Female World War II reporters – No Job For a Woman historical documentary

“Get that woman out of here!” screamed the North African bureau chief for The AP when wire service reporter Ruth Cowan arrived in Algiers to begin her war reporting career. Cowan and nearly 140 other American women reporters were accredited to cover WWII, but journalism, military and social conventions were against them.”

One of the upsides of social media is that it allows people, who may never have had a chance to meet, to make contact. Just after I had posted on the exhibition at the IWM London Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, and wrote that I knew nothing of Toni Frissell and Dickey Chapelle and would need to do some research, I received a lovely and informative email from Michele Midori Fillion (Hurry Up Sister Productions), director of the documentary No Job For a Woman: The Women Who Fought To Report WWII.  

Midori Fillion emailed me about some of these women saying: “Before World War II, war reporting was considered to be ‘no job for a woman’. But when the United States entered the war, American women reporters did not want to miss covering the biggest story of the century so they fought for and won access. But there was a catch: women reporters would be banned from the frontline, prevented from covering Front Page stories about generals and battlefield manoeuvres, and assigned ‘woman’s angle’ stories about nurses and female military personnel. Several refused to abide by these journalistic conventions and military restrictions and, instead, brought home a new kind of war story: one that was more intimate yet more revealing. They reached beyond the battlefield, and deep into human lives to tell a new story of war.

“This 60-minute historical documentary film focuses on three American reporters—photographer Dickey Chapelle, magazine writer Martha Gellhorn, and wire service reporter Ruth Cowan. Margaret Bourke-White is a main secondary character and Lee Miller and Toni Frissell are honorable mentions in the film through the use of their photographs and an ID photo of each them. Miller and Gellhorn were good friends.

“Needless to say, this subject— women war reporters—has been my passion for many years since first discovering the incredible life of Dickey Chapelle while I was in journalism school in 1990. I met Toni Frissell’s daughter and gained her permission to use Frissell’s photos in the film. Both she and Miller, being fashion photographers first, were incredible war photographers for the light and detail they captured in their images.

“The women, therefore, had to figure out how to work within the restrictions (Ruth Cowan) or by-pass them altogether (Martha Gellhorn) or a combination of both (Dickey Chapelle). Margaret Bourke-White was in a different reporter category altogether, male or female. Being Life Magazine’s star reporter, she had a path paved for her, but even still, she was treated differently because she was a woman. For example, she was sent by boat to North Africa along with the nurses because it was thought to be safer to send the women on a nice big boat and not with the male reporters who were flown over. The boat the women were on was torpedoed. But because Margaret Bourke-White had the reporters knack of being in the right place at the right time, she got an incredible story out of being in a torpedoed boat. Her male colleagues were furious not to have such ‘luck’.

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“American women reporters had to fight every step of the way to report the war: from getting accredited to fighting the restrictions imposed on women reporters once they were accredited. The restrictions included no access to Jeeps or mess halls, no going to the front lines in the war zone, no sitting in on press conferences etc. In other words, all of the things that a reporter would need access to in a war zone to cover the war and/or report career-changing stories.

“There were so many stories that I would have loved to include in the film and so many other reporters whose work I would also have liked to highlight, but I was constrained by funding and the parameters of making a contained 60-minute story. The film combines rarely seen archival footage and stills, actors reading the written words of the three main characters—they read from the women’s reports, letters, notes from their diaries, or selections from their memoirs—as well as interviews with contemporary female war reporters. Julianna Margulies narrates the film. No Job For a Woman is distributed by Women Make Movies and has been aired on PBS channel over the last three years.”

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