Kid Gloves and Cable Desks: The Challenges and Chances of Female War Correspondents 

Written by Verity Limond

‘Once overseas, they took off their kid gloves, put on their helmets, and raced the men to the front and back to the cable desk.’  

Julia Edwards (1988: 5) 

Like war itself, war reporting started as a male endeavour, with early examples including Lieutenant William Hicks’s letters describing the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Henry Crabb Robinson’s reports on Napoleon’s German campaign (1807) and Charles Lewis Guneison’s investigations during the Spanish Civil War (1835-1837). By the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) telegraph, mass-production printing, and photography gave a distinct air of immediacy to reports.  

The first reporter to embody the characteristics of current war reporters was William Howard Russell. Russell’s critical accounts of the Crimean War (1853-1856) covered all the major battles and brought public attention to the poor administration of the British army. Russell was already a professional reporter before being sent to Crimea and his intention was to report from as close to the action as he could get. In doing so, he developed a tricky relationship with the military, but in general his work in Crimea burnished his reputation for accurate and careful reporting as well as creating a model for future correspondents. 

Deciding on who can be said to have been the first female war correspondent depends on who can be said to meet certain designated criteria. Female correspondents have often been overlooked because of poor records or lack of official accreditation. Accreditation from a military body allowed journalists to observe combat close-up. Since this narrow definition would exclude many early female war correspondents, this article takes a broader view by including women who were not strictly accredited.  

Among the earliest conflicts covered by female correspondents was the Ghost Dance War of 1890-1891, which was reported by Teresa Dean for the Chicago Herald and Susette La Flesche Bright Eyes Tibbles for the Omaha-World Herald. The 1898 Spanish-American War was also reported by women including Catherine Ferguson, Clara Bewick Colby, and Anna Northend Benjamin. Before her premature death at age twenty-seven, Benjamin reported on the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and was noted for her refusal to confine herself to topics presumed to interest women, such as health. 

At least 250 women in the US were called war correspondents by their own publications from 1846 to 1947, but fewer than ten per cent of all accredited Allied war correspondents in the Second World War were women. Many of those whom we know about today managed to remain visible or achieved fame in other ways, such as the novelist Edith Wharton. Wharton lived in France and helped to organise healthcare during the First World War. After visiting hospitals on behalf of the Red Cross, she was given permission by the French government to report on military sites for Scribner’s Magazine, although she mocked herself for touring the Western Front like a sightseer to research her articles. 

Prominent among those who successfully managed their own image was Margaret Bourke-White, a photojournalist for Life magazine in the Second World War, who also covered the Partition of India (1947) and the Korean War (1950-1953). With a knack for being on the spot she photographed Luftwaffe raids in Russia in 1941, survived a torpedoed troopship, covered stories in North Africa and Italy, and saw the liberation of Buchenwald. She cultivated her celebrity status to the extent that some of her work was more concerned with her presence than the story itself. Her coverage of the unusual assignment to fly with the Eighth US Air Force highlighted the incongruity of a women in such a masculine context. 

For the First and Second World Wars, there is also often more information available about women reporting from the Allied side than those in Central or Axis Powers. Among the better-known from the First World War is Alice Schalek who reported for Austrian and German newspapers between 1915 and 1917. As the first total war that conflict saw widespread war reporting and a rise in the number of women correspondents. Since news media were vital for maintaining public morale, journalists increasingly took on the role of propagandist, whether willingly or not.  

Already an experienced photographer and travel writer who bulldozed social conventions by travelling widely before war broke out, Schalek witnessed fighting in the Tyrolean mountains and along the Isonzo River in Slovenia. Her accounts were not strictly factual but were enormously popular with the public, although she was criticised by some for romanticising war. However, it seems that her initial fascination with war faded after she observed battles. Even though she was dismissed in 1917 after complaints that her reportage was sensationalist, it is possible that the changed tone of her work and mention of poor conditions for soldiers meant she had instead become too critical for the Austro-Hungarian censors. Some of the criticism levelled at Schalek, which was largely based on her earlier writing, accused her of naivety and hysteria and implied her reporting was inadequate precisely because she was a woman. 

Schalek’s story is a reminder that women have faced both explicit (legal) and implicit (social) barriers to becoming war correspondents. Interestingly, women were not formally barred from war reporting in the US until 1944, although social conventions existed before that impeded their work. Previously, the US military had been more welcoming to female reporters, certainly more so than the British War Office in the Second World War which initially refused to accredit any female war reporters and eventually permitted them to visit only specific sites where they were supposed to limit themselves to reporting on the work of female staff. The Australian Margaret Gilruth, for example, reported on the Royal Air Force’s Advanced Air Striking Force for the Melbourne Herald until June 1940. Herself a qualified pilot, she was still not allowed to be accredited as an official war correspondent.  

Another obstacle to some women reporting on wars was the fact that, until the Second World War, most female war correspondents were white and relatively wealthy. An exception to this was Susette La Flesche Bright Eyes Tibbles, a Native American woman who reported on the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. But in general, those women who managed to report from war zones were both well-connected and well-educated, in keeping with the tendency for liberal feminism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to produce advantages for women from such groups first.  

Female war reporters have often been encouraged, or even required, to write the so-called woman’s angle, which emphasised human interest stories rather than hard political news. This could mean reporting on nursing or other non-combat work that was largely performed by women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the total-war environments of the First and Second World Wars this could be done on home soil since civilians found themselves involved in the war effort in contexts such as munitions factories, bombings and mass evacuations. Ironically, although women faced more structural barriers to observing battles first-hand during the Second World War, female auxiliaries being sent overseas by belligerents such as the UK and the US meant that the woman’s angle became larger. Inez Callaway Robb reported on women’s war work for the International News Service, but travelled to England as an accredited correspondent for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps to do so.  

The difficult relationship that some female reporters had with the limitations of the woman’s angle is exemplified by Ruth Cowan, an Associated Press Reporter based in Algiers in 1942. Male officers impeded Cowan’s work until she reputedly threatened to telegraph Eleanor Roosevelt for support. Although Cowan rejected the idea that she wrote the woman’s angle, her stories did often focus on women’s conventional contributions to war, such as depicting women auxiliaries as effective support staff to the regular (male) military. In 1944, she and Reuters reporter Rena Billingham were allowed across the English Channel to Normandy a few days after the D-Day landings. Her account of sheltering from the fighting in a minefield conveys expected feminine responses of fear and helplessness but the very fact of their presence subverted the conventions of the time. 

Notwithstanding the objections that have been raised at various points in time to the presence of women near conflict, from the risk to their safety to the allegedly inaccurate nature of their reportage, to the lack of suitable toilet facilities at the frontline, female war reporters were present in small numbers as witnesses to conflicts at least as early as 1890. By using a wider definition of war correspondent, it is possible to find women who reported from trenches, battlefields, military encampments, hospitals and home fronts all over the world as they manipulated typical expectations to produce accounts of conflict that ranged from the glamourous to the stark and pragmatic and injected women into a hitherto largely male domain. 


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Featured image credit: Female war correspondents World War II. US National Archives Public Domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons:

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