KHARKIV, Ukraine — Ukraine is a traditional, sexist society caught in a grueling artillery war with Russia, so the last person you’d expect to see in an army uniform is a grandmother.
But Mariia Stalinska, 41, an accountant whose first grandchild was born a year ago, joined the army after Russia invaded her country in February.
“We have to defend our children,” she told me. “If not us, who?”
While registration for military service is compulsory for men, women can choose to volunteer. After the invasion, many did, and nearly 60,000 women are now in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, sometimes filling combat roles.
“I won’t be in an office somewhere,” said Liliia Fedorenko, 45, who signed up the morning of the invasion. “I’ll be in the trenches, shooting, scouting.”
“I’m a good shooter,” she added.
The determination of Ukrainian women to fight the Russians, spy on them behind enemy lines, or raise funds for troops reflects an unwavering determination of Ukrainian men and women to sacrifice themselves for their country. At a time when the United States is so divided, Ukraine feels the opposite: there’s a passionate, uplifting, and leveling unity here, and that’s one reason Vladimir Putin might be in trouble.
The Ukrainian government says 151 female soldiers have been killed or are missing so far. Around 350 received awards such as “Heroes of Ukraine”.
Today, in the war in Ukraine, the sexism of Russian troops may have hurt them, because they did not always realize what women are capable of.
“They didn’t suspect the women,” said a community leader from the Kharkiv region who defied and deceived the Russians when her area was occupied. She didn’t want her name used in case the Russians came back.
The involvement of women is a reminder that half of the human resources of any society are women, even if countries do not always realize this. Harness the unfulfilled potential of half the population, and any nation will gain an advantage.
The rush for female soldiers is so new that the Ukrainian military doesn’t even have standard uniforms for women, so women have been left with ill-fitting uniforms designed for men. They protested that warriors were of all genders and that uniforms had to be able to fit women’s hips and chests.
One of the first female volunteers, Anastasiia Kolesnyk, a 25-year-old shopkeeper who enlisted on the first day of the war with her boyfriend, complained to family members, who found better-fitting uniforms for her and her friends.
Other women also asked for them, and the family effort grew into a non-profit organization, Zemlyachky, which received a torrent of donations to buy uniforms, body armor, underwear thermals and other gear for female soldiers. She has a warehouse in Kyiv with clothes and materials that she provides free of charge to women.
Attitudes towards female soldiers seem to vary across commanders. “I heard, ‘You are a woman, you have to make babies, go home,'” said Anastasia Blyshchyk, 26, who was initially rebuffed when she volunteered. Rather than sit on a long waiting list to serve, like many other Ukrainians, she reached out to commanders and found one who said he could use her.
She now wears a uniform with an unofficial patch on the shoulder, just below the Ukrainian flag, reading: “ARM THE WOMEN NOW”.
While women can also serve in the Russian army and intelligence services, few women appear to be part of the Russian invasion force in Ukraine.
The women also appear to have been very effective as spies behind enemy lines, using their phones to report the locations and movements of Russian troops.
“I really wanted this area to be liberated,” said Albina Strelets, 33, explaining why she was spying on Russian forces and passing information to the Ukrainian side. She was arrested and told me over the prison and torture chamber where the Russians held her for 16 days in August.
Other prisoners were tortured, raped and killed, she said. She added that she bluntly told her interrogator, a Chechen, that she supported the Ukrainian side in the war, earning his grudging respect.
“You have iron balls, more than most men,” he told her, according to her account. She said she was not physically injured.
Spies are nothing new, of course. A relative of mine, Izabela Krzysztofowicz Jaruzelska, was a sworn member of the Polish resistance during World War II. She was involved in a Polish courier ring that gathered intelligence on the Nazis, transported it through what is now Ukraine and passed it on to the Polish government-in-exile in London, but she was captured , sent to Auschwitz and died there in 1943.
An open question is whether the heroism of so many women in this war will eliminate traditional sexist attitudes and create a more equal society in the future. Will Ukrainian men be more inclined to treat their wives as equals? An indication of possible progress is that almost half of all new small businesses since the invasion have been started by women.
“It will change the role of women in society,” said Alla Kuznietsova, who spied on the Russians during the occupation of Izium and reported regularly from the Ukrainian side.
“Not every woman will pick up a gun and fight, but we are doing everything we can to help the army,” said Kuznietsova, who said she survived brutal torture and rape at the hands of Russian interrogators. “I have two good friends who were doing the same thing.”
“Of course, that will change things.”