More than 1,000 years ago, Igor I, Prince of Kyiv, made over-zealous demands for tribute and was assassinated. With his son still very young, his wife Olga stepped into the job. It was not a time for half-measures, she judged, so his assassins were scalded to death and hundreds of their Slavic relatives massacred. That being done, she converted to Christianity and later became a saint.
St Olga of Kyiv remains a venerated figure in Ukraine, a country now fighting for its existence against a much larger neighbor denying its right to exist. Faced with this Russian threat, a generation of Ukrainian women has stepped forward in ways that would have been unimaginable for much of the intervening millennium.
Since 2018, Ukrainian women have had the same legal status as men in the armed forces, and while many say they have faced sexism from some colleagues, they are broadly accepted and carry out the same tasks as men, including frontline combat roles. At least 30,000 were in the armed forces — about 10% of the total — before the war began, and the number has risen sharply since. Many more women have joined territorial defense units and untold millions support the war effort in other ways. The most recent numbers show women making up 22.8% of the armed forces.
The contrast with Russia is stark. Famed in Soviet times for the roles filled by women warriors, the Russian military is now all-male on the frontline.
In the early days of the war, the role of Ukrainian women was acknowledged by first lady, Olena Zelenska, who said “our current resistance has a particularly female face.” She said she “bowed” to the women of her country, including “those who fight in the ranks . . . those who heal, save, feed; those who continue to do their usual jobs — in pharmacies, shops, on transport, in utilities, so that life lasts and wins; to those who take children to shelters every day without panic and entertain them with games and cartoons to save children’s consciousness from war.”
Women nonetheless are still widely expected to take their traditional roles as childcarers. Because men of military age are forbidden from leaving the country, it is mostly women and children who have become refugees, including the extraordinary total of 6.3m who have left the country from a total population of 44m.
And the attitude of Ukrainian authorities has sometimes been more traditional than progressive in other contexts, perhaps unsurprising in a country where the great majority identify as Orthodox Christian, an affiliation stretching back to St Olga’s time. The Guardian reported on one transwoman who was prevented from leaving the country by border guards who determined she had male sex characteristics, despite official documentation showing her female gender. It said there were numerous other cases.
Outside of the military, women have become an integral part of the resistance and the “rear front line.” From the Ukrainian woman who reportedly took down a Russian drone with a jar of tomatoes from her balcony, to the women making Molotov Cocktails and packing soldiers’ bags, civilian contributions are uncontestable.
Social media is proving another battlefield. Immediately after the latest invasion began on February 24, some Ukrainian women matched up with Russian soldiers on tinder to establish their military bases and inform Ukrainian forces. Women have also contributed through combat zone reporting, which cost the life of tv news producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova, and very nearly killed journalists Anastasia Stanko and Anastasia Volkova. The widely admired Russian journalist, Oksana Baulina, who was working for the independent Russian outlet, The Insider, was also killed while reporting on the Ukrainian side of the lines.
Women have historically been symbols of a country’s capacity to retain its culture and future for growth. As such, they also become targets. Mariupol’s maternity ward airstrike not only killed extremely vulnerable people, it also sparked a Russian propaganda campaign suggesting one of the victims was an actor. Marianna Vyshemirsky, pictured walking, visibly shocked and wounded from the rubble of the March 9 attack, later told the BBC that Russian social media accounts had threatened her life and that of her baby.
It is not clear what effect the role of women in Ukraine’s war will have on wider society once the fighting has stopped. The female role of women in the US and UK in 20th-century wars unquestionably accelerated women’s political representation and emancipation, but there are no guarantees. While Ukrainians are extraordinarily united in their response to the war, that doesn’t mean they’re all fighting for the same peace.