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Getting to the Front

For women journalists, all was not fair in war.

Carl Mydans/Life Magazine

STEPPING FORWARD: Mydans interviews troops on their way to defend Singapore.

By Harry Press

It was a man's world and they weren't welcome. For aspiring women journalists, the only newspaper jobs open in the 1930s were on the society pages. Then came the war. As men were drafted, editors had no choice -- they had to let those females into the newsroom.

Gaining acceptance as war correspondents was tougher. Everything worked against them -- male chauvinism, society's expectations and a military that flatly refused to allow women in combat zones. Until almost the end of World War II, women were banned from press briefings.

Against these odds, 100 women clawed their way into a new world of journalism and proved themselves the equals of the 1,600 male correspondents working before and during World War II. Author Nancy Caldwell Sorel managed, amazingly, to track down 27 of these pioneers, including the two Stanford alumnae among them. Drawing on interviews and their clippings, she tells their collective story brilliantly as a chronological narrative in The Women Who Wrote the War (Arcade Publishing, 1999; $27.95). "The correspondents opened the way to new professional possibilities for women in journalism," Sorel writes. "They fought for and won the right to do their job on their own terms."

Besides harsh physical conditions and discriminatory generals, women ran into opposition from their own editors and bureau chiefs. cbs told correspondent Betty Wason to "find a man to read her texts" for radio broadcast. Ruth Cowan, a 12-year Associated Press veteran, was assigned to Algiers, but bureau chief Wes Gallagher refused to give her assignments or transportation -- blaming it on her personality. She found ways around him.

Sorel relates how her subjects deployed every means possible -- from charm to sheer chutzpah -- to get ahead. Virginia Cowles, a Boston socialite who worked on a fashion magazine, spoke French and Italian and talked her way onto the staffs of the London Sunday Times and Hearst publications. At a party in Rome, her fluent Italian persuaded the minister of propaganda to give her an exclusive interview with Benito Mussolini. When a fighter plane crashed in front of Eleanor Packard of United Press and William Shirer of cbs, says the author, "he was badly shaken, but she remained calm. A woman correspondent could not afford to go to pieces."

Gradually, Sorel shows, persistence paid off. Military authorities allowed Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News to sit on a committee handling press coverage of the invasion of France. In the final months of the war, frontline reporting opened up for many women.

Both Stanford correspondents, whom Sorel profiles, went to Asia. After graduation, Shelley Smith, '36, headed for Life magazine. There she met and married photographer Carl Mydans. In 1939, Time-Life publisher Henry Luce, a strong supporter of Chiang Kai-shek, sent them to cover the Japanese bombardment of China. Their home in Chungking was a "single cubicle with a mud floor and thatch roof." China scholar Melville Jacoby,Shelley's classmate and a friend of Annalee Whitmore, '37, was also in Chungking.

Whitmore, who had been managing editor of the Daily, had spent three years in Hollywood as a successful screenwriter. But she too wanted to go to China and through Jacoby -- who knew Luce -- landed a job running United China Relief. She worked for Madame Chiang and became quite close with Jacoby.

As Japan's grip tightened in the fall of 1941, most Americans left China. The Mydanses and Jacoby went to Manila, and Jacoby pleaded with Whitmore to come there and marry him. She did, but Pearl Harbor followed in a few days. Shelley and Carl Mydans surrendered with the Allied Forces and were held in a pow camp at the University of Santo Tomas. The Jacobys determined to get out. After weeks in Corregidor, where Annalee wrote stories of heroic medics that made Life's pages, they got to Australia on a small freighter. Tragically, Melville Jacoby was killed in an air crash there.

In the fall of 1944, Annalee Jacoby returned to Chungking for Time as the only woman correspondent in China. Luce disbelieved her stories of the corruption and military failure of Chiang Kai-shek and refused to use them. But in 1946, Jacoby and her colleague T.H. White published their powerful wartime account, Thunder Out of China. After the war, Shelley and Carl Mydans served as joint bureau chiefs in Tokyo for Time-Life.

Today, no one thinks twice about women covering war. The groundwork was laid 60 years ago when, as Sorel writes, "the women found they could do things they had never imagined doing. . . . Their daring and sheer endurance were extraordinary."

Harry Press, '39, former editor of the Stanford Observer, joined the Stanford Daily when Annalee Whitmore was managing editor.

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