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Category: soviet

Female Badasses in History: Clara Zetkin (1857-1933)

Clara Zetkin was one of the most famous socialists of her time. She stands out for her involvement in German and international socialist politics, was one of the socialist movement’s most revered fighter’s for women’s rights and never shied away form criticizing, even when it came to her own movement’s politics. She is remembered today as a successful fighter for women’s rights (including being one of the initiators of the Internal Women’s Day) as well as a fighter for a more just world including her opposition to Stalin.


Clara Zetkin was born as Clara Eißner in 1857 in Germany as the daughter of Josephine Vital, an early women’s rights pioneer, and granddaughter of Jean Dominique, a participant of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. She became a elementary school teacher by trade and through her contacts to the women’s rights and workers movement joined the Socialist German Workers Party in 1878. The same year the German imperial government outlawed any socialist activity outside of parliamentary institutions. This prompted Zetkin to go into exile, first living in Zurich and the in Paris where she met Ossip Zetkin who had fought in the Russian Revolution. Despite the fact that she had two sons with Ossip and that she took his name, Clara never married him. She participated in the International Workers Congress in Paris in 1889 and was one of the main initiators of the second Socialist International.


Returning to Germany in 1890 she became together with Rosa Luxemburg one of the most outspoken and known people in the left-wing of the German Socialist movement, rejecting reformist politics and striving for revolution. In 1907 she met Lenin in Germany with whom she developed a life long-friendship.

Early on, Clara Zetkin became one of the most outspoken fighters for women’s rights. At the International Workers Congress in Paris she held her very famous speech elaborating how the fight for the worker was also a fight for women’s rights. Despite the fact that she criticized the non-socialist movement for women’s rights – denouncing them as bourgeois -, this speech made her one of the pioneers for this cause in the socialist movement.

Following her return to Germany, she became head of the Women’s Bureau of the socialist party and managed together with Luxemburg to incorporate the demand for women to be able to vote into the German Socialist Party’s program. She also was a founding member of the Socialist Women’s International, an organization dedicated to the fight for the rights of female workers world-wide.


In the years between 1914 and 1918 Clara Zetkin together with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, fought against the German Socialist Party’s politic regarding the war. The party had decided to participate in the German war government in order to support the German state in its war efforts. Zetkin rejected this because she believed that the First World War was a war fought by imperialists against the interest of working men and women all around the world. Again together with Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Zetkin split from the party and founded a new Socialist Party in 1916, which would ultimately after the war become the German Communist Party. In contradiction to Luxemburg and Liebknecht who were murdered by right-wing death squads, Zetkin narrowly escaping the politically motivated violence that followed the right-wing orchestrated backlash against German communists and the Munich Revolution in 1918.


Following the end of World War I and the founding of the Weimar Republic, Zetkin was elected into the German parliament as one of its first female delegates. Within the Communist Party she retained considerable influence, which she used to fight for women’s rights such as the right to vote, the right to maternity leave, institutionalized care for women’s health, the legalization of abortion and generally a greater participation of women in the political process. Also within the party she routinely criticized political orders from Moscow – by then the capital of the only socialist state thus the Soviet Communist Party’s understanding of itself as the “mother party” of all communists world-wide – and the attempts to use political violence.

At the conference of the executive committee of the Comintern 1923 she stood out by reject the theory that fascism was the next stage of capitalist development, instead attributing the growing number and influence of fascist and extreme right-wing parties to the failures of the socialist movement itself, especially the socialdemocrats and their willingness to join alliances with bourgeois parties.


Zetkin remained a delegate to the German parliament until 1933 continuing her fight for women’s and workers’ rights. With the Nazi takeover of power she fled Germany to the Soviet Union, living isolated for the next couple of months until her death at age 76. Stalin himself carried her urn to her grave in the Kreml murals.

With her death the official socialist movement immediately began to remember her while at the same time she her memory was distorted. In official writings neither her fight for women’s rights nor her critique of the Stalinist system and methods were remembered. Instead she was turned into a martyr for the movement.

Clara Zetkin stands out as an independent and determined woman, even by the standards of the socialist movement. She never shied away from critique and conflict, especially if it was in a fight for something she believed would contribute to a better and more just world. Her political career and her fight were dedicated not only to workers but to all people, especially women who at the time were marginalized even by the socialist movement in many ways.


Female Badasses in History: Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova (1916-2009)

Anna Yegorova stands out for her badassery even among other Soviet aviatrixes because she was one of the few female pilots in the USSR that did not join the female fighter brigade of the Soviet air force (the so-called Night Witches) but lead male pilots into battle. She also survived more battle missions than many other pilots, survived German captivity and broke out of an NKVD prison after the war.


Anna Yegorova was born in a village in Western Russia as one of 16 children of a peasant family. Not being satisfied with prospect of plowing field and having 16 children herself she decided to make good use of the opportunities the new socialist state had to offer her and at the age of 16 went off to Moscow to study history and physics, work as a locksmiths apprentice, help built the Moscow metro as a construction worker and become a flight instructor.

When German attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Anna was one of the first people at her local recruiting office and since she was already an experienced pilot, was drafted into the Soviet airforce to fly reconnaissance missions against German positions, which she did for the next two years. Flying reconnaissance missions was one of the most dangerous jobs a pilot could have in WWII. It meant to fly low in broad daylight in a plane with an open hood mainly manufactured from wood being up against heavily armed German fighter planes as well as anti-aircraft batteries.

The dangers of her work as well as her unquestionable badassery are probably best exemplified by a mission she flew in mid-1942. Order to deliver a set of important orders to a Soviet frontline commander, Anna found herself facing a German fighter plane hardly 20 minutes into her mission. Being much faster than her and having machine guns at his disposal while Anna only had her handgun, the fighter pilot shot her aircraft full of holes and managed to set in on fire that. After flying as far as she could in an airplane on fire and under fire Anna parachuted from her airplane. In a scene comparable to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest she evaded the German fighter pilot who was still shooting at her by hiding in a nearby field. After the German aircraft had given up, Anna ran all the way to the frontlines to deliver her orders all while being bruised and injured and having evaded death just a short time before.


Due to actions like this her officers decided to make Anna a fighter pilot. As one of the few women she didn’t join the female pilot unit of the Soviet airforce but instead was the only woman assigned to the all-male 805th Ground Attack Regiment. In this capacity Anna fought the German as well as misogynistic colleagues in the airforce for the next two years. She was mainly assigned to missions that consisted of bombing German ground troops and installations from the air. She flew a total of 243 missions in the next two years, at a time when the average life span of a Soviet pilot did seldom exceed 10 missions. She proofed herself so many times eventually that she not only received the order of the Red Banner, rose in the ranks to Lieutenant and was promoted to the 805th’s squad leader. Even at a time when it was not uncommon for women to serve in the Red Army this was an outstanding achievement. She lead the men under her command in many battles until in 1944 she was shot down by a German anti-air gun over Poland. Anna was brought to a German POW camp where she not only survived her injuries and the German’s infamous bad treatment of Soviet POWs but also Gestapo interrogation. Soviet troops liberated the camp in early 1945 and Anna was immediately arrested again under the suspicion that as the only woman in the camp she must have been a German spy in order to survive. She was brought to an NKVD prison in Western Russia and interrogated for the following 10 days. Lore has it that on the 11th day Anna knocked over two armed guards, bust into the room of the Corporal in charge and boldly exclaimed: “You can shoot me right now but I won’t let you torture me.” She was released the same day.

After the war the airforce released her due to the injuries she sustained. Anna Yegorova went on to teach High School history and physics (certainly as a teacher you didn’t want to mess with) and continued to fly on some occasions. She died in 2009 of old age.

Female Badasses in History: Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was born in Ukraine in 1916. She and her family moved to Kiev where she not only joined a shooting club but also Kiev University to study history, completing her master’s degree in 1937. She never finished her doctoral degree because of the Nazi-German attack against the Soviet Union in 1941. She was among the first ones to volunteer at her local recruiting office and was assigned to an infantry unit where she rejected the offer to become a nurse but became one of 2000 Soviet female snipers instead.

During her service in the Red Army she became one of the most successful snipers in military history with 309 confirmed kills. She also became an iconic figure for the Soviet war effort leading her to tour the United States and even meet FDR in 1942 after being wounded by mortar fire in combat. She stated that her tour of the US had been a confusing experience especially due to one reporter in Washington DC criticizing the length of her skirt and saying her uniform made her look fat.
Due to her injuries sustained in 1942 she never returned to combat but became an instructor for the remaining time of her military service. She finished her carrier in the military in the rank of major and was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor a Soviet soldier could receive.
After the war she began a successful career as a historian. She died in 1974 at age 58. The Soviet Union honored her memory by issuing two sets of memorial stamps.
Woodie Guthry released a song about her honoring her war record that can be heard here:

Woody Guthrie: Miss Paclichenko