Sea Stories

When Women Failed at Sea

Consisting of patriotic young ladies following the outbreak of the Great War (1914 – 1918) the initiative was unlikely to provide real assistance to the country in distress.  Nevertheless, 35 determined ladies had a different opinion. Dressed in sailor uniforms, they learned the charter, went into the navy’s ranks, followed orders and prepared to die for the Fatherland on the various fronts of the First World War. 

Sailors Volunteer at drill training. Photo by Yakov Steinberg, 1917.

However, fate decreed otherwise: the first attempt of the fair sex to serve in the Russian Imperial Navy failed literally a month after the official creation of the Women’s Marine Team.

The history of organizing a naval formation made up of patriotic young ladies, began with a petition received by B.P. Dudorov, the first assistant to the country’s naval minister. 

On July 1, 1917, a letter from the organizers of a certain circle called Russian women, unite! lay on his desk. True patriots, as the group members called themselves, demanded from the command to create a female formation that could carry out naval service for the good of the Motherland.

Sokolskaya gymnastics performed by women sailors. Photo: TsGAKFFD. Photo by Yakov Steinberg, 1917

The War Ministry has received letters of this content more than once.  The young ladies were invited to support the idea of creating a ‘women’s regiment of black hussars’. It was also suggested that their squadrons form shock units ‘to fight against anarchy in the countryside.’  However, never before had young women shown a desire to go to the Imperial Navy’s fleet, and now the day has come, the initiative became a reality.

In peacetime, Boris Petrovich Dudorov simply would not have paid attention to the strange paper.  But after the February Revolution, when Kerensky spoke in defence of the ‘female factor’, and the commanding officers of the highest ranks Polovtsev and Brusilov advocated the creation of female units, Dudorov could not ignore the request.

At the same time, he could hardly imagine the role of women in the naval service, not understanding what they would do there. Unlike the captain, the ladies did not have such thoughts: they strove for equality with the sailors and to be, if necessary, ‘even laundresses, even sailors.’

It took just a few days to make a decision on the formation of the Women’s Marine Team after receiving the collective demand.  Already in July 1917, following Kerensky’s order, the leadership of the Main Naval Staff officially announced the readiness of its creation.

Unexpected problems immediately arose: the main one among them was the categorical reluctance of the navy to take on the female sex.  Dudorov received a consistently negative response to all inquiries to the naval crews.

It is difficult to say how events would have developed further if the Kola Peninsula Naval Base had not suddenly given a positive answer.  Her boss agreed to include in the women’s formation, but only as laundresses, cleaners, typists and cooks. Going out to sea, like performing the usual duties of male sailors, was initially not allowed for women.

The second problem was the flight of the frustrated sailors from the team after they learned about the location of the upcoming female formation. The fact is that the Kola Peninsula base, nicknamed ‘the land of flying dogs’, was located in an area with very unfavourable climatic conditions. Few women wanted to live permanently in a freezing cold and windy region. Most of the ladies withdrew their applications, not even being seduced by the promised salary of 90 monthly rubles.

Because of such reluctance, instead of the planned 150 people, the team managed to recruit only 35 women. Despite the small number, in mid-August, the group began to prepare for service, having been added to the Naval Training and Rifle Team. The new squadron was placed in a specially designated room in Oranienbaum. The official representative of the future sailors was Evdokia Merkuryevna Skvortsova, a hereditary noblewoman who was previously engaged in teaching, ‘A woman in the Sea – Woe to the Team’, or why the ‘Sea Wolves’ opposed the formation of women’s team.

Skipper Evdokia Merkuryevna Skvortsova – official representative to the committee of the women’s sea team. /Photo: s00.com

Even at the beginning of the preparation for the difficult seaman’s role, the women received an angry message from the sailors of the Naval Training and Rifle Team. The presumed future colleagues protested in a letter against the formation of such teams. They offered the ladies, instead of naval associations and various death battalions, to form teams of mutual assistance and labour. 

An old saying sounded in the message: ‘A woman in the Sea – Woe to the Team’, which reminded of the old traditions not to take women on board the ship, so as not to bring misfortune.

After analysing the written message, the outraged young ladies, having made a copy and left their comments, sent it to the main leadership of the naval headquarters. 

The building of the Naval Training and Shooting Team, where women – sailors were stationed. Oranienbaum, Russia

Dudorov had no choice but to summon and chastise the head of the Naval Training and Rifle Team.  He, in turn, spoke to his subordinates in a language understandable to all, quickly calming down the raging passions of the protesting sailors.

Simultaneously with the solution of problems on the ground, the leadership of the Naval Headquarters and the head of the training and shooting team considered the question of in which direction to train future female sailors. 

Would it be advisable, for example, to give them weapons, show them bayonet techniques and teach them how to fire their rifles.  In the end, the parties agreed on a military minimum, which consisted of training to walk in formation, salute and make turns under the appropriate commands.

Tidying up the premises in the Women’s Marine team. Photo: TsGAKFFD. Photo by Yakov Steinberg, 1917

From the first day of the creation of the naval team, the girls lived according to an almost sailor’s schedule: at 7:30 am wake up, hygiene procedures, cleaning the premises, breakfast. At 9:00, after Morning Prayer, the main activities are physical exercises, walking in formation, lessons in Russian grammar. At 19:00 the team gathered for dinner, and two hours later, after reading the evening prayer, the women went to bed.

Lunch at the Women’s Marine team. Photo: TsGAKFFD. Photo by Yakov Steinberg, 1917

In this mode, the preparation for service to the nation was carried out for a month. Then, unexpectedly in mid-September, an order came to disband the Naval Command.  The reason for the closure of the group was the small number of members. 

Photo of the First Marine Women’s Team, taken in 1917. Photo of standard size, the set includes a photo of the steamer “Crimea”.

True, women who learned drill were offered to replenish military ground units. And yet the most stubborn of the failed sailors, six in number, did manage to be sent to the ‘land of flying dogs’ as bakers. Until the October Revolution, they served at the Kola Peninsula Naval Base and proudly called themselves the ‘Women’s Marine Team’. Source 1, Source 2, Source 3

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