this figure doubled.

About a million Soviet women---three quarters of them draftees---had served as combat engineers, machine and anti-aircraft gunners, signalers, truck drivers, dispatch riders, tank crews, telegraphists, and reconnaissance scouts, many times in entirely mixed units and in total equality with their male counterparts.

Indeed, Communist wartime propaganda celebrated the exploits of the Red Army’s numerous female snipers, among them R. Shrypikova, O. Bykova, and Roza Shanina with 54 confirmed kills, as well as Nina Lobovskaya, with 89 victims. The most famous was Lt. Lyudmila Pavlichencko, who had 309 confirmed kills.

In addition, three Red Army women---sniper Petrova, machine gunner Stanilizhene, and anti-aircraft gunner Zhurkina---were presented with all three classes (bronze, silver, and gold) of the Soviet Order of Glory, the most highly respected soldiers’ decoration.

Also, 86 women were awarded the prestigious Order of Lenin with the Gold Star medal and title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s very highest distinction. The USSR was also the first nation to allow women pilots to fly combat missions. During the war formed, it three all-female units that were grouped into separate fighter, dive bomber, and night bomber regiments, while also recruiting others to fly with mostly male units. All told, these regiments flew a combined total of 30,000 combat sorties, produced two fighter aces of more than five kills each (the recognized international standard), and 30 Heroes of the Soviet Union.

By this measuring yardstick, the United States is still over a half-century behind its former World War II ally and, later, Cold War, foe!

Besides Russian female Partisans fighting behind enemy lines, there were also the famous women of Yugoslav Partisan commander Josip Broz Tito who fought German Army regular and Alpenkorps/Mountain Corps units, Italian Blackshirt Brigades, Royalist Chetniks, and bloodthirsty Croatian Ustasche forces. On the Axis side, German women of the war served in the Luftwaffe/Air Force and the Waffen/Armed SS. At the start of the war in 1939, there were 140,000 women in the German Army, another 130,000 in the Air Force, and about 20,000 in the Kriegsmarine/Navy. Fascist Italy had the MVSN Aldo Resega Brigade.

With the war in full swing on the American domestic front, servicemen’s wives generally returned to their parents’ homes in most cases because of an acute housing shortage that didn’t abate until the housing market boom of 1948. Loneliness and long periods of separation of marital partners effected egalitarian, companion-based unions. Surprisingly, US domestic divorce rates fluctuated little during the war years from the prewar years, from 26% before the war to 27% during and afterward, until the late 1940s.

The wartime and postwar baby boom began in 1940 and ended in 1960, although some accounts today conclude that period with the year 1965 instead. During 1940-42, the first birth rate went from 293 per 10,000 females to 375, with the rate of later births jumping from 506 to 540. This childbearing increase was found among all groups of young women, but was found to be the greatest among the most educated women, who had both the best resources and most opportunities to comprehend and control their lives.

Longstanding prohibitions against married women working were quickly dropped in favor of boosting the overall war effort, and for the very first time, large numbers of working mothers thus entered the workforce, despite traditional social mores that demanded that women focus primarily on home building and child rearing.

Meanwhile, in the industrial workplace, two different types of jobs opened up for women, first, the replacement of men directly, and second, the 90% of munitions jobs that were new ones. The famous image of “Rosie the Riveter” doing traditionally male work was a piece of wartime propaganda, as the real “Rosies” either did traditional female work---such as assembling radios---or else did a previously unknown job, such as welding a ship or riveting an airplane.

The actual replacement of men with women followed union negotiations and compromises, with the unions taking the stance that women were only temporary replacements for their permanent male jobs. Women would be paid the same as men, so that the pay scale would remain the same after the war, when it was expected that the men would return to their former posts.

Most women replacement workers were not in munitions plant jobs, though, but, rather, in office and factory positions, and most of these jobs were non-union. Thus, the overall workforce became notably more feminine, particularly in the whitecollar sector.

After World War II, 4.1 million women left the wartime labor force, with 50% telling census takers they were returning to their homes to raise their families instead. Another 18% did so because of the insistence from their husbands, while 13% named age or disability as compelling factors; 11% returned to school or to a farm. A few left because of the lack of satisfying jobs, poor working conditions, or lack of child care facilities. Their overall contribution to the war effort was a hugely significant one toward the Allied victory.

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