The Evolution of Women War Correspondents since World War II

Natalia Vasnier is from France. She is a second year History student at King’s and has a strong passion for journalism and obviously history. Her interests are gender, politics and foreign policymaking in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

[Featured Image: A Photograph of War Correspondent Helen Kirkpatrick during World War 2, sitting on top of rubble and looking into the distance. Source.]

When you speak with ordinary people or your family about the job of becoming a war correspondent the same feelings are always apparent: concern and fear. Concern about whether it is necessary for one to go and report on the frontline. They fear the worst: death. Today, whether you are a male or a female these are generally the concerns others will have once the words, “I want to be a war correspondent” are spoken. Last century, doubt was another feeling that specifically women were subjected to. The doubt by men or their superiors about whether women could do the job well. Nonetheless, over time women have managed to thrive in a male dominated sector: War Journalism. From the start of the twentieth century to today, recurrent tensions leading into conflicts or war have impacted the world. Journalists have put their lives at risk to witness and report on such events. It is true that when thinking about women war correspondents of the twentieth century not many names come to mind. This is an issue worth questioning. Was their work irrelevant and was it because of their gender? These hidden figures of the great wars have contributed much more than you can imagine to history.

Before diving into the heart of the subject it is important to be aware that historians working on this subject have often misinterpreted their sources. There is always talk of the first women who “did that” or the first women who “got that” but once all the sources are compared, we realise that the “firsts aren’t firsts”.1  In many History text books Peggy Hull is said to have become the first woman to gain US military accreditation as a war correspondent. But this is untrue since there have been many women who had received this accreditation a hundred years prior to Hull. Since the records of women receiving the accreditation in the late 1800s had not been looked into Hull had been given the recognition of being the first of the firsts.

The Twentieth Century Pioneers

To begin it is imperative to look at two pioneers who managed to hoist women into War Journalism: Clare Hollingworth and Martha Gellhorn. In 1939, Hollingworth was accredited as a reporter for the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.2 Her career started with World War Two, when she was dispatched in Poland and noticed that the Germans were preparing an invasion. From then on, she was known as the journalist who reported the news that WW2 broke out. Constantly wanting to be on the front line of major international conflicts her strong and affirming personality earned respect from other rapidly. She was even considered as one of the “lads” in the military camps in North Africa due to her expansive knowledge of war weaponry. She managed to create a myth of the stereotypes that were put upon her as a woman but she still knew how to use her gender for her benefit. As a woman she was invited to attend balls and dances where she could expand her network and meet diplomats.3 Her eventful life ended in 2017 at age 105 in China, and she was described in the New York Times as, “The undisputed doyenne of war correspondents.”

Martha Gellhorn was another exciting figure in war journalism. Her big moment came in 1944 when she was discredited and was refused to report D-Day from the frontline. However, she managed to infiltrate one of the boats and took part in the “Débarquement de Normandie”. After that she wrote her highly unexpected dispatch about D-Day. Her determination gained her the recognition of being the greatest war correspondents of the century.4

The Women’s angle’ and their lack of recognition in History

Women started to gain visibility in 1943-44 once the US war department sought it necessary to recruit large numbers of women to report on the “women’s angle” of the war. They were expected to write about the compassionate side. But most women covered more and were on the field. In the Post War Era, the importance of Women War Correspondents diminished, and this is not a surprise, as the soldiers returned from the front to go back to the bureaus and their jobs. In 1968, the number of women foreign correspondents was the lowest ever, even before the pre-war years. It was only in the 1990s that there was a big push that widely opened the door for women war correspondents.5 This was due the third wave feminism that redefined women as assertive, confident and in control of their own sexualities. It also engendered legal and attitude changes in favour of women. Today, books women war correspondents absent from school History books and have been forgotten and pushed out of the historical narrative of WW2.

Modern day war correspondents

Deborah Haynes, the first female defence editor for The Times, stated that females are not unusual in the frontline today. However, in defence reporting and in war photojournalism there are still a lot of glass ceilings to breakthrough.6 Photojournalist Kate Brooks, affirms that there are only a dozen renowned women photojournalists in the world. But things have changed in journalism; the bureau chief of The New York Times and The Times Magazine in Beirut are all married women with children, who all focus on reporting on Syria, ‘which is something that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago’ says Brooks.7 A new wave of war journalism has taken place with the exponential growth of freelancers. More and more young, bright, qualified women reporters are on the front, they are mostly self-funded and sometimes self-published. These women break down the general stereotype of the macho war correspondents and proves that independent strong women can do the job right. War correspondent Avery Haines is often told “don’t you think about your children?”, she argues that being parent is mostly portrayed as a burden for women rather than men, (while her family is actually proud of her job). 8 This question reflects the general problems in our society, concerning gender pay gap or the debate on maternity and paternity leave.Recurrent challenges remain for women war correspondents. Still, “We still have a long way to go” affirms the UN Secretary General “Women are still severely hampered by discrimination, lack of resources and economic opportunities, by limited access to decision-making and by gender-based violence”.9 Fortunately, the growing of feminists and anti-sexism movements have helped to hamper the stigma of begin a woman on the frontline.

Sources:

1 Edy, Caroline, Trust but Verify: Myths and Misinformation in the History of Women War Correspondents in American Journalism, (2019).

2   “Clare Hollingworth and the greatest scoop of modern times” by Emma Graham-Harrison, 10 Oct 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jan/10/clare-hollingworths-brilliant-career-a-professional-appreciation. (accessed 23 AUG 2020).

3 The First Female War Correspondents, the Frontline Club, https://www.frontlineclub.com/the-first-female-war-correspondents/ .(accessed 20 AUG 2020).

4 Colman, Penny, “Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II”, (2002).

5 “ As a 1990s teenager, the world gave us girls power and pornification” by Afua Hirsch, 31 JAN 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/31/as-a-1990s-teenager-the-world-gave-us-girl-power-and-pornification. (accessed 28 AUG 2020).

6 The First Female War Correspondents, the Frontline Club, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuauxbBx5Us. (accessed 20 AUG 2020).

7 http://www.katebrooks.com/about/. (accessed 28 AUG 2020).

8 “Two Kilometres to Terror: Life and Death Under ISIS,” by Avery Haines, 6 July 2017, https://www.macleans.ca/news/world/what-i-learned-about-courage-and-heartbreak-in-mosul/. (accessed 28 AUG 2020).

9 Aidan, White, Getting the balance right: gender equality in journalism, (International Federation of Journalists, (2009).

One Comment Add yours

  1. susan says:

    The needs to look out for more women who have done very well in other war zone like the story of the women who work as a social worker/mental health psychology (counseling officer) to provide effective strategic psychological operational challenges confronting the Nigerien military.Boko harm.

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