Jeannine Baker, Australian Women War Reporters; Boer War to Vietnam, NewSouth Books, 2015, pp 1-259, ISBN 9781742234519, RRP $39.99
‘I have never been asked to march in an Anzac Day march. Men war correspondents have marched – but I think they’ve forgotten that there were women.’
Pat Jarrett, accredited war correspondent, World War II
In Australian Women War Reporters Boer War to Vietnam, historian Jeannine Baker uncovers the remarkable and largely untold story of Australian and New Zealand women war reporters. It opens a fascinating window into an unknown part of our war-time history. Indeed, as the book’s media release pertinently asks, ‘Why do Australians know the names of Charles Bean, Alan Moorehead and Chester Wilmot, but not Agnes Macready, Anne Matheson and Lorraine Stumm?’
The book introduces us to a robust cast of female pioneers and charts their brave and varied experiences as war journalists, together with their long slow struggle for acceptance and equality. Although female journalists have been guaranteed equal pay for equal work since 1917, many women remained confined to lower status work such as writing for the women’s pages and special interest columns.
And for women war correspondents in particular, the military authorities, the government, newspaper editors and other male journalists had various reasons for restricting female war writers. Women’s perceived vulnerability and their need for male protection were often cited as reasons why women war reporters were sometimes refused permission to report directly from the theatre of war. Others believed they would simply be a distraction to the troops. Concerns were also raised over issues of propriety and modesty, given the lack of showers and toilets for women in war zones. They were thought to write differently too, too emotional and passive for the heroic and muscular job of war correspondence. Indeed, perhaps the main battle they fought was simply against the entrenched gender ideology of the day and the perception that war was a thoroughly male domain. Men fought wars and male journalists reported on battles; war was no place for women – unless they were nurses.
However, as this book reveals there were indeed many fearless and audacious female journalists who found themselves in the midst of war and its aftermath. And although many did report from the ‘side-lines’ – from the camps of starving internees, the hospitals full of wounded soldiers and the bombed out cities of Europe, Japan and elsewhere – these were still palpable scenes of danger, devastation and despair. And, as Baker rightly acknowledges, they also form part of the human story that is a vital part of conflict reporting – as much as the military battles do.
I will briefly mention some of these remarkable women – just as a tiny snapshot into some of the extraordinary lives charted in this book.
Agnes Macready, a Sydney nurse and journalist, went to South Africa two weeks after the outbreak of the Boer War. For two years she wrote regular articles on the bloody conflict for the Sydney paper Catholic Press. Likewise the journalist Edith Dickenson also covered the Boer War as ‘lady war correspondent’ for the Adelaide Advertiser and the Adelaide Chronicle. Dickenson’s journalism would later reveal the horror of the conditions inside the British concentration camps.
Sydney born Anne Matheson was working as a journalist in London in the 1930s and 1940s. She reported on Czechoslovakia’s capitulation to Germany in 1938 and described the tumultuous scenes on the streets of Prague. She was one of the first women to land in Normandy after D-Day. Women journalists, of any nationality had been barred from accompanying the troops carrying out the D-Day landings. However Matheson arrived four days later and wrote a series of Normandy articles for the Australian Women’s Weekly. Later in 1945 she visited the destroyed cities of Cologne and Nuremberg as well as the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp.
Back in Sydney, Lorraine Stumm was a journalist for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph magazine. Stumm was commissioned by the London Daily Mirror to serve as their reporter in Japan and South East Asia. From Manila she covered the harrowing story of a group of Australian army nurses captured in Rabaul in January 1942 and interned in Japan for more than three years, who were now about to return home.
Together with a group of other journalists, Stumm flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki six weeks after they had been decimated. Despite all her experience of wartime reporting, she wrote of the devastation as a ‘shocking thing’ and that it was ‘the most terrible disaster the world had ever faced and who knew what the after effects would be’.
In the final chapter, the book briefly charts the experiences of Australian women reporting from later conflicts – Korea, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Gaza City and Iraq to name just a few. Unlike the other chapters which are richly detailed, the final chapter is an all too brief roundup of these conflicts and the role of female reporters. It left this reviewer wanting to read much more. This is not necessarily a criticism of the book; rather it is confirmation that much more needs to be written on this fascinating and until now, surprisingly under-researched subject of Australian women war reporters.
This book has been meticulously researched with the trained eye of a professional and accomplished historian. It is also sympathetically written. It will appeal to a broad and varied audience, particularly readers interested in the history of war, women, gender relations and the history of Australian journalism.
Dr Catie Gilchrist