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American Women War Correspondents of World War I by Chris Dubbs

On 3 August 1914, one day into World War 1, the writer Corra Harris received a telegram from George Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, America’s largest circulation magazine: “How would you like to spend a few days in London for us doing woman’s side of war?” At first glance, the selection of Harris to be a war correspondent, did not make much sense. For one, she was a woman, and they generally did not become war correspondents but Harris was already known to Post readers, due to the serialization of her novel The Circuit Rider’s Wife in 1899. A Southern regional author, her writing focused on women who steadfastly maintained their traditional role in society as guardians of home and family.  Scholarship on Corra Harris acknowledges her “contradictory legacy” that embraced the deeply conservative values of her Southern heritage, even their most vile elements [1]. However, in 1912, Harris had traveled to Europe to write about the changing role of women and could reprise that assignment in the face of war.

Dozens of American newspapers and magazines rushed male journalists to Europe at the start of the war; only Lorimer sent women. He also dispatched women to Canada and Russia for war stories. But he was surprised to receive a request for a war assignment from Mary Roberts Rinehart, America’s leading writer of mystery fiction. As a middle-aged wife and mother, Rinehart seemed even less suitable as a war reporter than Harris. She had no expertise in military matters or experience of journalism. She rose to national prominence in 1908 with her bestselling novel The Circular Staircase. Her comedy play, Seven Days, a big hit on Broadway in 1909, was currently in rehearsal in London. However, having finally persuaded Lorimer and Rinehart landed in warring Europe in January 1915. Lorimer’s decision to assign four women to cover the opening months of the war proved to be an inspired bit of editorial policy. He continued to rely heavily on women correspondents throughout the conflict and as the war dragged on, other American newspapers and magazines also sent women to report the war. However, it was Corra Harris and Mary Roberts Rinehart, writing in the two-million-circulation Saturday Evening Post, who first violated the gender norm for war reporting and set the standard for all the women who followed.

When Harris arrived in London in September 1914, she found women to be the most energized and visible force of the war. In the opening days of the conflict, one hundred and sixty thousand women mobilized to form the Women’s Emergency Corps, an army on the home front. Unlike the government, they moved quickly in various humanitarian endeavors: raising money for war relief, equipping hospitals in France and Belgium, supporting the flood of refugees from the war zone, even making toys for British children, who could no longer get toys from the traditional source of Germany. To write a follow-up article, Harris traveled to France. Although reporters were forbidden from the war zone, Harris argued her way past civil and military authorities, past destroyed towns and grave-littered battlefields, to locate a woman serving as the mayor of Soissons, running two hospitals, and employing women to repair the clothing of soldiers. In the articles “The New Militants” and “The Bravest of the Brave,” Harris became the first war reporter to wrestle with the concept that women were not just passive victims on the periphery of the real war that happened at the fighting line; rather they were active participants, fully engaged in the war, with their own burdens and heroic sacrifice.

Whilst Harris introduced readers to women who had assumed new roles in the war, Mary Rinehart rattled their notion of how a woman could report a war. When she arrived in London in January 1915, she struck an arrangement with the Belgian Red Cross. In exchange for their assistance in gaining access to the war, she publicized their cause to American readers. Thus began Rinehart’s three-month sojourn in the war zone. She came under bombing attack in Calais, tramped through the muddy no man’s land of a front-line trench, visited destroyed towns, dodged artillery fire, and watched surgeons operate on the wounded. She got the war’s first interviews with the King and Queen of Belgium, Queen Mary of England, and the commanders of both the British and French forces. Rinehart dramatized her war zone experiences in eleven Post articles, and demonstrated to American readers — and to other female journalists — that a woman could make a great war correspondent.

The women correspondents of WW1 reported from the home front, the frontline trenches, plague-racked Serbia, and revolutionary Russia. They survived U-boat attacks, exposed the Armenian Genocide, and covered the ill-conceived American venture into Siberia during the Russian civil war. They followed American troops through their first battles and into occupied Germany. Unlike their male counterparts, many of these women came to the war with a background of activism for various social causes, such as suffrage, labour reform, pacifism, or civic improvement. They brought that crusading zeal to their reporting and saw wartime activities through an empathetic lens. The challenges they faced, the stories they covered, and how they gathered the news resonates with a unique voice and represents an important contribution to the history of the Great War. Several of the women who supplied America’s war news, continued to report from the chaos of post-war Europe. Eleanor Franklin Egan covered the continued fighting in Eastern Europe and Russia and bore witness to the tragedy in Armenia. Maude Radford Warren wrote moving accounts of occupied Germany. At least two of the women who made their mark reporting WW1—Bessie Beatty and Peggy Hull—did additional reporting during WW2.  Although the women journalists of WW1 did not remove all the barriers for women in this profession, they did convincingly shatter that glass ceiling.

[1] Her writing career began when she wrote a letter to the editor of the New York magazine The Independent justifying lynching.

Chris Dubbs is a retired university administrator turned military historian. Most recently he has specialized in the journalism of World War I. His third book on that topic will appear in July 2020, An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents of World War I. He is currently finishing an anthology of the WW1 journalism of American female war correspondents. The American, a UK magazine for American expatriates, recently ran an interview with him about his new book, which you can find here.

Image credit: Cora Mae Harris, wikimedia commons.

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