‘Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam’ by Jeannine Baker


2015, 272 p.

Each night I sit down to watch the ABC news and just accept as a matter of course the presence of Lisa Millar in London, or Anne Barker in the Middle East telling me what new tragedy has occurred or which new crisis is emerging. Yet, when I think of reporters from far-off places in the past (and particularly in war zones) my mental picture is of a male reporter: Charles Bean in WWI,  or Neil Davis in Vietnam, Greg Shackleton in East Timor or more recently, Eric Campbell.  When did it become commonplace for a woman to be a foreign correspondent, even and especially in a conflict zone?   I’m also conscious  of the recent death of Claire Hollingworth, the famed (and very old) British WWI war correspondent.  I wasn’t aware, until I read this book, of any Australian women war correspondents that I could name from the top of my head.

In this book, Jeannine Baker argues that there have been female journalists in all the conflicts in which Australia has participated since Federation.  Their numbers are, admittedly,very small but not insignificant: she estimates that between 1900 and 1975 more than thirty Australian women reporters wrote for a range of London-based and Australian-based publications. They have been largely overlooked and do not have the prominence of male Australian journalists, and their role is seen as minor compared with their American and British female counterparts.  However, this, she suggests, is not so much a reflection of their ability but because the experiences and writings of women journalists were largely shaped by their national identity as Australians first and foremost, with the Australian armed forces particularly resistant to female war reporters, right up to the Vietnam War.  Partly this was a result of the “shut it down” reaction to publicity still exhibited by the ADF to this day, but it also sprang from a belief that the war front was no place for a woman; that they would have inconvenient toileting requirements; that they would distract the men and provoke them into a misplaced chivalry at times of crisis. Other countries changed their thinking about women reporters long before Australia did.

The book is structured chronologically, bookended by an introduction and afterword.  While she does namecheck probably most of the thirty female war correspondents across the length of the text, she focuses on several women journalists in particular. As the title suggests, she starts with the Boer War, the first war to which Australian colonies sent troops. The book title concludes with the Vietnam War, but Baker’s analysis stretches beyond declared wars to encompass female journalists sent to conflict zones ostensibly under the watch of Australian troops as peacekeepers and ‘trainers’.

Several of these women journalists ended up reporting on wars -albeit from behind the frontline- under their own initiative. Agnes Macready was the first nurse to travel from Australia to South Africa, where for two years she worked as a nurse during the Boer War and, as a sideline, contributed articles to the Catholic press under the pen-name ‘Arrah Luen’. A convert to Catholicism, she found herself an outsider as an outsider in her religion, as an Australian and as a woman. She opposed Britain’s imperialist expansion and was sympathetic to the Boers from the start. A second ‘lady war correspondent’during the Boer War was Edith Dickenson, who wrote for the Adelaide Advertiser and the Chronicle, who travelled widely and alone throughout South Africa.  At first she was strongly pro-British but over time became more critical of the war and more sympathetic to the Boers. She was the only Australian journalist to give a first-hand account of the concentration camps into which the Boers were corralled, and this work was taken up by the British activist Emily Hobhouse.  During WWII Lorraine Stumm, already a journalist in London, followed her Australian-born husband when he was sent to Singapore, where under American accreditation, she reported on New Guinea.

Other Australian women journalists were able to gain access to conflict zones because they were already employed with overseas newspapers, a reflection of the greater mobility for a particular class of young, unmarried and independent Australian women. Just before World War I Louise Mack (who, as it happens, Sue at Whispering Gums has been reading in a different context) was working in London and persuaded her London newspaper editor to send her to Belgium, where she travelled as a free agent. Likewise, Katharine Susannah Pritchard, who had based herself in London prior to the war, was unable to convince her editor to send her to Serbia, so instead travelled to France to cover the Australian Voluntary Hospital there. During World War II Elizabeth Riddell from Sydney, worked at the Daily Mirror and was asked to open a New York branch. In that capacity, she travelled to Britain, where she wrote about the ‘war weariness’ of the Brits, an observation at odds with the ‘brave Londoners’ stance being promulgated by other local newspapers.

Other women happened to be in London when war broke out and offered to send their reports back to Australian newspapers. Margaret Gilruth, who wrote for a range of papers including the Courier Mail and the Mercury Herald, travelled to Europe before the Nazis invaded the Low Countries.  She held a pilot’s licence, and had good contacts with Charles Kingsford Smith and  Australian aviator Nancy Bird.  She attended and reported on Nazi rallies.   Sydney-born Ann Matheson from ACP travelled to Prague in 1938 and was in London during the Blitz, which she reported for the Australian Women’s Weekly.

But in general, the Australian armed forces were very reluctant to allow women anywhere near the frontline: more resistant even than the British and certainly more resistant than the Americans.  The Australian army did not permit women journalists to be accredited, issuing them only temporary passes on application.  Male journalists were not welcome on the front either, for that matter, but there was a strong view that the only role for a woman in war was that of a supporter or aide, through nursing or the female auxiliary service.  It was the relatively relaxed American attitude that eventually nudged Australia into allowing female journalists in war zones during the Vietnam War.

Women journalists in the Australian newspaper industry had had a very circumscribed role prior to WWII. Although women were granted equal pay in 1917, they were usually restricted to the lower grade payscales, with few opportunities for progress, and newspaper proprietors were keen to dismantle that equality.  I had not realized the significance of the advent of women’s magazines, most particularly the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933. Although I don’t particularly think of the writers for the Womens Weekly today as journalists, during WWII its editors looked for ‘a woman’s view’ on the war.  Through this, and the enlistment of many male journalists with the outbreak of WWII, opportunities opened up for women to move beyond the ‘women’s pages’ to write about crime, courts, sports and stock exchange.  Male journalists did not take this quietly: there were criticisms of the quality of their writing and accusations of flippancy and it was made quite clear that men expected to resume their positions at the end of the war.

During WWII Tilly Shelton Smith from the Australian Women’s Weekly was the first woman journalist to travel from Australia to report from an overseas military theatre with the sanction of the Australian government and armed forces. However, it was a posting that almost destroy Shelton Smith’s career when the Women’s Weekly misjudged its audience and the military botched the organization of her tour. She wore civilian clothes, thus marking out femininity and difference from the troops, and she was charged with reporting “with a woman’s eyes” on the men at the garrison and training base at Malaya,who were awaiting deployment elsewhere. Shelton Smith was central character of her own reports with titles like “How I Met the Sultan of Jahore” or “I go to Curry Tiffin”. She revelled in the exotica of Malaysia and highlighted the physicality of the Australian soldiers. She was not allowed to accompany the troops, so she was restricted to reporting on the domestic conditions in the training camp, and her social contacts were largely amongst the officers. When she portrayed the living conditions of the troops like a holiday camp, she incurred the wrath of the troops; when she publicized the ‘taxi dancers’ (Malay women who were paid a small fee to dance with the men) she roused the enmity of the wives and mothers at home.  Many troops remained bitter about Shelton Smith’s reporting for decades after the war, although there was some acknowledgement later that some of the trenchant criticism was unfair.

Shelton Smith’s experience served as a salutary warning for other female war journalists. When Dorothy Jenner, who wrote as ‘Andrea’ in the Sun visited Malaysia in Shelton Smith’s wake, she was careful to avoid repeating such errors and wrote a much more positive approach, still from ‘a woman’s eyes’ but she was treated as ‘one of the boys’. She was captured and interned, and kept a diary during her interment, at great personal risk. Likewise when Ida Drain from the Australian Women’s Weekly visited Hiroshima after the deployment of the British Commonwealth Occupation force in Japan between 1946-52, she had learned from Tilly Shelton Smith’s experience. She devised her own official-looking uniform (even though it had no standing whatsoever) and only gently reproached the government over living arrangements for Australian men. She carefully avoided photos of Australian soldiers with Japanese women. Nonetheless, she too, was criticized.

However, as the authorities found, women journalists writing ‘with a woman’s eye’ had their uses when they wanted to stimulate enlistment in the women’s auxiliary forces.  On the homefront during WWII ‘lines of communication’ correspondents wore official uniforms and were taken as a group on a four-week tour of factories and auxiliary bases to report on women’s wartime contributions throughout Australia, at a time when interstate travel was restricted.

By Vietnam, women reporters were no longer kept on the periphery. Australian journalist Jan Graham from AP and Kate Webb from United Press International spoke Vietnamese and French respectively,although neither had Australian military accreditation, and these skills gave them entry to reporting the Vietnam conflict.  The ABC – with whom I started this review- was slow to embrace female foreign correspondents let alone conflict reporters, but they have gradually become more common. Australian soldiers were no longer warriors but peacekeepers or trainers, working in hot conflict zones across the globe.  At this point Baker moves to interviews with current practising reporters- Monica Attard in Moscow, Iris Makler in Afghanistan, Ruth Pollard, Ginny Stein etc.  Female correspondents are no longer allocated different types of stories: their editors now want stories not through ‘women’s eyes’ but through the eyes of the people who are experiencing the conflict. It’s almost the opposite of ‘drone’type reporting from above.

Baker’s book is based on her PhD and the several academic articles which arose from that work, and it is eminently readable. She has been allowed space to identify historians whose work she has drawn on by name, and her extensive bibliography reveals the breadth of sources she has used.  She has drawn on the newspaper and magazine articles that the women wrote, and interviews recorded with the journalists themselves over several decades, as well as interviews with descendants and current-day practising journalists. For the Shelton Smith chapter, she uses soldiers’ letters from the time and interviews with old soldiers who were in Malaysia when and after Shelton Smith visited.  Several of the journalists wrote their own books about their experiences, but Baker is prudently wary of journalistic ‘war stories’ in a professional sense: it is not only men who are prone to exaggeration or underplaying their professional ambition. In the case of Louise Mack in World War I,  Baker’s caution over the veracity of Mack’s claims is prompted by her analysis of Mack’s writings alongside established facts, and her critique of the highly coloured mythology that Mack wove around herself when she returned to Australia and embarked on lecture tours full of patriotic fervour and boosterist claims.

As Baker points out, the war  reporter often frames him or her self as ‘I’ in telling their story, but only male reporters were able to write ‘we’ by identifying themselves with the troops they were describing, even though this was often fanciful and based on exaggerated proximity.  The journalistic one-upmanship of claiming to be the ‘first’- a professional competition indulged by both male and female reporters- meant that individual women reporters did not have a sense that they were acting in a longer tradition of female reporters.  However, the change in the nature of war reporting by focussing on the human response (both for soldier and victim) meant that the type of  behind-the-lines, participant-based reporting that women had previously been restricted to creating by editors and army personnel who refused to allow their presence at the front, now became the genre of choice and an integral part of how we understand war.

As Baker argues, Australian women war reporters were at a particular disadvantage in their work because of the tight control that the defence forces exerted over their movements – far more than was the case with British and especially American female journalists.  Australia may not have a Claire Hollingworth or a Martha Gellhorn, but through this book Australian women reporters are brought out from the ‘women’s pages’ and the women’s magazines Australian Women’s Weekly and Women’s Day assume a significance not readily apparent at the checkout in the supermarket.  The women who wrote ‘with a woman’s eye’  provided a view of war probably far more congruent with our current conception of war than the military bluster of manoeuvres and patriotism that constituted much war reporting at the time.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww2017-badge I have posted a link to this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 site.

3 responses to “‘Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam’ by Jeannine Baker

  1. Thanks for the link Janine. I really need to read this book given all the writers she covers. I’ve often though about doing a Monday Musings on war correspondents actually.

  2. Miles Franklin wrote for Australian newspapers about WWI both from London and from Serbia.

  3. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: from How to Do Nothing to….. | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s