Any Westerner studying Aviation Group 122 can’t help being struck by both the similarities and the differences between their experiences and the experiences of Western women in nontraditional fields. The USSR was established on a foundation of egalitarian Bolshevism, and while it had taken a sharp turn to the right under Stalin, it remained far more progressive on gender issues than the West in many ways, most notably in the presence of women in every sector of the workforce. Thus, while the resistance many of the women met in learning to fly may seem familiar, the reasons given by 46th Guards pilot Antonina Bondareva are not:
Father was dead against it, though. Until then all 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 (Pennington 9).
Anna Timofeeva, who flew in a male bomber regiment, had a similar experience:
The Il-2, of course, is not a “lady’s” aircraft. But after all, I’m no princess, but a metal worker who helped build the Moscow subway system (Pennington 128).
The women faced a lot of belittling and skepticism, especially at the beginning. When the 46th Guards arrived at the front, their division commander asked the commander of their air army, “I’ve received 112 little princesses. Just what am I supposed to do with them (Pennington 77)?” Male fighter pilots often refused to let the female pilots fly with them as wingmen, ostensibly to protect them, but actually robbing the rookie pilots of the chance to fly alongside experienced veterans. And when Raskova brought in a male instructor to teach dive-bombing to the pilots of the 587th, he told her outright that it was ridiculous to think that women could learn dive-bombing. Once he had flown with them, he had to eat his words.
However, in many ways, the women’s air regiments were notable for the lack of special treatment they received. Valentin Markov, who commanded the 125th Guards, notes that “My superiors made no distinction between male and female units, of which the girls were very proud (Cottam 22).” They served in the same divisions with male regiments (the 586th and 125th both eventually incorporated some men), flew the same types of missions, and were issued men’s uniforms, right down to the underwear. Although the selection process was stringent, they were never given a physical, not even the armorers, who were expected to wrangle 100-kilo bombs. Russians simply took the strength and hardiness of their women for granted. Meanwhile, across the pond, American WASPs were forbidden from flying while on their periods (an order that was, unsurprisingly, never followed, since their male superior officers didn’t want to ask).
The women of Aviation Group 122 were proud of their gender. 46th Guards chief of staff Irina Rakobolskaya says, “The first slogan of the regiment was: You are a woman, and you should be proud of that (Noggle 29).” Their all-female status was a particular point of pride for the 46th Guards, who were adamant about maintaining it. Historian Reina Pennington describes a visit from Rokossovskii, the commander of the front, and Vershinin, the commander of the air army:
Before the assembled regiment, Rokossovskii turned to Vershinin and said, “It’s probably hard for the girls to do everything themselves. Maybe we should send them ten or twenty men to help hang bombs and do other heavy work?” But the women protested loudly, “We don’t need any helpers, we’re managing just fine on our own (Pennington 74)!”
There is a curious tension between this pride (and the great lengths to which the airwomen went in order to serve) and the general agreement amongst them that it was unnatural for women to fight. 46th Guards navigator Alexandra Akimova expresses a typical opinion:
The very nature of a woman rejects the idea of fighting. A woman is born to give birth to children, to nurture…To be in the army in crucial periods is one thing, but to want to be in the military is not quite natural for a woman.
I think American women have the idea of romanticism connected with being in the military, and it leads them to want to be a part of it. That is probably because they have not fought a battle in their own country for a hundred years and don’t know the nature of war. If the women of the world united, war would never happen (Noggle 94)!
Nearly all of the other airwomen echo this sentiment. 586th formation commander Klavdiya Pankratova, however, disagrees:
I have a strong belief that it doesn’t matter whether it is a woman or a man at the controls; a woman can be a military pilot, she can fulfill combat missions if a misfortune like war falls upon the heads of the people of a country.
And then it came to who should retire. It was not the men, of course; I was made to retire, and I didn’t want to (Noggle 184).
The view that women don’t belong in combat except in times of great need was apparently shared by the command of the Soviet air force: All three women’s regiments were disbanded at the end of the war and nearly all the women had to stop flying. Yet few of them express Pankratova’s frustration. Most of them were simply so grateful for the war to be over that they were glad to leave their military careers behind them and return to civilian life. 46th Guards flight commander Nina Raspopova says that during the war, “I dreamed of a small village house, a piece of rye bread, and a glass of clear river water. And never again a war (Noggle 26)!”
On an individual level, the airwomen ran the full spectrum of gender expression. On one end of the spectrum, some of them, especially those who had flown previously in male regiments or flight clubs, adopted traditionally masculine attitudes as a way of legitimizing themselves as aviators. One such example is 46th Guards pilot Tatiana Makarova. Fellow pilot Natalya Melkin describes a teenaged Makarova this way:
Each morning, when everyone was still asleep, the thin girl in blue overalls rushed along her quiet street to the first streetcar…Always a little ashamed of looking too feminine and not at all like a pilot, Tanya, to make up for it, strove to put on a reckless and merry air, and purposely spoke in a somewhat rude tone, but she never succeeded in fooling anyone (Cottam 159-160).
The Kazarinova sisters, one of whom commanded the 586th and the other of whom was the chief of staff at the 125th Guards, had been some of the first female officers in the Soviet air force, and presented themselves in a very masculine manner. Yekaterina Migunova, the 125th’s deputy chief of staff, says that her superior “protested against her own femininity: she wore leather pants, cut her pretty curly hair very short, and chain-smoked cigarettes (Rennington 36).”
On the other hand, most of the women were unashamedly feminine in their gender presentation, none more so than Lydia Litvyak. According to a male pilot who flew with them, while Litvyak’s wingman and close friend, Katya Budanova, “hardly stood out from the fellows,” Litvyak was “a model of femininity and charm (Pennington 134).” Her mechanic, Inna Pasportnikova, recounts:
Lilya bleached her hair white, and she would send me to the hospital to get hydrogen peroxide liquid to do it. She took pieces of parachute, sewed them together, painted it different colors, and wrapped it around her neck.
Lilya was very fond of flowers, and whenever she saw them she picked them. She would arrive at the airfield early in the morning in the summer, pick a bucket of flowers, and spread them on the wings of her plane (Noggle 196).
Rakobolskaya makes it clear that becoming soldiers did not mean that the airwomen had to become masculine:
Of course, we were not transformed overnight into a kind of pseudo-male soldiers. Girls stayed girls; they embroidered forget-me-nots on footcloths, flew kittens in their aircraft, danced on the airfield in non-operational weather and, at times, cried at the slightest provocation. However, most important, every day they fought better and better (Cottam 117).
46th Guards squadron commander Mariya Smirnova thinks that the war actually enhanced the women’s feminine side:
There is an opinion about women in combat that a woman stops being a woman after bombing, destroying, and killing; that she becomes crude and tough. This is not true; we all remained kind, compassionate, and loving. We became even more womanly, more caring of our children, our parents, and the land that has nourished us (Noggle 37).
The individual stories of the women of Aviation Group 122 demonstrate the complete disconnect between gendered behaviors and combat performance. Litvyak and Budanova were complete opposites, but they both became aces. The women of all three regiments fought bravely, received many decorations, and earned the respect of all the men who had initially doubted them.
And, as far as I know, nobody ever got sand in her vagina.