Category Archives: Book Extracts

Women’s Voices Reporting D Day

If like me you’ve been enjoying hearing the deep and clipped tones of the 1940’s reporters telling us about the progress of D Day (I know it’s radio but you can definitely see that they are wearing suits and ties or possibly even dinner jackets) have you also wondered where are the women’s voices? Answer is, of course, there weren’t any. Not only were there no women announcers or presenters but British women were not allowed to be accredited war reporters. The only way around this disbarment was for reporters like Clare Hollingworth to join an American news organisation if they wanted to report the biggest story of the day.

Image result for picture of martha gellhorn

Even Martha Gellhorn, the veteran American journalist who had been reporting the War for Collier’s Magazine since 1937, suffered from this attitude as the US Army’s public relations officers objected to a woman being a correspondent with combat troops. But she was determined not to be relegated to reporting behind the lines or what was demeaningly called ‘the women’s angle’ and came up with a brilliant ruse.

By the time she heard about the D Day invasion it was already underway and her estranged husband, Ernest Hemingway, had been officially accredited to Collier’s – her magazine – as the correspondent who was to write the cover story. Furious and goaded by rivalry, Martha managed to do better. She got herself to the embarkation port shortly after midnight on the night of June 6/7 and locked herself into the lavatory of a large white hospital ship due to cross at dawn. Only then did the stowaway emerge and, still unrecognised, worked as a stretcher bearer collecting wounded men from the Normandy beaches. Carrying them from the crowded, dangerous shore to the water ambulances, raising them over the side of the boat and then transporting them down the winding stairs of the converted pleasure ship to the ward, was desperately hard work. Each case was more tragic than the next. But in spite of the constant pain all Martha wrote ‘all of us knew that our own wounded were good men and that with their amazing help, their selflessness and self-control, we would get through all right.’ Her moving story was published inside the magazine.  Ernest made the cover but his story was not nearly so vivid, so personal.

When she docked, her papers were scarcely in order and she was arrested by the PR office of the US Army. As punishment, Martha Gellhorn was sent to an American nurses training camp in the English countryside and denied permission to cross again into France. However, she escaped yet again and  climbed over a fence until she reached a military airfield and spun a yarn about wanting to see her fiancé in Italy. She persuaded a pilot to fly her there and wrote vivid reports from Italy about the fighting there.

Next time you wonder about the missing women’s voices remember Martha and many other courageous women who managed, against the odds, to write about fighting and war recorded in my book, Battling for News The Rise of the Woman Reporter.

Ten things I learned while writing Les Parisiennes

One cover, two books1. There is always a choice in life. Choice is inside our heads. How do we think even if choice appears to have been taken away, how do we act? Women in Paris faced an extreme: would I have walked out of a cafe if a German soldier entered thereby risking my life? Would I have delivered political leaflets, what exactly would I have done to help a friend in prison standing up for what he/she believed in?
2. Women can handle weapons and are extremely brave under torture sometimes more than men because they have to prove themselves.
3. Right and wrong are not always clearly defined. There is a great big muddy grey area in between. The photographer who took the image on my book cover, Roger Schall, survived four years of enemy occupation by publishing photographs of monuments and buildings in Paris, and landscapes in France with captions in German for the German market. In return he was allowed to take photographs in and could capture the atmosphere of enemy occupied Paris which otherwise might never have been understood.
4. Learning a foreign language may be a life saver … as several camp prisoners said that understanding what their captors were saying helped keep them sane and retain some power over their situation.
5. Never procrastinate or put off to tomorrow…the story of Miriam Sandzer (and many others) clearly indicates that had she gone to England with her fiancé when she had the chance and he first asked her, she would have been spared much of her subsequent torment but she could not abandon her elderly parents and dithered, however understandably.
5. The world has double standards … Look at the way women were punished after the Occupation, often shaven and humiliated, without trial, for degrees of fraternisation with the enemy while the men, many of whom practised economic or industrial collaboration, often got away without punishment after the war because their businesses were necessary in the rebuilding of the country. One reason for punishing the women was revenge, or ancient settling of scores or to cover their own shame at a humiliating military defeat.
6. French women really ARE different especially the way they think about Fashion. Looking your best at all times was considered a way to show the German occupier that they were not beaten, that they retained pride in their own identity. Even arriving at the prison camp in Ravensbrück other nationalities noticed how French women looked elegant.
7. How much of Paris life carried on as normal during the occupation for some people such as those with access to theatres and cinema life flourished. Cinemas were warm places for couples to go even to make love but keeping the opera houses, theatres and cultural institutions open was playing in to German hands as it pleased the enemy to enjoy the entertainment Paris had to offer.
8. How easy it is to close your eyes to things happening on your own doorstep and do nothing. There were warehouses in central Paris, camps for those who could prove they had an Aryan spouse, which were used as sorting centres for looted goods to be sent to Germany.
9. How privileged I and my generation are to have grown up in peace and security as a child of the post-war period of plenty. I have never experienced real fear.
10. Being a mother puts choice into a different category. Some mothers slept with Germans simply to get hold of food for a starving child, others bravely handed their children over to a passeur, a social worker or nuns, rather than risk their certain death, yet had no idea where they were being taken nor if they would arrive there safely .

And number 11 (because I believe in adding one more for luck! )
War can also be a time of fulfilment and an opportunity to meet people from other milieus and can give an erotic charge to an otherwise dull life…Comtesse Pastré, newly divorced, discovered she could be a force for good by opening her Chateau to refugee Jewish Musicians from Paris and Odette Fabius, from the haute bourgeoisie, disillusioned with her husband’s philandering, became a resistante and fell passionately in love with a Corsican communist trade union leader in Marseilles.

Of Books and Babies

Before you read this post here is a short film to remember all those pioneering women reporters:

I am in the happy position of seeing a book that I wrote twenty years ago republished this month. Most excitingly, the book has been reviewed – a great surprise in these days of such tight space for reviewing even new books.  But then it wasn’t merely the old book in a new jacket. I had been allowed to add a whole new chapter, to update it – a rare treat as few writers get the chance to change an old book. It’s way too expensive and publishers aren’t keen on allowing anything more than dates and typos to be corrected; in other words nothing which requires resetting paragraphs or adding pages. I have quite a fat file of ‘Material that emerges after the book has been written,’ bulging with interesting information on all my other books. But what to do with it? Sadly, probably nothing. Yet often in the case of biography it is only after a book has been published that someone whose existence you may not even have known about approaches you with information they have been holding on to, not knowing what to do with it until your book appears. I have had some wonderful stories told to me (often in confidence) at an event when someone has approached me quietly, afterwards, and asked to share a story or a letter. It’s often a breathholding moment


But this time it was a history book that was republished –Battling for News  is an account of how women reporters have fought over the centuries for the right to report, not only wars but sporting and political events, or other danger spots normally left to men. I finished writing this book, heavily pregnant with my last child, a daughter, and was correcting proofs in the middle of the night at the same time as soothing or feeding her. Her early months were very much tied up with my thoughts about women’s progress in the world of work. As I wished this book on its way, I whispered sweet nothings to her, reassuring her she could be whatever she wanted to be. I really believed that to be the case. For this was in many ways the most personal book I had ever written.In 1972, twenty years before her birth, I had been hired by Reuters, the first woman they had risked on their prestigious graduate trainee scheme. I was sent to Rome as a trainee and had hoped to report on many danger spots around the world. But then I became pregnant for the first time and Reuters was not keen on foreign correspondents who were also mothers…unreasonably as I thought at the time. By the time I came to write Battling for News, which includes a historical account of the first women to report wars – women like Jessie White Mario who had to tend the wounded on the battle field before writing up her reports about Garibaldi’s progress in unifying Italy – I believed that all the barriers against women reporting wars on equal footing with their male counterparts were now torn down, that women reporters had achieved equality with their male counterparts. And so they had in many ways. After all in World War 2 British women were refused accreditation to the front line, hence their need to resort to ruses like dressing up as a hospital orderly or stretcher bearer in order to report on D Day landings as Martha Gellhorn did.

But now, another twenty years on, I saw that in fact women reporters, especially those on TV, faced different difficulties. They were expected to be young and pretty as well as brave and fearless and, if they were putting themselves in harm’s way, not to be a mother as well, as Yvonne Ridley learned to her cost when she was kidnapped and very publicly criticised for abandoning her daughter. I saw too that if women are passionately engaged in a story perhaps it makes them better reporters because they never give up but ferret out the details in a determined effort ‘to bear witness’. But that also comes with a cost. Marie Colvin was determined never to give up and was tragically killed in Homs in February, 2012. Several women reporters I have written about after facing relentless dangers and witnessing the carnage of bombs and IEDs finally succumb to post traumatic stress disorder. Some, like Christiane Amanpour of CNN, and Janine di Giovanni, now freelance, are very successful and offer a powerful role model to myriad young girls emerging from media college who want to emulate them. But, as I was repeatedly told, achieving that success has not been an easy ride and what may seem like a glamorous and exciting lifestyle is behind the scenes, dangerous, demanding and dirty. It is made tolerable by the support of colleagues and a solid media organisation. But even that can go wrong as when Lara Logan was attacked and brutally raped in Tahrir Square and came within an inch of her life. And she was one of the most experienced women reporters in the field. I know that twenty years on it’s a more complicated world and any young woman, not just a reporter, will face a difficult time in myriad ways getting a job, staying employed in that job, staying sane and – if she wants it – having a family.

As for my daughter I still tell her she can have anything she wants if she is prepared to work for it. But she is clever enough to know that is only half true.