To Cover World War II, These Women Journalists Fought Sexism at Home

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By Christina Lamb

Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II
By Judith Mackrell

In Kabul recently after the takeover by the Taliban, I looked around the restaurant terrace of the hotel where most journalists were staying and spotted Lyse Doucet from the BBC, Susannah George of The Washington Post, Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 and Margaux Benn of France 24 and Le Figaro, while the CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward had just left. Women were outnumbering men. There’s nothing strange in that these days, even if we had all been told to cover our hair by the resident Taliban commander, who complained, “We didn’t fight jihad for 20 years for women to walk around like that.”

For female war correspondents during World War II, what to do with their hair was the least of their worries and, if it weren’t for their pioneering work, my colleagues and I on the hotel terrace might not have been in Afghanistan at all.

As “The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II,” by Judith Mackrell, recounts, not only did female journalists face the challenges and dangers of actually reporting the war, but first they had to battle even to be allowed to cover it. Barred from combat zones, they had to hitchhike to the front line and struggled to get assignments from editors, some of whom fielded complaints from readers who did not want their news to come from women correspondents.

Sometimes the misogyny originated closer to home. “Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?” Ernest Hemingway demanded in a cable from his Cuban finca to his spouse, Martha Gellhorn, who was away covering the war. Then, in an astonishingly vindictive act, he got her own magazine, Collier’s, to assign him to cover the liberation of Europe.

Gellhorn was not to be outdone. As Hemingway and other male correspondents were shepherded onto assault crafts headed toward Normandy for the D-Day landings, she hitched a ride to an English port and convinced a policeman she had permission to interview American nurses on a hospital ship. Once on board she locked herself in an empty bathroom, and waited, terrified someone would find her, until she heard the grinding sound of the anchor rising.

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    Arriving at Omaha Beach as dawn broke, she found the shore turned into a slaughterhouse. Her reports on ferrying the bodies back and forth were among the best she ever wrote, even if Hemingway’s name was emblazoned above hers on the magazine’s masthead.

    As Mackrell, a dance critic and the author of several previous nonfiction books, writes, the obstacles women like Gellhorn faced made them cleverer and led them to discover stories their male colleagues missed. In some cases they scooped the world.

    One afternoon in the late 1990s when I was working for The Sunday Telegraph, I noticed a little old lady sitting at the next table, between the letters editor and the society columnist. “That’s Clare Hollingworth,” my foreign editor told me. “She used to be a foreign correspondent.” Later, I looked her up. The woman he had casually dismissed as a former journalist had been the first to report the German invasion of Poland.

    By the time we met she was almost 90 and living in Hong Kong. She still went to the Foreign Correspondents Club every day and kept her shoes by her bedside in case she had to leave in a hurry.

    How had I not heard of her? Perhaps because even after her world exclusive, she still did not get a staff job, let alone official access to sources. “I’ll have no women correspondents with my army!” bellowed the British commander Field Marhshal Bernard Montgomery, when Hollingworth managed to get to Tripoli with what she called her “T and T” — toothbrush and typewriter.

    More recently I visited Farleys, the farmhouse in East Sussex that had been the home of Lee Miller, the fashion model turned photographer who covered the war for Vogue. The house was crammed with incredible paintings (including a kitchen tile painted by Picasso), and in the gift shop I met Miller’s son, Antony Penrose. He told me that he’d had no idea of his mother’s previous life until after she died, when he found 60,000 prints and negatives stashed in boxes in the attic. The woman he had thought “crazy and embarrassing,” serving his school friends “cauliflower breasts” made pink with tomato-tinted mayonnaise, turned out to have witnessed the liberation of Paris and produced some of the most compelling dispatches of World War II.

    Just as women are so often written out of war, so it seems are the female correspondents. Mackrell corrects this omission admirably with stories of six of the best: five Americans and one Briton — not just Gellhorn, Miller and Hollingworth but also Helen Kirkpatrick, who became one of the first female bureau chiefs of an American newspaper after obtaining a world exclusive with the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, which emboldened her to tell her editor at The Chicago Daily News: “You can change your policy but I can’t change my sex.”

    Then there is Virginia Cowles, a former society girl who sent herself off to the Spanish Civil War in high heels and ended up being one of a tiny group of journalists to cover it from both sides. And, finally, there is Sigrid Schultz, who, fluent in five languages, endured surveillance and death threats to cover Germany’s descent into fascism for The Chicago Tribune, hiding all the time that she herself was Jewish.

    These women were feisty, whiskey-drinking and brave; when enemy fighter planes began strafing the cliffs of Dover and their male colleagues took cover, only Cowles and Kirkpatrick remained counting aircrafts.

    Still, they weren’t exactly a sisterhood. They were extremely competitive, maybe because they had to struggle so hard. Even when the Americans entered the war and General Eisenhower granted Kirkpatrick equal access to military sources, she was always last in line for interviews. (The federal government eventually allowed a select few other women journalists to wear uniforms with “War Correspondent” sewn over the left jacket pocket.)

    Female charm, however, opened many doors. Cowles in particular seems to have run endlessly into people who gave her lifts on planes or in cars, and invited her to tea with Hitler, lunch with Churchill and an exclusive interview with Mussolini. Like the men, these women correspondents found war addictive and returning to civilian life the hardest thing. Gellhorn, who struggled with depression and took her life at 89, after being diagnosed with cancer, said that covering the war left her “shredded up inside” afterward. Yet nothing was more shocking for them than when, after the fighting stopped, they entered the concentration camps. So high were stacked the masses of corpses in Buchenwald that Schultz first thought they were piles of wood, while the living resembled walking skeletons so wasted that it was impossible to tell their ages.

    Of course, this kind of work comes at a cost. Gellhorn’s suicide and Miller’s silence to her son about her war photography attest to scars left long before anyone had heard of PTSD.

    It’s not just foreign correspondents like me who owe these amazing women a debt. Mackrell has done us all a great service by assembling their own fascinating stories. At first I wished she had included more of their work, but perhaps they are better served by leaving us wanting to go off and read firsthand how women see war.

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