Heroism — especially in times of war — tends to produce gendered associations. We think of men fighting (and dying) valiantly, while women wait passively at home for their spouses to return.
The historical record produces a different picture, however. Among the many heroes of World War II are these bad-ass women. Spies, snipers, surgeons, and more, they helped bring down the Germans with their own talents and specialties.
Imagine a Soviet sniper so deadly that the Germans addressed her over a loudspeaker, urging her to defect and join their ranks as an officer. That was Lyudmila Pavlichenko.
A former student of Kiev University, at the age of 14 Pavlichenko worked at a munitions factory as a metal grinder, and took up shooting soon after. When the war began, Pavlichenko wanted to fight for her country.
The army initially refused to enlist her to any position other than a nurse, even after she showed them her marksman certificate and a sharpshooter badge. They finally handed her a rifle and gave her an “audition,” which she passed with flying colors.
Pavlichenko had 309 confirmed kills during WWII – 36 of which were highly decorated German snipers. This figure makes her one of the top military snipers of all time.
Countless injures and shell shock didn’t stop her; in fact, she was only removed from active duty after taking mortar shell shrapnel to the face. The Soviets then decided they should remove Pavlichenko from danger and use her to train other snipers.
In spite of her obvious achievements, she still faced sexism from the press. While visiting the United States in 1942, women reporters continually asked her about the lack of style in her uniform, as well as her hair and makeup habits.
She put them in their place. “I wear my uniform with honor,” Pavlichenko said. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
Back home in Russia, she was decorated with many awards, including the Gold Star Medal (the highest distinction the country can give) and the title ‘Hero of the Soviet Union,’ and promoted to major. Later, she finished her college education at Kiev University and became a historian.