Ukraine’s Women Are Kicking Ass and Taking Names

From small towns to the halls of parliament, women are at the forefront of change.

“You should have made an appointment,” the clerk says, eyeing us dubiously. But Olena Ivanchenko isn’t the kind of woman to take no for an answer. She launches into a flurry of objections, and soon we’re being led into the office of a local official named Vasil Grisha. I’m in Skvyra, a small town 75 miles outside Kiev, to see if Ukraine’s post-revolutionary reforms have reached this far. The slight but ferocious Ivanchenko — a longtime local activist — isn’t happy with the way things are going, and she wants me to meet one of the men she holds responsible.

Grisha, who clearly isn’t glad to see us, complains that he hadn’t had any time to prepare. He begins by telling me that things in Skvyra are looking up since the Euromaidan revolution two years ago. “I’d put it very differently,” Ivanchenko interrupts. “What have the citizens gotten? How open is our government, really?”

For the next twenty minutes, I watch the two battle it out. Ivanchenko had told me that Grisha is in the thrall of a local oligarch, making him an obstacle to progress, but I can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. As she berates him for failing to listen to opposing views on the district council, Grisha turns to me with an apologetic smile. “This is how it always is here,” he says. “This is how we talk, but we’re still working.”

“Yes,” Ivanchenko shoots back, “we can all see the results of your work in the city.”

Along with her husband Grigoriy, Ivanchenko has battled the apathy and corruption of the (overwhelmingly male) local establishment for years — all while heading an NGO, running for mayor, getting elected to the district council, and raising two children. But her capacity for outrage hasn’t come close to exhausting itself. As we drive around Skvyra later in the day, she urges me to take pictures of everything that’s gone wrong: an old hospital, an abandoned construction site, a chaotic market. “Look at this, this is a central street,” she says, her voice rising, as we rumble over a particularly rough patch of asphalt. “Is that normal?”

You’d think that Ivanchenko’s single-minded determination to change things for the better would make her an extraordinary exception — except that she’s not. One of the most striking things about the current efforts to rid Ukraine of its Soviet legacy is how many of the most prominent reformers are women.

The American-Ukrainian Natalie Jaresko became a standard-bearer for change during her two-year stint as finance minister, pushing through several vital reforms before resigning in the face of stiffening reactionary opposition earlier this year. Olena Sotnyk, an accomplished lawyer and board member of the Ukrainian Bar Association, gained notoriety for her efforts to prosecute those responsible for killing protesters in the center of Kiev during the 2014 revolution. Having failed to budge a petrified legal system, she has now entered parliament, quickly becoming a leading voice for judicial reform.

This is not to say that Ukraine’s most influential women always agree with each other. Oksana Syroyid, the intellectual powerhouse of the reformist Samopomich party, exasperated Ukraine’s western partners in her rejection of the Minsk II peace agreement with Russia, which she views as unfair to Ukraine. On the other hand, Hanna Hopko, a Euromaidan activist turned legislator, felt so strongly in favor of the decentralization scheme Minsk II required that she stuck to her guns even when it got her kicked out of the party.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as such of a surprise. Ukraine has always had its share of strong women. Even if you’re only vaguely familiar with the country, you’ve probably heard of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her trademark braids. The fierce Nadia Savchenko — the pilot who defied Vladimir Putin during her Russian imprisonment — captured imaginations around the world.

Even so, it’s hard to recall another moment in recent Ukrainian history when women have played such prominent roles in political life. The 33-year-old journalist and activist Svitlana Zalishchuk is a case in point. Her organization, Centre UA, ran a Facebook page during the Euromaidan revolution that became the largest-ever on the Ukrainian internet, helping bring thousands onto the streets. Today she’s one of the best-known liberal legislators in a parliament that still consists mostly of oligarchs’ yes-men. She also co-leads Democratic Alliance, a party that aims to unite pro-European reformers under one tent.

Zalishchuk spent time as a fellow at Stanford University and is close to Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who has been vocal in his support of Ukraine’s pro-European forces. So it’s no surprise that the quick-spoken young legislator has a global perspective on her country’s fate: “We can be a potential partner [to the West], a window, a bridge to the further development of this part of the world,” she told me while sipping lemonade in a Kiev restaurant (and declining a seemingly endless series of phone calls). “I think that European leaders and world leaders need to understand this.”

Not all women reformers are as visible as Zalishchuk. I was introduced to Ivanchenko by Olga Shalayska, a sharp-tongued journalist who has forgotten more about Ukrainian media than I will ever know. Shalayska works for the Institute for Mass Information, an organization that performs a vital function as a media watchdog, tracking attacks on journalists and tracing the convoluted ownership structures of Ukraine’s media holdings. And then there’s Regina Makhotina, a soft-spoken young woman who happens to lead UAngel, a leading network of angel investors in the IT sector — perhaps the country’s next cash cow.

I don’t want to overplay the point. There’s no good data about what proportion of Ukraine’s reformers are women. And, of course, some powerful women aren’t reformers at all. But when I asked Sandra Pepera of the National Democratic Institute her thoughts on the matter, she noted that women tend to be natural allies of change. She dismisses the notion that they’re innately prone to cooperation. But, she says, “most women’s experience will be of coming in from the outside. And that’s what makes it different — that they haven’t assumed their right to power.”

I have no doubt that’s true. But even so, the Ukrainian experience is hard to square with the standard Western storyline of gradual emancipation. It’s a legacy of the Soviet treatment of women, which heralded them as equal to men in the workplace, but still expected flawless performance of housewifely and motherly duties. Maybe that’s why the trappings of Western feminism — which many Ukrainian women see as dismissive of femininity — hold little appeal. Ukraine’s women haven’t so much been excluded as saddled with additional responsibilities.

Perhaps this is what has prepared them to carry the country on their backs for so long. After the devastation of the Second World War, in which so many of Ukraine’s men were killed, it was the women who did the rebuilding. And that generation is still at it today. The resolve was evident in the elderly women I met in Skvyra who — with little enough money or material possessions to call their own — spend their days making camouflage netting and collecting supplies for the soldiers still battling pro-Russian separatists in the East.

Without their help, Ukraine’s army, which had nearly disintegrated after years of corruption and neglect, could have collapsed in the face of Russian aggression. If America’s women are about to save their country from Donald Trump, Ukraine’s women have already saved theirs from his Russian best friend.

Photo credit: ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images