Excerpt: An Unladylike Profession

The following is the introduction from An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I (Potomac Books, 2020) by Chris Dubbs. Recently in the Wall Street Journal Melanie Kirkpatrick wrote, “This slice of World War I history offers insights into American journalism as well as into the terrible conflict itself. . . . [Dubbs] writes with a sure hand, drawing from published articles, memoirs, diaries and letters. He skillfully presents each woman’s story in a linked series of riveting—sometimes heart-breaking—narratives. . . . Near the end of An Unladylike Profession, Mr. Dubbs remarks on the reporter’s duty to report the truth no matter how uncomfortable it might be. The journalists profiled in this absorbing book lived up to that responsibility.”


For be it known unto you that the gods who preside over the destinies of Women and War have decided that these two shall not meet . . . great generals brushed me away as though I were an impertinent fly.—Kathleen Blake Coleman, Toronto Mail and Empire, June 20, 1898

In the opening days of World War I, London-based journalist Mary Boyle O’Reilly hurried to Belgium and delivered some of the earliest reporting on the German invasion. The Saturday Evening Post, the largest-circulation magazine in the United States, rushed two women, Corra Harris and Mary Roberts Rinehart, to the war zone. Harris highlighted the surprisingly large role women played in the war, and Rinehart became the first journalist to visit the frontline trenches. Throughout the four years of the conflict, dozens of other American women followed in their footsteps. They battled official restrictions and entrenched prejudice to gain access to the news and in the process helped to redefine how wars were reported.

The very idea of a female war correspondent required a mental adjustment to the way one thought about war reporting, women journalists, and indeed women. Reporting war had traditionally been the province of only the most adventurous of male correspondents. Women were still novelties on most American newspapers, often relegated to writing about society, fashion, and domestic topics for the Women’s Page. In the decades straddling the start of the twentieth century, they had begun to report on the broader topics of suffrage, crime, and social ills, sometimes as undercover “stunt girls” or muckrakers.

When a few newspapers and magazines thought that it would be a good idea to send women to cover the war in Europe, it was with the notion that they would provide a woman’s perspective on things. They would not cover the fighting war or such serious topics as politics or economics but rather would give their impressions of life on the home front. They would capture the “little stories,” the human interest element.

More so than their male counterparts, women war correspondents defined the Great War in terms of its impact on individual lives. But they also covered the war in the more traditional, war correspondent role. Women reported from all the belligerent countries, from the trenches and frontline hospitals. They traveled on official war tours, took assignments in the most difficult and dangerous locales, repeatedly crossed the U-boat-infested Atlantic, mingled with revolutionary fighters in Russia, inter-viewed generals, and smuggled forbidden writings out of warring countries. They came under aerial bombing attacks, sniper fire, and artillery shelling; were wounded and held prisoner; got lice infestations; suffered from influenza and pneumonia; and were arrested as spies. In other words, they embraced the role and endured everything it was the misfortune of war correspondents to suffer.

Their assignment to cover the “woman’s angle” proved to be one of the most impactful stories of the war. In the early months of the conflict, the Saturday Evening Post’s Corra Harris redefined the image of women in the war, from passive victims to fully engaged participants, with their own burdens and heroic sacrifice. In a time so focused on women’s suffrage and the expanding public role for women, American publications, especially women’s magazines, found inspiration in the experience of women in the warring countries.

By the time Mabel Potter Daggett traveled to warring Europe in 1916, for the women’s magazine Pictorial Review, she discovered a revolution in women’s empowerment. Before the war women had been forced to push their way into virtually every business, industry, and profession; now they were actively invited in, to replace the men sent to fight. An army of women worked in the munitions factories, on the farms, and in war charities. For the first time many universities graduated women in the sciences and engineering. Professional societies and trade unions accepted their first women members. In the war zone women drove ambulances and staffed hospitals as nurses, orderlies, and physicians.

If readers failed to grasp the seismic implications of women’s role in the war, Daggett spelled it out: “Nothing that anybody ever said about women before August, 1914 . . . goes to-day. . . . Everything they said she wasn’t and she couldn’t and she didn’t, she now is and she can and she does.” Daggett and other women journalists from the neutral United States brought these profound changes to public attention.

The focus of war reporting took a major shift when the United States entered the war in April 1917. American readers wanted most to know everything about their boys. How did they get on with their allies? What was their life like in the training camps? How did they fare in combat? The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) credentialed a very limited number of journalists to be attached to the army. Mostly from the large urban newspapers and the syndicated news organizations, they donned the uniform of officers and got privileged access to AEF activities. None of them were women. Likewise, civil and military authorities in England and France were often reluctant to assist women correspondents, especially those from smaller-circulation newspapers and women’s magazines. Did the French military really need to waste time escorting to the front lines a writer from Good Housekeeping magazine?

In the face of such roadblocks, women journalists adopted a strategy that gained them access to the troops and to frontline locations rich in news stories—they volunteered with aid organizations. Charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, YMCA, and Salvation Army conducted extensive activities to support U.S. troops. Working as a volunteer Red Cross nurse gave journalist Elizabeth Frazer access to hospitals near the front. When military police stopped even the AEF-credentialed reporters from reaching the battle line, they waved through the YMCA canteen unit, with reporter Elizabeth Radford Warren, taking food to men in the trenches. The stratagem proved so effective that the majority of women war correspondents employed it at some point.

At this stage of the war, women journalists offered a distinctive tone in their reporting, in part because soldiers responded differently to women reporters, more readily sharing their thoughts and emotions. Then, too, women often placed themselves in supportive, nurturing positions that were more conducive to personal disclosures. They translated menus for doughboys in Paris cafés. They rode with them in ambulances and nursed them in hospitals. They helped wounded soldiers write letters to mothers and sweethearts. They served hot chocolate in the trenches. Reporter Rheta Childe Dorr had a son serving in the AEF. In a series of syndicated newspaper articles titled “A Soldier’s Mother in France,” she offered herself as a mother reporting for other mothers about the things that most concerned them. This intimate connection with the experience of the soldiers is a vein of reporting largely missing from the work of male correspondents.

From the opening days of the Great War through the post-armistice chaos, women journalists carved out a distinctive role for themselves. By insisting on adding their voices to the story of the war, they put a feminine stamp on what had always been seen as the masculine pursuit of war correspondence. This book collects the stories of these courageous and determined women to preserve their important contribution to our record of World War I and their role in challenging the restrictions against women in journalism. It is dedicated to their memory.

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