When we think of women’s contributions to World War II, what often comes to mind are bandanna-headed Rosie the Riveter types taking over factory work while the men were away. However, women journalists also reported on the war, facing challenges that male journalists did not, and their contributions are frequently overlooked.
Biographer Judith Mackrell’s wonderful new book, The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II, examines the war through the eyes of six reporters from this time. Mackrell posits that, though these women had a harder time accessing the front lines or the important political and military figures of the day, creative workarounds led to more nuanced and interesting coverage. “Over and over again,” Mackrell writes, “it was the restrictions imposed on women which, ironically, led to their finding more interestingly alternative views of the war.”
The six women Mackrell focuses on are Virginia Cowles, an American correspondent who started her career as a New York City society reporter; Sigrid Schultz, a brilliant and brave Berlin-based reporter whom readers may remember from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts; Clare Hollingworth, an ambitious and idealistic young Brit; Helen Kirkpatrick, whose college internship in Geneva led to a lifelong love of covering international relations; Virginia Cowles, an upper-class Bostonian who covered the war while remaining “disconcertingly glamorous in lipstick and high heels”; and Martha Gellhorn, a dazzling writer whom history primarily, and unfairly, remembers as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.
Mackrell effortlessly weaves together the personal and professional stories of these six journalists, producing a hearty biography that feels almost like a novel with its rich details. She brings each woman to life, tracing her childhood and entry into journalism, as well as her work and romantic life, against the backdrop of a simmering conflict that boiled over into a disastrous war. Although these women covered hard news, delivering scoops about impending military moves, they also wrote human stories that almost certainly would have been underreported had the war been left entirely to male correspondents.
For example, Martha Gellhorn, one of the first reporters to bear witness to the Dachau concentration camp, wrote about one Polish inmate in the camp infirmary who was so wasted that his jawbone “seemed to be cutting into his skin.” After that experience, she wrote, “I know I have never again felt that lovely easy lively hope in life which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth.”