As much as we wish it were not so, we'll probably always live in a world at war, a world that requires the existence of standing national armies. At least, we can tell ourselves, the military of the United States is becoming more gender neutral and increasingly aware of women's issues, these days. Not only did outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta finally lift the ban on women in combat this past January (a move that suggests co-ed draft registration will soon follow), the Pentagon is currently beginning to address the once-closeted, much-ignored issue of rape among the ranks. We've got a way to go before our female soliders — who've been present and dying on our frontlines since the Revolution — achieve equality with our male soliders, but the progress is visible.
But what would American life look like after a few generations of women in our combat forces? Would we see women SEALS à la G.I. Jane, thousands of little girls dressing as commandos at Halloween, or other signs we couldn't even predict? We may (or may not) be getting a glimpse of that strange, new world thanks to an article in Maclean's profiling Russia's first all-girls military academy.
Like the United States, Russia — both under Soviet and contemporary rule — has a long, proud tradition of military academies for young boys. Unlike America, however, Russia has a richer history of women in combat. Nonetheless, when the Moscow Girls Cadet Boarding School No. 9 opened in 2004, it was the first of its kind.
Much like a boys' military academy Moscow Girls provides a full education for adolescents, along with basic military training, strong fitness programs, and lessons in decorum. The institutionalized cultural differences between little boys and little girls, however, mean that, instead of putting a military polish to "manly" behaviors, the young ladies go through an odd sort of finishing school. Cooking, sewing, and other housekeeping skills are taught, along with the singing and dancing you might find at a boys' academy. They may learn tactics, strategy, and how to clean, load, and fire AK-47s, but these young women are being prepared for traditional domestic roles, as well as military ones.
Cadets wear uniforms accented by lace hair accessories and split their days between ballet class and handguns, gas masks and teddy bears. The hybrid result, as beautifully captured by photographer Sergey Kozmin, is at once jarring and inspiring in that it suggests that traditional "femininity" and "masculinity" — for all its merits and flaws — can, perhaps, successfully be united after all.
As we said, this may or may not be a vision of what will come to the United States as our armed forces (and our culture) inches closer to gender equality. Nonetheless, the photos raise questions as well as emotions. Is it cruel to send these girls into such training, or — if one removes regressive the school's domestic training — is it true equality? The odd, opposing feelings these images stir mirror the ongoing conflict in the American mind between our ideals of femininity and girlhood versus our image of the perfect solider and the horrors of war. As women gain a more prominent place on the battlefield, these are contrasting notions we will all have to square for ourselves.