It was somewhat startling when I first saw a post about Jeannine Baker’s Australian Women War Reporters. Here in Australia we had just come out a time of heavy promotion and awareness of the battle at Gallipoli (100 years this year) and the lives lost.
But I couldn’t remember seeing anything about the Australian women that were part of the war — as nurses on the frontline or who had their own hardships left behind. Yes, I know being left behind wasn’t fighting a war, but the absence of their stories just stuck with me.
Which is why I was so intrigued by Australian Women War Reporters. Moreso when I found out that Jeannine Baker researches Australian media history and women’s history at Macquarie University here in Sydney.
Here, she discusses her book, the women she profiled and how they defied the conventions of their times.
What sparked the idea for this book?
About ten years ago I was doing some research for a television documentary when I discovered, in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, letters from a Sydney journalist called Iris Dexter, who worked for Woman magazine. The catalogue described her as an accredited war correspondent during World War II. This intrigued me and after a bit of digging I found the biographies/memoirs of just two other women war correspondents during WWII. There were hints that there were more women accredited during WWII, but there was nothing written about them as a group. It seemed to me that there was a bigger story there, that had been previously hidden and that needed to be brought to light, and for someone like me, who enjoys the detective hunting aspect of historical research, it was the perfect topic. After ten years of research (and a PhD) I ended up with a list of 21 women who had covered WWII. The book, however, covers a broader period, from the South African War of 1899-1902 to Vietnam, with some reflections on the challenges that more recent women reporters (such as Monica Attard, the ABC’s Russia correspondent 1990-1994) have faced and continue to face.
How did you choose the women to be included in this book?
For some conflicts, such as the South African War and World War I, there were only a small number of women reporters so I wrote about them all. For World War II, I highlighted those women who had a particularly interesting story to tell, or who allowed me to explore larger themes, such as the military’s attitudes to women journalists.
Any historian, particularly one researching women’s history (because they leave fewer public traces) is also partly guided by the available sources. So when I could locate relevant documents in public or private archives, or descendants to interview, this meant I could tell a more in-depth story about that person.
Some women simply had fascinating stories and deserved more attention, or had never been examined critically. Brisbane journalist Lorraine Stumm had incredible experiences, but also a very interesting personality – she was very determined, ambitious, and could be ruthless in pursuit of a story (these were all traits associated more with male journalists than women journalists). She reported from Singapore just before it fell to the Japanese, then was based at General MacArthur’s headquarters in 1943, as an accredited correspondent for the London Daily Mirror. She was very tenacious in trying to get to operational areas – which the Australian Army had banned women from visiting. She eventually got to New Guinea after General MacArthur (the American Supreme Commander of the South-west Pacific Area) personally invited her, which made the Australian military command furious! Soon after that the Australian Army’s Directorate of Public Relations abolished the accreditation system for women war correspondents, because it couldn’t control them and keep them on the home front. The Australian Army couldn’t cope with the idea of women being anywhere near the troops.
Post world-war II, there were just very few Australian women reporting from Korea and Vietnam, so again, it wasn’t a matter of choosing.
I also wanted to point to the changes to come, post-Vietnam, and include the experiences of some more recent women journalists. I was keen to interview Monica Attard because she appears to have been the first woman who was employed by the ABC as a foreign correspondent in a conflict zone. When she left Sydney, the Soviet Union was in turmoil, but the extent of the conflict, and the fact that that it would lead to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, was a surprise. She ended up covering seven wars and civil disturbances in the four years she was in Moscow.
I also interviewed Ginny Stein, who has reported from the ABC and SBS from a number of conflict zones, and who talked about the ways that technological developments have benefited women in journalism (for example, equipment is smaller and lighter, making it easier for women to handle).
What did you learn about them that surprised you the most?
Just before I finished the book I came across the story of Edith Dickenson, who covered the South African War from 1900 to 1902 for the Adelaide Advertiser. I was amazed that this person was so little known. She’s important as she was the first Australian woman to be accredited as a war correspondent, but also because she exposed the horrific conditions inside the concentration camps in South Africa. Her articles were used by the English campaigner Emily Hobhouse, to agitate in England against the camps. It made me think that there are probably more stories out there of remarkable Australian women journalists, waiting to be uncovered.
How did your opinion of then change from when you started the book to when you completed it?
By the time I finished this research I realised that women displayed many of the same characteristics we associate with male war correspondents: bravery, tenacity, conviction, ambition, and news-sense. Like their male colleagues, they could also be rebellious, competitive, self-important, reckless, and loose with the truth. I also admired many of them, for being very good journalists, but also for how they found little ways to rebel, to transgress the limitations that had been set for them.
Elizabeth Riddell, an accredited war correspondent for the Sydney Daily Mirror, just took off one day from her party of women war correspondents, and along with a fellow Australian, Sam White, travelled to an area of France that was still under fire by the Germans. She showed a reckless disregard for her own safety but she was also well-known for wanting to get to the truth, and I think she felt that being escorted around with the other women war correspondents was preventing her from really finding out what was going on.
Why have Australians not heard of these women before?
It’s partly due to the common picture of a ‘war correspondent’, as adventurous, individualistic, daring, and undeniably masculine – reporting alongside the troops and sharing all the dangers of war with them troops. Women don’t fit into this picture because they were mainly barred from entering combat areas. Most historians of war reporting have concentrated on this kind of combat reporting, which naturally excludes women.
There are other reasons why female war reporters have never been celebrated or remembered in the same way as their male colleagues. The exclusion of women has also been based on several false assumptions: that women have only ever been brief and outside observers of war, that their reporting was limited to the home front and ‘woman’s angle’ stories, and that such journalism was unimportant. I was able to challenge all these assertions, by showing that there were many more than previously believed, that many of them reported from overseas and wrote about war from a diversity of angles.
I also argued that writing from the periphery of the combat zone – about the aftermath of war, about the impact of conflict on civilians, about the treatment of the dead and wounded, and about the home front, are all vitally important aspects of war – then and now. We now recognize that combat, and stories of male valour and sacrifice, are not the only stories that matter. The human story is a vital aspect of Australians’ experience and understanding of war.
How have these women shaped/influenced the female reporters of today?
The women during World War II had a very strong sense of themselves as pioneers, and believed that they had paved the way for the women who followed, such as the celebrated foreign correspondent Margaret Jones, who was based in China for Fairfax. They also felt that they were not properly recognised. I suspect that the women who reported from overseas in the decades following WWII had no idea that they were part of a long tradition of Australian women reporting war, because there was simply no knowledge of these earlier women. Women continued to struggle to report war from beyond the ‘woman’s angle’, until the Vietnam War, when the expectations that women were suited only to writing about the domestic side of war finally disappeared. Women were able to move around quite freely and live amongst the troops, which had never happened before. These changes were due to many reasons, including the impact of second-wave feminism. Attitudes to women were generally more liberal. Today there is no question that women can report conflict just as capably as men.
These are the stories I would like to hear more about, the stories that are as much a part of Australia as anything else. Like Jeannine says, those stories matter as much as those of the soldiers fighting. We should have heard about these women before now — and if there is something about them out there, please let me know.