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.
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about grit, determination and willpower recently. I’ve been glued to the Sunday evening TV series Who Dares Wins about SAS selection which this year, for the first time, has included women. I happen to know one of the contestants as she teaches amazing fitness classes at a studio called Barreworks in Richmond. As I struggle to do some of her apparently ‘simple’ plank and weight lifting exercises, I’ve always known Vicki Anstey was a bit of an inspiration and clearly had reserves of strength the rest of us can only dream of.
This weekend, instead of me questioning other people, two interviews about me appeared, one in print and one on the radio. I already knew, of course, how tricky it is, when you are under pressure, to convey exactly what you want to say and yet this really brought it home. This is how other people will see me!
Walking around London these days it’s hard not to be struck by the number of large, often life-sized bronzes in public places. In a selfie obsessed generation, tourists can often be seen posing on the bench in Bond Street in between a rigid Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet a mere 3% of all statues in public places are of women. What a pathetically shocking statistic. And most of those are of Queens or allegorical figures. How can we expect children to grow up with a healthy view of diversity and range of careers open to them if all they see around them are images of successful men?
There is a major statue of Millicent Fawcett by the artist Gillian Wearing being prepared for Parliament Square to commemorate the anniversary of (some) women being granted the vote in 1918. Wearing’s design will show Fawcett in her prime, aged 50 in 1897, the year the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed. Some 52 other suffragist campaigners who fought for the right to vote for women will at least have their images engraved on the plinth.
About time too. But even that may not yet go ahead if planning permission is refused. I was asked this week to write in support of the statue to the City of Westminster Millicent Fawcett Statue
And I have just spent an hour or so talking about Virginia Woolf and the need to have her commemorated in Richmond-upon-Thames where she lived for about ten years from 1915- 1924 and I now live and work. You might think that Richmond would abound with blue plaques and busts of one of its most famous residents, one of the most famous women writers of the last century, a brilliant diarist and the founder of literary modernism. But no. Because Virginia suffered from severe mental illness throughout her life and made a remark, often quoted, about Richmond and death (she would, she said, if given the choice prefer the latter) it is assumed she hated living here. In fact it was a highly creative period for her. She wrote short stories in Richmond, her first novel, ‘The Voyage Out,’ was published the year she moved in and, together with husband Leonard Woolf, began publishing at the Hogarth Press, which they founded in Richmond.
My words were being filmed for a promotional video intended to help raise money for the Virginia Woolf statue, the first ever full figure life-size bronze depiction of her. There is a campaign underway to fund the statue, which has already been designed by award-winning sculptor Laury Dizengremel and which has Virginia seated on a bench. It will deliberately show a smiling, friendly Virginia, in the hope that young people will set next to her and feel something of her spirit and be inspired. For more information or better still to donate go to http://aurorametro.org/virginia-woolf-statue/