Elizabeth Wein and Amber Lough on Women Soldiers In World Wars I and II

by Amy Fitzgerald, Editorial Director, Carolrhoda Books

Young adult authors Elizabeth Wein and Amber Lough are here to talk to you about their research trip to Russia and about the role of women soldiers in World War I and II. 

Elizabeth is the author of A Thousand Sisters (Balzer & Bray, 2019), a nonfiction book about the women aviators in the Soviet Army in WWII. A Thousand Sisters was recently a finalist in the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

Amber is the author of Open Fire (Carolrhoda Lab, 2020), a historical novel about a young woman fighting in the Russian Women’s Battalion of Death in WWI. 

What have you learned about sexism in the armed forces in WWI and WWII?

Elizabeth: Well, the Soviet Union was the only country in the world to allow women in combat at that time. It was generally assumed that women were too sensitive to deal with the trauma of having to kill. My favorite example of this is that in the United Kingdom during World War II, women were allowed to operate anti-aircraft guns—move them, maintain them, load them (lifting shells that weighed thirty pounds), aim them—everything—but they weren’t allowed to fire them. A man had to come along and do that.

Amber: Social sexism still existed in Russia, as shown by the physical and verbal abuse that women of the Battalion of Death received from some men during World War I. But in all armies except the Russian Imperial Army (later the Soviet Army), women were officially banned from fighting. In Russia there was no prime directive, so to speak. If a woman wanted to fight, she queried the commander of a unit. It was up to the individual commander whether to allow a woman in.

Elizabeth: During World War II, Russian women flew as bomber pilots and fighter pilots, but in the UK and the US, women were only allowed to fly as transport pilots. They weren’t allowed in combat. In both countries, although they supported the military, they flew as civilians. The sexism in the US was frankly worse than in the UK. The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which flew the UK planes, was the first British government organization to provide equal pay for men and women—in 1943! But in the US, men sabotaged women’s planes to try to prevent the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) from flying. Maybe it had to do with being further removed from the actual war. British pilots were dodging bombs; maybe being under fire together made men more willing to cooperate with women.

What really blows my mind about the WASP is that it was disbanded a WHOLE YEAR before the war ended. Americans really didn’t like women in the air.

How did the Battalion of Death pave the way for the Night Witches, the World War II bomber regiment composed entirely of women?

Amber: This seems like a final exam essay in “Russian History: 1905 to 2000.”

Elizabeth: Haha! Believe it or not, I referred to the Battalion of Death in A Thousand Sisters in just that context. World War I came on the heels of the suffrage movement and women’s rights campaigns throughout the world. Thousands of women—including some pilots—fought in the Russian military during this war and in the Russian Civil War that followed. So although there wasn’t a direct connection between the Battalion of Death and the Night Witches, there was a pattern and a precedent for women to serve in combat.

And yet, I don’t think I would’ve known about the Battalion of Death if I hadn’t been researching the Soviet women aviators who came after them.

Amber: Plus, you met me. And I don’t shut up about it.

Elizabeth: I thought you would be a pretty good resource, and I wasn’t wrong!

What’s up with women in the military being issued menswear (including underwear) in WWI and WWII? And the fact that the US only designated a regulation shoe in women’s sizes within the past decade?

Elizabeth: Women soldiers have always been expected to make do with clothing issued for men—it’s not just a Soviet thing. It’s amazing how slowly that’s changing.

Amber: I joined the US Air Force in 2002 and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. A female BDU had not yet been created. My battle uniform (boots included) was a man’s uniform. It was too tight in the hips and like a balloon on my shoulders. The boots were really wide, so I wore double socks—in 120F heat.

Amber at the beginning of her Air Force deployment.

Elizabeth: I actually mentioned the boots issue in A Thousand Sisters because Amber complained about having to wear men’s boots when she was on active duty.

Amber: I’m honored my whining made it into a book! My parents will be so proud.

Elizabeth: I did RESEARCH about your boots!

One-third of Soviet pilots in WWII were women. Yet today, only 5 percent of commercial pilots worldwide are women. What’s going on?

Amber: I think this is due to the sexism and “focus on the family” of the 1950s/1960s.

Elizabeth: Definitely. After the war, women were told to go home and resume normal life. Also, there was a glut of pilots because so many men learned to fly during the war, and most of the commercial flight jobs went to men.

Today’s statistics are so appalling that some airlines are making an effort to improve them. EasyJet, a budget airline in the UK, runs a program called the “Amy Johnson Initiative.” Twelve percent of their entry level pilots are women (though that doesn’t mean all those women are working on commercial flights yet) and they’re aiming for 20 percent in 2020. United Airlines holds an annual “Girls in Aviation” day in conjunction with the organization “Women in Aviation,” where girls can meet female pilots and try out simulators at United’s training center in Denver.

Guess what country has the greatest percentage of female commercial pilots worldwide? India, at about 12 percent.

Amber: Which is still too low. Of my ROTC friends who were women and became pilots, only one is still flying. She’s also the only one who didn’t have children. In fact, most of the women I knew in the military got out because they felt they had to choose between family and career. It’s why I got out. After my first child was born, I chose to leave rather than get deployed again.

Elizabeth: Last September I attended a dinner celebrating the role of women in the Royal Air Force in the UK, and everyone there spoke so highly of the organization and its support for women. In particular, I loved hearing from Flight Lieutenant Keren Macmillan, the first woman in the RAF to fly fast jets on active duty. She was pretty much the only woman in her squadron for twenty years. She was still with the RAF when she had her first child, but then she fell pregnant with TRIPLETS and left. Once the children were in school, she was actually encouraged to rejoin. So she did.

Incidentally, she said she’d been issued with Y-FRONTS when she first enlisted. And I sat there thinking, “YES I KNOW THIS SO WELL,” even though I’ve never been enlisted in any air force!

Amber: We call those “briefs,” Elizabeth. You’ve forgotten how to speak American. I was never issued underwear, thank goodness, but I was given a sports bra, and there was only one size for everyone. 

What happened to the Battalion of Death after the events featured in Open Fire?

Amber: They were recalled from the front, not exactly in disgrace—they were given medals, etc.—but their mission was considered a failure. Their primary purpose was to shame male soldiers into fighting, and that hadn’t worked. Soon afterward the provisional government fell, and the new Soviet government disbanded all the women’s battalions. During the ensuing civil war, many women joined back up to fight on both sides.

Elizabeth: Which brings us back to where we started!

Amber: When these wars ended, the surviving women who fought in them returned home. Unfortunately, many Russian women weren’t taken seriously as veterans. Although they’d driven tanks, flown planes, and shot at the enemy, many people believed they’d only been there to “service” the men. I was lucky, because by the time I returned home from Iraq in 2005, receptions for returning female soldiers were more positive. At the very least, my dogs were happy I was home.


Elizabeth: Probably more than just the dogs. I can’t imagine what that moment must have been like.

Amber: To be honest, I barely remember it. I was in a daze for weeks afterward. I do remember having a deep conviction that I was going to start writing novels. (Because life is too short to wait for it.) And so I did.

Tell us about your research trip to Russia!

Elizabeth: Amber is the one who suggested it. We followed each other on Twitter and knew we had similar interests. She wanted a travel companion for her research trip and asked me if I’d like to join her. I’d also wanted to go but was too chicken to go alone, so I jumped at the chance. We planned the trip in about three weeks, which was only possible because we both live in Europe. The first time we met In Real Life was in a hotel in St. Petersburg. That is TRUST.

Amber: I call it FAITH. It was the trip of a lifetime. We arrived in St. Petersburg when the river was in frozen chunks.

Elizabeth: It was -10 C and the snow was up to our knees.

Amber: I was in heaven. We went from museum to museum, mostly doing research for Open Fire. We took hundreds of photos of little things in museum cases. We also went to the Mariinsky Theater and saw Swan Lake. En route we had to hop off the bus and foot it, because the snow was too deep.

Elizabeth: We were guided by a team of Russian women also on their way to the ballet. We had to communicate in a magimix of Russian, English, German, and French!

Amber: My friend Val Afanasev took us on a sleigh ride! We toured the Hermitage! We visited the memorial of the Siege of Leningrad and saw Stravinsky’s violin! Elizabeth kept warning me about falling icicles!

Elizabeth: They were the size of TREE TRUNKS.

Amber: After a week of that, we took the Red Arrow Soviet-era night train to Moscow to do research for Elizabeth’s book, A Thousand Sisters.

Elizabeth in the sleigh; cue Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago.

Elizabeth: We splurged on a first class cabin for the train (about $60 each). The Russian national anthem was playing as we boarded, and when the concierge offered us Soviet champagne, we couldn’t refuse.

Amber speaks a little Russian, but I don’t, and in St. Petersburg I’d grown frustrated with not being able to figure out what was going on in the museums. So for Moscow, I splurged again, this time on an English-speaking guide. Alexander from Angel Tours took us to the Central Air Force Museum in Monino, outside Moscow. We met up with the wonderful Irina Bubynina and Inna Frolova, both members (as I am) of the Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots. They were incredibly helpful guides and companions. We attended a World War II memorial ceremony in Red Square and visited the Kremlin Wall graves, where Marina Raskova, who organized and commanded the Soviet women’s flight regiments, is buried.


Amber: We weren’t exactly invited to the war memorial in Red Square. We accidentally infiltrated it. I remember the moment I realized we were surrounded by army regiments and descendants of those who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad. I whispered to Elizabeth, “Don’t speak. Don’t let them know we are Americans.”


Elizabeth: There was a real cross-section of Russia at this ceremony—regiments from different regions, Soviet war veterans, teenage cadets.

Amber: A solemn soldier gave us each a red carnation, which we laid on the grave of the unknown soldier. It gave me chills. I might have cried.

Elizabeth: It was incredibly moving.

Amber: The next question is, when are we going back?

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