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.
Typewriters are having a bit of a moment. When I was eight my parents bought me a toy typewriter and I spent a part of everyday writing up the local news. Not that there was any news in our sleepy suburban village. Nobody talked about fake news in those days so I suppose I concluded that what happened at the tennis club mattered? It did to me. I had the story telling bug. For my 21st birthday, my sister and brother in law gave me a real portable typewriter as a birthday present, one that I loved and took with me to Italy when I worked there for Reuters. I still have it but it too now looks rather like a plastic toy. I can’t possibly give this typewriter away, even though it has been useless for the last thirty years! I’m sentimentally attached to it and it, in turn is irrevocably linked to my youth. I can remember how important I felt using it to write my first story on assignment: the Aga Khan’s One Ton Cup Yacht race in Costa Smeralda, Sardinia, a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. But I quickly discovered the great joy of journalism was that if you worked hard enough and asked enough people the right questions, you could suddenly become an expert. Read More
One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.
But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.
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!
Listen to the BBC programme here – there is also a podcast of this edition of Private Passion available.
Here’s another article where I talk sexism, Elizabeth Taylor – and women’s lives
After giving several talks about Les Parisiennes and speaking to reading groups about the choices facing women in Occupied Paris, I now realise what the number one question from the audience is: what would you have done? I also realise that I don’t have a clear cut answer and have found myself saying different things on different occasions. It is an impossible question. I have always shied away from ‘what if’ questions on any historical subject. We cannot re-create all the other variables that go into making one straightforward answer. If I were a mother I would do one thing (sleep with a Nazi if it meant giving a crust of bread to my child and my action was not treasonable?) If I were a daughter of elderly parents I might do another, if I were a singer or dressmaker would I sing to a German audience or make clothes for a German woman? Who knows? On Monday I might do one thing on Friday another, in 1941 what might be murky could be clear cut by 1944. Would I deliberately cause trouble by walking out of a restaurant if the enemy walked in: what purpose would be achieved by that? Would I instigate a revolt in a prison if by my actions others would suffer? How do I (or those of my generation who have grown up in peace) begin to imagine what it felt like to be frightened, to feel a permanent visceral sense of tension?
Every talk I give results in a fresh set of questions focusing on different aspects of my book. It keeps me on my toes. This week I was asked why didn’t French women instigate more revolts against the Occupiers? Why aren’t there more women in French politics today? (Actually, I think there are quite a few). Which characters do I like best and what have I learned from my research? And it is not just old people in my audience asking the questions. I have had young history teachers who flatteringly tell me they wish they had brought their ‘A’ level class. I am often asked: What happened to all the Franco-German babies?
Often, the questions aren’t questions at all but statements; so many people have stories of their own that they want to share of an aunt who survived a camp, or of an uncle who was killed, or of a friend of a friend. Did I by any chance come across this particular woman or, is it okay to publish the diaries of someone who their mother knew during the war but did not survive? Often there are questions which I am barely qualified to answer but I can usually refer the questioner to someone who would be and then this torrent that seems to have been unleashed usually has to be stopped or we’d overrun our time. None of my other books provoked this amount of questioning.