From the Desk of Chris Dubbs: A Nebraska Suffragist Goes to War

Chris Dubbs is a military historian living in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and has worked as a newspaper journalist, editor, and publisher. He is the author of numerous books, including American Journalists in the Great War: Rewriting the Rules of Reporting (Nebraska, 2017) and America’s U-Boats: Terror Trophies of World War I (Nebraska, 2014). His new book An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I (Potomac Books, 2020) is out now.

There exists in the Library of Congress photo archives a mottled glass plate negative picturing the militant British suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst, standing beside American journalist Rheta Childe Dorr. The picture is likely from 1913 when Dorr was assisting Pankhurst to write her autobiography My Own Story. Some editor taped off the individual images of the two women so they might be used separately. However, that still left Pankhurst’s disembodied hand resting warmly on Dorr’s shoulder.

When I wrote about Dorr in my book An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I, (July 2020) I printed out this photo and propped it on my desk. There were better photos of Dorr available to inspire me but none that gave the same hint of her character.

Rheta Childe was a child of the American heartland, born in Omaha a year after the Civil War ended and educated at the University of Nebraska. The cause of women’s rights took early root for her when, at the age of twelve, she and her sister snuck out of the house against their father’s wishes to hear Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton speak on women’s suffrage.

After a failed marriage, Dorr launched a journalism career in New York, and built a reputation as a muckraking journalist, reporting on labor issues, civic reform, and the role of women. She served as editor of The Suffragist, freelanced for magazines, and worked for several newspapers. Her assignments took her to Europe on three occasions, including once to Russia in 1906, in the wake of its first revolution.

When Dorr wrote her autobiography, A Woman of Fifty, she recalled the exact moment that launched her career as a war correspondent. On March 16, 1917, news of the Russian Revolution clattered off the news ticker tape in the newsroom of the New York Evening Mail. It was a stunning development, with huge implications for the war. Dorr was the Evening Mail’s Women’s Editor, but she grabbed the arm of the city editor and announced “‘I’m going to Russia.’ I didn’t ask to be sent, I just announced that I was going.” It was a nod to the rising status of women in journalism and to Dorr’s long career in the profession that she quickly won approval.

Dorr reported from Russia in the tumultuous summer of 1917, as its fledgling democratic revolution gave way to a violent Bolshevik counter revolution. Russian women won the right to vote that summer, a right they did not yet enjoy in the United States. But for Dorr, war, revolution, and suffrage came together in one sensational story: The Women’s Battalion of Death.

Wanting an end to the war, Bolshevik instigators had been persuading already-demoralized soldiers to desert the army. The Russian army was on the verge of collapse. That’s when “Russia’s Joan of Arc” appeared in the form of a female peasant soldier named Maria Botchkareva. She recruited a unit of women soldiers who pledged to defend Russia until death. They would go where the men refused to go, fight when men deserted, and hope to shame men to return to the fight.

Every foreign reporter in Russia captured a piece of this story, but none more fully than suffragist Rheta Dorr. She stayed with the women’s battalion during training and deployment, chronicled their first combat, and interviewed the wounded warriors in hospital. Unfortunately, their heroics could not stem worsening military and social conditions. Dorr returned home in September, bitter that radicals were seizing Russia’s revolution.

Dorr’s story about the women soldiers added to the storyline that other women journalists had been developing since the start of the war, namely that women were not just passive victims on the periphery of the real war, being fought by men. Rather, they were active participants, fully engaged on the home front—in industry, agriculture, science, and medicine, filling every occupation vacated by men. In the war zone, they doctored and nursed, drove ambulances, entertained, fed soldiers, and ran charitable operations. Though their burdens, sacrifices, and heroism differed from that of soldiers, the war could not have been prosecuted without them.

Dorr lectured at this time about her Russian Revolution experience. She was fond of telling one story from this period because it so well illustrated the prevailing attitude toward women and war. She was speaking to a large group of women from the National Arts Club, regaling them with stories about Russia’s Women’s Death Battalion, explaining how these women soldiers inspired a nation by stepping into the trenches when men deserted the army. The listeners were “thrilled to their very hearts.”

Meanwhile, a group of men in the same building had been listening to a British officer’s stories of the war. One of the men interrupted Dorr’s lecture to say that the women really had to hear the officer’s exciting stories. The women politely paused their program, and the officer came in to tell about the heroic deeds of British soldiers. He concluded his remarks by explaining that the war was not being fought entirely by men, that women also had an important role to play. “Your part, ladies, is to smile.” When Dorr recounted this story in her autobiography, she remarked that her audience “certainly smiled after the door closed on that dear man.”

If anything, that clueless officer demonstrated that the job of telling about women’s role in the war was far from complete. In fact, with U.S. entry into the conflict that year, a new crop of women journalists hurried to Europe to cover America’s role in the war and lend their voices to the historical record.

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