Why do these “little-known” histories of women leading outsized, daring lives in war and espionage slow to a trickle after Women’s History Month is over?
Women’s History Month is less than a week behind us, and already I miss it.
I love the flood of pegged news pieces and book releases highlighting outsized heroines whose achievements in war and espionage, aviation and science have gone largely unheralded. This spring, notable releases included “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler,” Lynne Olson’s biography of a woman who led a French resistance spy network, and “The Huntress,” a novel by Kate Quinn starring a Russian WWII aviatrix, a character based on real women who flew with the “Night Witches” regiment of female night-bombers.
Stories about female spies and wartime aviatrixes are very much on my radar. I once held a private investigator’s license and am now managing editor of Pursuit, an online magazine for investigators; I’m also a pilot and flight instructor. In both those capacities, I’ve come to know dozens of women who work as surveillance operatives, criminal defense investigators, airline and military pilots, and aerobatics instructors—female professionals who’ve long ago learned to conceal their annoyance at people’s initial shock at meeting a “unicorn” female in a male-dominated field. This work is normal to us; we do not consider ourselves bizarre outliers, well outside the realm of normal human experience, so witnessing people’s surprise again and again can be trying.
Sometimes, the reaction extends beyond shock and into disbelief. I’ll admit to a moment of incredulity myself when, at a Women in Aviation conference in 2002, I was introduced to an ebullient elderly Russian named Galina Brok-Beltsova, whose jacket bristled with medals. I had enough musty college Russian to grasp that she’d flown dozens of combat missions as navigator in a women’s dive-bombing regiment during WWII. But no amount of skepticism could survive a minute in the bright light of Brok-Beltsova’s company: As she lifted her shot glass again and again one night, toasting women’s courage in battle and in life, her “little-known history” felt as real as bullets. She existed; of that, there could be no doubt. And for me, her existence was a revelation.
I read everything I could find about the hundreds of women who flew and fought for the USSR during their “Great Patriotic War.” How was it, I wondered, that only a few dedicated scholars and historians seemed to know this extraordinary story? How had I failed to know? Hoping to help these women’s “secret war” become unsecret, I attended a Moscow conference in 2005 hosted by Aviatrissa, a Russian airwomen’s club, looking for stories to pitch. There I met several more female WWII veteran flyers, including Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, who flew 277 wartime missions, many of them as attack pilot in the Ilyushin-2 “Shturmovik.”
My Russian translator friend Margarita and I spent an unforgettable afternoon in Yegorova’s apartment, sharing vodka with her from a canteen and hearing her tales of combat missions and lost comrades, of being shot down and interned in a Nazi POW camp. She wept when she described being treated by Soviet counter-intelligence operatives as a traitor for the “crime” of having been captured. That afternoon, Margarita and I promised to translate and edit her memoir for publication in the U.S.
When “Red Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front” came out in 2009, shortly before Yegorova’s death, I hoped it might help amplify the voices of my new Aviatrissa friends, but that did not happen; those heroines remained largely unsung, despite the work of several excellent historians who have written about them. And for ten years, I’ve had to conceal my annoyance whenever I talk about Yegorova’s story with a new person, who invariably says, “Really?! I had no idea that happened!” Still, no one knows? I think. But a vivid personal experience can be its own kind of bias, I suppose.
Sometimes the ignorance moves fully into the realm of angry disbelief. A friend of mine emailed me some years ago to say that she and every other female present had stormed out of a dinner party after telling the assembled guests about Yegorova’s memoir. One of the men had replied, with utmost condescension, that no women had flown in combat during WWII. Never happened, he said, end of story.
What fascinated me about that incident wasn’t that the mansplainer didn’t know about the Soviet aviatrixes; few people did. It was that he so vehemently did not want it to be true. He wasn’t interested in learning more; he had no follow-up questions. The Russian airwomen didn’t fit with his view of the world, so they could not possibly exist.
I don’t know enough psychology to tease out what pathologies drive that kind of arrogant denial, and I haven’t personally witnessed any reactions that extreme. Plenty of male war and aviation buffs have read Yegorova’s memoir and written to thank me and Margarita for helping tell it. But I can’t help bit feel that most often, the stubborn force we’re fighting, when it comes to highlighting heroines’ “untold” stories, is apathy. It’s not that these stories aren’t being told; it’s that too few people are interested in listening.
“For so long in our history, too few people have wished to believe that women could be as daring, crass, ruthless, selfish, or cruel as any man—and that, in times of war, they’ve had to be.”
The current political climate has shown us, more than ever before, that people are drawn to narratives that confirm their beliefs. And for so long in our history, too few people have wished to believe that women could be as daring, crass, ruthless, selfish, or cruel as any man—and that, in times of war, they’ve had to be. But I sense that willful ignorance may be changing.
To be fair, it’s no huge surprise that Yegorova’s memoir didn’t reach a wider audience ten years ago—although fascinating to me, it’s of more value as a primary academic source than as a literary page-turner. But I also think the world is now hungrier than ever for stories that reflect the full range of women’s actual experiences.
It’s heartening to see accomplished authors like Elizabeth Wein and Kate Quinn reaching their huge fan bases with “little-known” histories of women who fly and spy for their countries. And now that the marketplace is finally beginning to embrace these stories, let’s hope that our curiosity about the real lives women lead can live on long after Our Month has come and gone. I look forward to a near future when women’s history is just plain history, when I won’t have to miss March so much anymore.