Extreme conditions of border life brought up not only the character of a Cossack-Warrior, but also a very special type of woman – a Cossack woman. Ukrainian Cossack woman has always been a solid comrade for her man, a faithful companion, a skilful mistress. She was ready to repel an enemy attack at any time, however remaining the main keeper of the family.
Family and household
Cossacks showed their courage and strength on the battlefield and in campaigns, but at home – all power was given to women. As they said: “the wife holds three corners of the house, and the husband holds only one”. It was a kind of matriarchy! But did Cossack women have another choice?
Seeing their men to the Sich, the Cossack women took on all the responsibilities:
- cultivated fields, gardens, vineyards and looked after the gardens;
- harvested crops, cooked and baked bread, made preparations for the winter;
- grazed the livestock;
- knitted and sewed clothes for the whole family;
- raised children, of course.
Cossack women were not only a “busy bees”, but also good organizers. They split the work among people, hired workers and directed their activity. Women knew how to trade in order to make a part of the production into money and buy necessary goods. European women of those days could not even imagine such an initiative and independence.
The position of women in Ukraine during the Cossack times was quite stable and was regulated by the norms fixed in social and ecclesiastical legislation. The social independence of Ukrainian woman in Cossack times is evidenced by her high education.
One famous traveler wrote with a real wonder about Ukrainian women: “Most of them are able to read and know the order of church services and church singing”.
The phenomenon was completely unknown both in the East and in the West, where the educated woman was rather an exception, than a rule.
Cossack woman was a member of church brotherhoods, founded schools, monasteries, alms-houses, served in the army; she disposed of her property, chose her fiancé and had the right to file for divorce. A woman in Ukraine had more freedom than anywhere else.
The paintings of Cossack women, made by foreigners, as well as Ukrainian portrait painters of the 16th-18th centuries, gave an idea of their facial features and clothes. They were beautiful women with big eyes, the shape of the eyebrows is like a gull flight, a small mouth and an elegant nose with a hump.
The womenswear of the ordinary Cossack wives was similar to peasant one, it consisted of:
- embroidered shirt;
- skirt with front closure;
- fur coat;
However wives of the first sergeants wore silk shirts, embroidered with silver and gold. Skirts were made of expensive fabrics (heavy silk, brocade, lustrine), decorated with braid and lace. The outer garments (kuntush) was sewed from the same expensive fabrics, and differed from the male mainly by rich and lush ornaments.
Ukrainian female fighters
An uneasy life in the border territories formed the militant nature of women. Since Zaporozhian Sich took away their defenders, the Ukrainian women themselves became warriors. They were full of endurance, independence, courage, ability to stand up for themselves and their families with weapons in their hands. An example was June 1774, when about two hundred of women with children met the enemy – the nine thousands strong army of the Tatars. All combat Cossacks were on the battlefield and in campaigns, so enemies counted on easy prey. But the Cossack women took up arms! The siege lasted for two days and the enemy went with nothing.
Another example worth of mentioning was the heroic deed of Orysya Zavistnaya (military unit commander’s wife). This courageous woman laid down her life to defend her native land – she blew herself and a hundred of enemies, setting fire to a powder room. And such cases were not uncommon.
Some interesting facts
Female Cossacks had such rights and customs, which today may seem strange:
- Unlike the customs and traditions of other nations, the Cossack girl first proposed to the young man she loved. She directed these words to the guy: “I see from your face that you are a good man, you will be a caring and loving husband. I hope you will make a good host. These good qualities make me ask you to marry me”. Having said this, she appealed to his father and mother with similar words, and asked for consent to their marriage. And if she got a refusal, girl wouldn’t leave their house until he took her to wife.
- In Ukraine, there was also an interesting custom, according to which only a woman could save life of the Cossack sentenced to execution, if she agreed to marry him. During the execution a girl could come out of the crowd and cover the head of the condemned man with a handkerchief, it meant that she chose him as her husband and in such a way she freed him from the execution.
- According to the Laws of the Zaporozhian Sich, the widows of Cossack heroes received a lifelong care of the village and the right to give birth to children from new beloved to preserve the Glory of the hero and his name. After the death of Cossack Danylo Nechai (famous Ukrainian Colonel of Bratslav), his widow gave birth to 12 sons. And they all borne his glorious name, having founded an entire village.