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Book looks at women who covered World War II

By Natalie Cortes


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ARLINGTON, Va. — The women who covered World War II were dedicated journalists who wanted to cover the story the world would never forget, said Nancy Caldwell Sorel, author of The Women Who Wrote the War. Sorel spoke June 17 during an "Inside Media" program at the Newseum.

"All of them were curious. They wanted to find out what was going on and to experience it. They had such a great sense of adventure," Sorel said.

Although the U.S. press was much more open to women than that of other countries, the female reporters still faced many challenges trying to cover World War II.

Virginia Irwin of the St. Louis Post Dispatch had to take a leave of absence to cover the war after the newspaper refused to send her. Like many other women, Sorel said, she joined the American Red Cross as a way to get to the battlefields.

Irwin was in North Africa when Allied troops landed, Sorel said. The Dispatch eventually made her one of its war correspondents. She later became the only female reporter to get to Berlin.

Sorel also discussed how Martha Gellhorn managed to hide on a hospital ship and became the first correspondent to get to France after D-Day. She said Gellhorn, who reported for Collier's magazine, had gotten aboard by showing her press pass and saying she was writing a story about the boat. "When the boat was ready to leave, she went into the ladies room and locked the door and they didn't realize she was still on the boat," Sorel said.

After researching the subject and interviewing 12 of the women who covered World War II, Sorel was most surprised by their perseverance. "Once they got over into the battlefields you could be in a jeep for 10 hours a day with the cold rain pouring down on you, and you had to stay there, and the next day you would get up to do the same thing," she said.

According to Sorel, none of these trailblazers claimed any affinity with the feminist movement. "They were trying to move ahead in their professions, and this was where their minds were and it wasn't connected so much with women in other fields," she said. "They didn't feel that interconnectedness that arose with the feminist movement."

One of the most difficult things these women had to contend with, according to Sorel, was the military's sexist attitude. The generals didn't like the idea of women in combat areas, she said. "They gave them a lot of trouble, but as time went on and they saw that these women were not going to leave no matter what they said. Some of them actually became friends."

Sorel found that for nearly all of the women who covered World War II, it was the most memorable time of their lives, and most continued to work as journalists after they returned from the war. Some, like photographer Dickey Chapelle, who began her career in the Pacific during World War II, paid the ultimate price: She was killed by a land mine in Vietnam.

The discussion was one of a series of programs presented in conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, on display through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01