Tens of thousands of Ukrainian women have taken up arms during the war sparked by Russia’s invasion. According to media reports, women constitute as much as 15% to 17% of the Ukrainian fighting force.
In the first two weeks of the conflict, social media was replete with images of Ukrainian women training for combat. On March 15, CNN reported that after dropping off their parents and children in the border town of Przemysl, Poland, some Ukrainian women are turning around to go back to the fight.
“They view returning home to a war zone as an act of symbolic resistance to Russian aggressors,” CNN reporters Ed Lavandera and Cristiana Moisescu wrote.
Distinctly Ukrainian feminism
Ukrainian women have historically enjoyed independence not common in other parts of the globe.
One reason for this is Ukraine’s geography. A temperate climate and fertile land combined to enable independence for hardworking people. Fathers didn’t need to trade their daughters for dowry to till the land, nor were they indebted like serfs to wealthy landowners. A widow could remain unmarried if she chose to and thrive by cultivating her garden and tending to her animals. In Ukrainian folklore, there is a recurrent character of a single woman, often a widow, who can survive and thrive without a man.
No doubt, the real life of Ukrainian women was no fairy tale, and their experiences might not universally fit into this narrative. However, from a diversity of human experience, a culture retains those stories that resonate with most of its members as an ideal upon which they can agree. In Ukraine, this ideal includes fiercely independent women.
Ukraine’s geographic circumstances also gave rise to a feminist culture in which women had a say in marriage, rather than being “given away” by their fathers or male relatives.
In the fall, when marriage proposals were traditionally delivered via “svaty” – a delegation from the groom’s family – the bride could refuse the offer by giving the family a pumpkin as a consolation prize. The Ukrainian phrase “to catch a pumpkin” means to be rejected by a woman. A Ukrainian girl’s beauty was sometimes gauged as having “a closetful of pumpkins,” implying she could expect to have many suitors.
Such narratives have shaped Ukrainian cultural psychology and, as a result, attitudes toward women.
Since the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion, the internet amplified several remarkable videos depicting Ukrainian women opposing armed Russian soldiers. One woman was famously shown offering sunflower seeds to the troops, instructing them to “at least put these seeds in your pockets, so sunflowers will grow when you all die here.”
Another video showed a woman yelling at a heavily armed Russian soldier atop his tank in Konotop, “Don’t you know where you are? You’re in Konotop. Every other woman here is a witch. You’ll never get an erection, starting tomorrow.”
There are videos from towns all over occupied Ukraine where women yell at Russian soldiers, shame them and tell them to “think about their mothers and wives.” Who can forget the story of Olena in Kyiv, who reportedly took down a drone by throwing a jar of her homemade canned tomatoes at it?
Grandmothers making flak jackets
Ukrainian women who are not already in the armed forces or confronting Russian soldiers with sharp tongues or tomatoes have been volunteering on the front lines.
This volunteering practice traces its roots to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, when volunteers created a de facto “second state” while the official state failed, crippled by Russian-led corruption and cronyism.
In 2014, female volunteers delivered meals, clothes and fuel to the men who defended Maidan – Kyiv’s Independence Square, which became the stage for monthslong protests against riot police and pro-Russian mercenaries employed by the government of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Volunteers supplied hospitals and ambulances with medicines; they assembled rapid-response defense teams to shield locations where attacks were imminent; women wove camouflage nets and hid the wounded from persecution.
In 2022, some of the same Ukrainian women stepped into what are now familiar roles, working day and night to address the needs of the army and of the volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, stranded civilians, the disabled and elderly, medical practitioners and even abandoned pets.
Grandmothers are using their sewing machines to make flak jackets and military uniforms. A joke on Ukrainian social media is: “If you tell Ukrainian volunteers that a nuclear warhead is needed, it will take them about two hours to put one together and deliver it to the specified address. Along with tea and cookies.” While not every volunteer in Ukraine is a woman, for the tasks of supplying food, clothes, medicines, protective gear, identifying and helping vulnerable individuals, women reportedly form the majority of the volunteer force.
On a more serious note, the official Facebook account of the Ukrainian military’s head of defense posted a note of gratitude to the volunteers, which reads in part:
“Thank you, our VOLUNTEERS. Yes, today the Army is much better equipped than in 2014. But First Aid kits, bulletproof vests, helmets, medicines, hygiene products are always needed. But most important for us is to know that you exist. 24/7. You call, write, offer help, bring something, create, support us, joke with us. You make us feel our unity and invincibility. To feel that there is a nation, that you are among yours and for them you hold this country on your shoulders. … Together to victory!”
As with the Kurdish women known as the “Daughters of Kobani” who fought in Syria and Iraq, there are powerful psychological effects when women take up arms.
Soldiers who perceive they could lose against women might feel emasculated, which was the effect of YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, on Islamic State group fighters 2014-2016. Like Ukrainian women now, those women rose to the occasion. They were courageous and deadly effective.
The famous saying goes, behind every successful man is a woman. The Ukrainian war reveals that, perhaps, behind the success of the Ukrainian army is an army of Ukrainian women.