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Harriet Chalmers Adams Harriett Chalmers Adams, writing for National Geographic, is shown here while on a French army press tour with other correspondents, visiting Reims cathedral, which had been severely damaged by German artillery. She holds a bouquet of flowers given to her by a French soldier. Note the officer on the right wears an artificial hand and arm. Source: Harris & Ewing Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The American Women who reported World War One

Historian Chris Dubbs discusses the challenges, the triumphs and the stories of the pioneer American Women who reported the First World War. His book, An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I is being published in July 2020, and is available to pre-order now.

Published on April 24, 2020
Shop: Pre-Order An Unladylike Profession

Chris Dubbs Chris Dubbs alongside a WW1 Monument.

Thank you for your time Chris. Our traditional first question - where in the States are you from?

I was born in one corner Pennsylvania, the southeast, in Quakertown, and now live in the opposite corner, the northwest, in Edinboro, just south of Erie.

Your upcoming book, An Unladylike Profession, is about the American women who worked as War Correspondents during the First World War. How did the idea for the book come about?

In 2017, I published a book about the American journalists who covered WW1: American Journalists in the Great War: Rewriting the Rules of Reporting. That book mentioned only a few of the women journalists who reported the war. However, when I later compiled an anthology of war journalism, The AEF in Print (with John-Daniel Kelley), I realized that I had shortchanged the women reporters. There had been far more of them than I realized and their perspective on the conflict had been different than their male counterparts. The challenges they faced, the stories they covered, how they gathered the news — it resonated with a unique voice and outlook on the Great War. I knew then that I had to tell their story.

Today, we're quite used to women on the front line of war correspondence, but what would have been the response to women reporting in the First World War - both in America and Europe?

When veteran reporter for the New York Evening Mail, Rheta Childe Dorr, showed up in Paris to cover the war, an official in the War Office asked her “Why did your newspaper send you over? Why didn’t it send a man?” That was typical of attitudes toward women journalists among civil and military officials. War reporting was men’s work. Those women who persevered found a way to access the war zone and gather the news, but there were usually additional hurdles to overcome. In fact, their determination and ingenuity to cover the war became an interesting element of their reporting.

How accommodating were various organizations at the time - newspapers, publishers, armed forces, politicians - to women covering the subject of war?

In the first month of the war, August 1914, the largest circulation magazine in the United States, the Saturday Evening Post, decided it wanted a woman’s angle on the war. It sent men to cover the fighting and to report from the belligerent capitals, but it thought women could best tell the important stories behind the scenes, the human-interest stories. The Post sent four women to cover the war in that first year: to Canada as it mobilized, to Russia, England, and France. The visibility of their articles in this two-million circulation magazine did much to introduce to readers in America the concept of the woman war reporter.

The female journalist who made the biggest impression on America at the start of the war was Mary Boyle O’Reilly, the London bureau chief for the news syndication service Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA). She did not ask for accommodation, she took it. A veteran journalist, she had been covering European news for a year before the war began. She was the first American journalist to reach Brussels in August 1914 and reported from there during the initial invasion and occupation of the city.

But it was the way that O’Reilly covered one particular story that August that exploded her to prominence and firmly planted with American readers the notion of the female war correspondent. When the German occupiers of Brussels expelled five American journalists, they put them on a train to Aachen. That train stopped for two hours at Louvain (Leuven), Belgium just as it was being systematically destroyed by the German army. Its cathedral and famous university were burned, citizens shot in retribution for resisting the invaders, houses torched. The war these journalists had been searching for unsuccessfully now kicked them in the face.

When the journalists were finally safe in neutral Holland, the four male journalists from the train rushed off to London to file their sensational stories. O’Reilly, on the other hand, decided to return to Louvain for the rest of the story. She hired a Dutch driver to take her back. She found women from Louvain locked in train cars being sent to Germany. She saw the destruction continuing in Louvain. Then she joined the thousands of refugees crowding the roads as they walked their weary way to safety in Holland. There O’Reilly wrote a series of dramatic news stories that appeared under front page banner headlines in the hundreds of newspapers that subscribed to the NEA news service.

Did America's early neutrality help or hinder those Americans covering the war, and did their role and work change when America became involved??

American neutrality gave its reporters the best opportunity to cover the war. As neutrals, American reporters could enter any of the belligerent countries. All of the warring nations wanted to tell their story to the largest, most influential neutral power — America. In fact, because of stifling censorship in the belligerent countries, US readers were better informed about the war than any citizen of Britain, France, or Germany. British publishers sometimes arranged to have sensitive news published in US newspapers, so that they could then republish it in Britain, since it had already seen the light of day.

Everything changed once America entered the war. As one war correspondent put it, American reporters became “willing propagandists” for the Allied war effort. The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) credentialed a limited number of correspondents — all of them men — and largely controlled what they witnessed and reported. However, American reporters could still travel in Britain and France and write more thoughtful, objective articles about the home front. One interesting newsgathering strategy the women journalists employed was to volunteer with charitable agencies supporting US troops. The YMCA and Salvation Army, for instance, had a big presence in the war zone. Working with them as nurse’s aids or in entertainment and canteen units, brought them in contact with the men from whom they could gather stories.

Maude Radford Warren Maude Radford Warren, who wrote for Woman's Home Companion and The Saturday Evening Post stands with Lt. Col. Ruby D. Garrett and Major R.T. Smith of the 117th Field Signal Battalion, 42nd Division, in Bachem, Germany on January 1, 1919, during the period of American occupation. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

What kind of subjects did the reporters you write about cover, and how important was their perspective on bringing to light issues that may well have not been reported on otherwise?

In "total war", everything is a war story, every military and civilian matter. Women wrote more human-interest stories than hard news stories. They tended to highlight individual lives and the impact of the war on families and communities. Although they certainly had their brushes with danger. The Belgians took Mary Roberts Rinehart into the middle of a muddy No Man’s Land. Edith Wharton came under sniper fire in the mountainous front lines of the Vosges mountains. A Greek steamer on which Eleanor Franklin Egan traveled came under U-boat attack. She helped the crew haul dead bodies out of the water.

But their most impactful stories were about women’s roles. Early coverage of women portrayed them as victims. Women in mourning were one obvious sign. The refugees escaping the devastated regions of Belgium and northern France — mostly women and children — crowded French cities and arrived daily in England. But America’s women journalists began to redefine the image of women in the war, from passive victims to fully engaged participants, with their own burdens and heroic sacrifice.

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. In the war zone, women drove ambulances and staffed hospitals as nurses, orderlies, and physicians. The Royal Astronomical Society, the Architectural Association, other professional organizations and trade unions opened their membership to women for the first time. “The tasks of the world” Daggett wrote, “were one by one being handed over to women.”

If readers failed to grasp the seismic implications of women’s role in the war, Daggett spelled it out for them. “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.

There are some remarkable stories in the book - was there one story or experience that took you by surprise or that made a mark?

There is one story that gives me an emotional jolt every time I think about it. It’s not nearly the best story of the war, but it packs a punch just the same. I have already been out to a few conferences to speak about my book, and I used to tell this story. But I literally could not tell it without choking up. I tried just reading an excerpt, but that didn’t work. My wife finally ordered me to stop telling it: I was simply not emotionally equipped to relate the story.

It goes like this. Once America entered the war, many of the women’s magazines sent reporters to France. It was really an odd notion for the military officials in the warring countries to be asked to accommodate reporters from such publications as Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal. But women in America wanted to know everything that was happening to their men. Good Housekeeping magazine sent Clara Savage to France. One day Savage was visiting an American hospital following America’s Saint-Mihiel Offensive. One wounded soldier, his head all bandaged and his arm in a sling, asked if Savage would help him write a letter to his sweetheart. He was having trouble finding the right words. She agreed.

“It was not a long letter,” Savage explained to her readers, “and yet it said all the things any woman wants the man she loves to say — that he thought of her always, that she meant so much to him that he wanted to be brave and good for her sake, that he loved her with all his heart and longed to come home and take her in his arms.”

There he paused and asked Savage to help him find the words to tell his girl one more thing: that he had lost his right eye and his face was badly disfigured. “I couldn’t say anything for a minute,” Savage wrote.

“Do you think it will make a difference to her?” he asked. “Do you think a girl can love a man with a face that has been all smashed to pieces and a glass eye?” Savage assured him she would still love him, because he was fine, good, and worth loving to begin with and now he was brave as well.

Call me mushy, but that tears my heart out. Male war correspondents did not capture such moments.

What were some of the standout articles written by American women during the First World War which made a real difference?

Two come to mind: the work of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Eleanor Franklin Egan.

Rinehart was America’s leading mystery novelist when she begged the Saturday Evening Post to send her to the war. She arrived in London in January 1915, at a curious moment in the conflict for journalists. Reporters were forbidden from the war zone. They called it the “Dark Ages,” since they had to rely largely on official communiques from the war offices. Rinehart struck an arrangement with the Belgian Red Cross. If they gave her access to the war, she would publicize their cause to the American reader.

She visited the front-line Belgian trenches — the first journalist to do so — and got the war’s first interviews with the King and Queen of Belgium. Things went so well there, that she was invited to England, where she got interviews with Queen Mary and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Back to France to interview the commanders of French and British forces. It’s hard to exaggerate just how extraordinary and unique was her level of access. Correspondents were still being arrested if they got near the front.

Rinehart had arrived at the very moment when the warring nations were changing their policy towards the press, from forbidding newsgathering to managing newsgathering. Because of Rinehart’s fame and her Saturday Evening Post connection, they chose her to tell their story in America. She dramatized her war zone experiences in eleven Post articles, and demonstrated to American readers — and other female journalists — that a woman could make a one heck of a good war correspondent.

Eleanor Franklin Egan can take credit for being one of the most prolific reporters of the war. She wrote some sixty-five feature articles for Saturday Evening Post during the war and in the immediate post-war years, about some of the most difficult and dangerous locales. Many of them are memorable, but two stand out, those she wrote about the Armenian Genocide. One she wrote during the war, for which she smuggled out of Turkey the forbidden edict that set in motion the Armenian dispersal and another article after the war, in which she visited Armenia to bear witness to the horrors.

Did the roles of these journalists make a difference to reporting in the Second World War?

Not that they removed all the barriers for women in this profession, but they did shatter that glass ceiling most convincingly.

How did their reporting change perceptions of women more generally?

At the time of WW1, women could not vote. In none of the belligerent countries. They were excluded from many professions. In journalism, many women were relegated to writing for the Woman’s Page.

The Great War forced a change in women’s rights. All of the bogus attitudes that had excluded them from full opportunity were exposed as fraud. During the war, women worked in every profession. They organized and operated huge charitable organizations. They kept the home front rolling. Some women reporters moved directly from the Woman’s Page to war reporting.

By highlighting stories about the extraordinary contribution of women to the war effort, women journalists made the case for their expanded role in society. Women won the vote in the United States in 1920; in the UK it was phased in with laws in 1918 and 1928.

An Unladylike Profession Book Cover An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I will be published in July 2020 by Potomac Books, you can Pre-Order your copy now

What is the legacy of those correspondents you write about today?

I doubt readers will recognize many of the names of the women in my book. The novelist/war correspondent Edith Wharton still occupies a spot in the English literary canon. The name of pioneering female journalist Nellie Bly might ring a bell. But most of these women have faded into the fog of history. Many of them came to the war with a background of activism for various social causes, such as suffrage, labor reform, pacifism, civic improvement. They brought that crusading zeal to their war reporting. And they saw wartime activities through a more empathetic lens than their male counterparts. Their legacy is that they redefined the notion of war reporting. And, perhaps most importantly, through their war reporting helped to advance the cause of women’s rights.

On a personal note, what do you hope readers take away from the book?

On a personal note, I am ready to put women in charge of the world.

I am excited to introduce these women journalists to readers. I think they will find them and their hair-raising experiences as fascinating as I did. I hope the reader comes away from the book with an appreciation for the unique voice of these journalists and for the importance of their contribution to the history of the Great War.

What's next on the horizon for you?

I finished an anthology of the journalism of the women reporters from WW1. It will appear in Spring 2021. But right now, I am between books, a place I don’t like to be. I think the journalists of WW1 still have more to say. My fascination with the Great War continues. But, I don’t know. I am taking suggestions for the next book.

Finally, what's the best thing about being Chris Dubbs?

The best thing about Chris Dubbs right now is that he is retired. I spent my career in academia, as a professor and an administrator. It kept me busy. I have always written, but now I have the luxury of free time to pursue book projects. I have written four books in my five years of retirement. It is the engine that revs me up and keeps me going.

Chris' book, An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I will be published in July 2020 by Potomac Books, you can Pre-Order your copy now.

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