Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Women and the War

First, I need to apologize for flaking out on my last blog post. Things have been hectic for everyone on the Athena roster, but that's no excuse for not writing at all, so I hope you can forgive me for that temporary lapse in discipline.

So you're probably clued into the fact that today is a very significant day. It marks the end of World War I, 91 years ago, and is observed as a reminder of the millions of war casualties both from that war and from those that followed.

I'm no longer being shuffled into stuffy auditoriums to see high school students stage daddy-goes-to-war scenes, but it's impossible to get through November 11th without being reminded, in some way, of past and present sacrifices. The older I get, the more thoroughly I am able to understand and appreciate just what today means, and I do my best to express my gratitude. I've worn my poppy. I've written my grandfather a note to thank him for his service as a pilot in the Second World War. I've offered humble nods at the uniformed veterans on the bus and in the grocery store. I've watched TV coverage of the ceremony at Parliament. And I've decided that while war sucks, it has repeatedly set the stage for countless displays of heroism, bravery and humility. And that's why today matters so much.

It occurred to me, sitting down to write this week's blog, that though we observe today from a markedly patriotic perspective, the World Wars did not belong to Canada, or to North America, or even to the West. Remembrance Day is about recognizing the role of our citizens in something much bigger and decidedly global. So I think it is suiting to take a look at how women, Canadian and elsewhere, were involved in history's two world wars.

I'd love to look at the ways in which these wars redefined gender roles (for the better and the worse), but it would take hours to even scratch the surface. Instead, I want to draw your attention to a couple of women in particular who lived during the First World War and, fueled by the same motives and values that inspired men to enlist by the thousands, took unconventional action in an effort to make a difference.

Maria "Yashka" Bochkareva
I'll admit I really had to hesitate before choosing to feature a woman who commanded what was called the "Batallion of Death," but when it comes to equality and women's rights, this tough, peasant-turned-fighting-machine really shone. Maria Bochkareva, nicknamed Yashka, was born in Russia in 1889. She married at fifteen, ending up with a husband who abused her. Not one to passively take the blows, Maria fled her marriage and found a new husband, but he too eventually lapsed into alcoholism and violence.

When the war started, Yashka was so hellbent on serving that she left her abusive relationship and small town, headed for the big city, and secured the personal permission of the Russian emperor to join a regular batallion. And by "regular", I'm talking men's batallion, because men were the only people joining batallions in WWI Russia. As you can imagine, many men in the batallion dealt with Yashka's presence by mocking and sexually harassing her. No big deal. She pressed on, kicked ass and proved her skill as a soldier.

Meanwhile, women like Yashka who wanted to fight were pressuring the government into letting them give it a go. In 1917, the government listened, and combat units were formed consisting entirely of women. Yashka was put in charge of the first of those units--the 1st Russian Woman's Batallion of Death. The we-eat-puppies-for-breakfast-esque name was a pretty indication of just how serious these women were. 2000 attempted to enlist in the batallion, but Yashka narrowed the pool down to 300. All were volunteers. All were really, really good at what they did. The batallion fought well and prompted the creation of more like it. Many of its members were noted for acts of heroism. Unfortunately, official support for the units fell apart due to ever-present sexist attitudes, strained resources and a general lack of enthusiasm within the military as a whole. Attempts to use the existence of a woman's batallion as propaganda and a way of "shaming" hesitant male soldiers were ultimately unsuccessful. Finally, the Bolsheviks pulled the plug on the entire campaign. Nonetheless, a small movement of dedicated woman soldiers continued to exist in Russia and they showed up again in the soon-to-follow civil war.

Jane Addams
Now here's a warmer, fuzzier story from the war. When World War I was officially declared, Jane Addams was 43 years old--by no means a young'un. And she knew, with absolute conviction, that she did not like the idea. She was well-educated, having earned a college degree before beginning medical school but then choosing to devote several years to private study instead. She was financially well-to-do, and when her father left her a large inheritance she formed a settlement house with her close friend, Ellen Starr. Settlement houses were a popular sort of socialist concept of the Victorian Era: they were houses inhabited by middle-class volunteers who wanted to share and give to poorer members of the community. They offered food, childcare, cultural events, clubs--think of it as a church-meets-community-centre type of set-up. Jane's settlement house, Hull House, was the first of its kind in America.

You can probably imagine that Jane was quite the pacifist. She frequently shared her liberal, feminist, pro-peace and--at the time--unpopular views at conferences and lectures. The idea of a massive world war was not okay with her, and she did not hesitate to publicly denounce America's decision to partake. Her activity for the cause led to her being offered leadership roles with organizations like the American Women's Peace Party, or WPP. As chair of the WPP, she headed the 1915 International Congress of Women at the Hague--a groundbreaking gathering of over a thousand delegates representing countries on both sides of the war. Later, Jane Addams was offered the position of president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which still exists today. In 1931, four years before her death, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize--only the second woman to achieve this honour in 30 years. Fifteen years later, her co-worker Emily Balch became the third.

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