Hello there everyone! So recently Gwen and I talked with each about a feature for Flying through Fiction and we’re both adamant lovers of STEM and history. Gwen wanted to write a feature for Women’s History and decided to talk about the Night Witches! So without further ado…
During World War II, the Soviet Union fielded three full air regiments of women who flew everything from fighters to advanced dive bombers, for the most part with great success. The surprising thing about the women’s regiments is perhaps not their gender but their age: Most of the pilots were between ages 19 and 21 at the beginning of the war, and they were required to have 500 hours of flight time, experience which took years to acquire. Who were all these teenaged girls getting their pilots’ licenses in the 1930s, and where did they come from?
To find out, we need to learn a little history. Aviation was a big deal in the early Soviet Union. The young nation faced many challenges: Potential enemies at every border, an industrial capacity that lagged far behind the rest of the western world, and millions of square miles of territory without adequate roads and railways to connect it. Aviation solved all these problems. When celebrity pilots made record-setting flights, they demonstrated the Soviet Union’s industrial capabilities, its ability to connect its distant cities through air travel, and its ability to defend itself.
Soviet aviators became famous celebrities, dwarfing even the fame of American pilots like Amelia Earhart. The country’s highest honor, Hero of the Soviet Union, was actually created so that it could be awarded to a team of pilots who rescued a steamship crew trapped in Arctic ice, a feat considered so badass that the existing awards just didn’t suffice..
Keen to train up the next generation of aviators, numerous flying clubs across the country provided instruction to teenagers as young as 14. Like all youth programs in the Soviet Union, they were free. And like all youth programs in the Soviet Union, they were open to both boys and girls.
Statue celebrating gender equality: Worker and Kolkhoz [collective farm] Woman, 1937
Compared to other nations in the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviet Union took an incredibly progressive view on women’s rights. Restrictive gender roles are a central element of fascism, so in Germany, women were confined to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche:” “children, kitchen, church.” In America, women did enter new fields in the workforce and even noncombat roles in the military during World War II, but these were dictated by necessity, not belief in women’s equality, and they were rolled back drastically when the war ended and the country moved into the hyperconservative 1950s.
In the Soviet Union, however, one tenet of their communist philosophy was equality between men and women, and gender equality was established by their constitution. In 1919, Lenin wrote:
There cannot be, nor is there nor will there ever be real “freedom” as long as there is no freedom for women from the privileges which the law grants to men…
Therefore, women enjoyed many opportunities that would have been difficult or impossible in America, becoming everything from engineers to ambassadors. Women were first admitted to combat roles in the military in 1928; in contrast, the US military wouldn’t open all combat roles to women until just four years ago in 2013 (coincidentally the same year the Russian Army adopted socks, but I digress). Navigator Yevgeniya Guruleva reports:
It was a kind of propaganda to show that Soviet women were equal to men and could fulfill any task, to show how mighty and strong we were. Women could not only bring babies into being but could build hydroelectric plants, fly aircraft, and destroy the enemy. (Amy Goodpaster Strebe, Flying For Her Country page 44)
Of course, in practice, women didn’t always enjoy perfect equality. There were still strongly entrenched ideas about gender in Russia, just as there are in the rest of the world, and many girls who wanted to fly had to overcome resistance from family members, flight instructors, and Air Force recruiters. Navigator Antonina Bondareva faced a particularly Soviet objection:
Father was dead set against it, though. Until then all the members of my family had been steelworkers, with several generations of blast-furnace workers. My father believed that a woman could be a steelworker but never a pilot. (Reina Pennington, Wings, Women, and War page 9)
Still, legal equality is a powerful tool, and if a girl showed enough persistence, the authorities were usually unable to furnish any substantive reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to participate. So by the outbreak of World War II, the stage was already set for Soviet women to enter aviation in large numbers. The last factor was not a circumstance, but a person.
Among the Soviet Union’s famous aviators were a trio of women: Pilot Valentina Grizodubova, copilot Polina Osipenko, and navigator Marina Raskova. On September 24, 1938, the three of them set off in an experimental bomber from Moscow to Komsomolsk, a city in the far eastern part of Russia, in an attempt to set a women’s distance record. But their aircraft went off course and they were forced to land in the middle of the desolate Siberian taiga.
Raskova bailed out of the aircraft to avoid being injured in a crash landing and ended up miles away. She was lost in the frozen taiga for ten days with no food or clean water before she finally found the landing site and they were rescued. They flew almost 6000 kilometers and shattered the previous distance record. All three women were made Heroes of the Soviet Union and became instant celebrities.
Tomboyish, disciplined Polina Osipenko died tragically in an air crash a year later. Glamorous Valentina Grizodubova, who went on to command an otherwise all-male regiment during World War II, was dismissive of her fans and disinterested in defining herself as a female pilot.
But kind, talented Marina Raskova, herself only 29 at the beginning of the war, devoted herself to getting girls into aviation. She wrote an autobiography, Notes of a Navigator, describing her adventures as a pilot. Thousands of girls read this book and began wondering if they could learn to fly, too. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Raskova received hundreds of letters from young female pilots asking how they could help the war effort. She went to Moscow with a suitcase full of letters and made a proposal: An all-female aviation group.
She said to Stalin, ‘You know, they are running away to the front all the same, they are taking things into their own hands, and it will be worse, you understand, if they steal airplanes to go.’ (Strebe 44)
To learn how her aviation group fared during the war, you’ll have to read Among the Red Stars.
The early Soviet Union was perfectly positioned to produce a generation of young female pilots. Its focus on aviation made flying clubs widely available to teenagers of all backgrounds. Its principle of gender equality opened doors that were still closed in other countries. And inspirational women like Marina Raskova both provided role models and actively helped younger women and girls break into the field.
Those same factors are essential today if we want more girls and children from marginalized groups to enter fields where they’re underrepresented. We need legal equality and strong mechanisms to enforce it. We also need programs and services to be widely available to all kids, regardless of their income or where they live. Finally, we need strong, positive role models who can show kids what they’re capable of. Most of us have little control over the first two, but we can all strive to become future role models. Who knows who may someday be looking up to you to see what they can accomplish?
Night Witches (properly called the 46th Guards)
Thank you so much for the lovely guest post, Gwen! Did you learn something new? Aren’t the Night Witches so cool? And wooo, go women! Go Women’s History Month!
More Information on Gwen Katz & her book Among the Red Stars:
World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.
Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.
As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.
Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.
Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist easily identified by her crew cut and ability to cause trouble. Originally from Seattle, she now lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient mammals. She is represented by Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.