War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover World War II
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War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover World War II

by Catherine Gourley

When war broke out in Europe in 1939, American women had no way of knowing how much the next six years would change their lives. The beginning of World War II not only meant hard work and sacrifice for women in the United States — it also meant opportunity.

In the 1920s and 1930s, women journalists were frequently labeled as "sob sisters" or


When war broke out in Europe in 1939, American women had no way of knowing how much the next six years would change their lives. The beginning of World War II not only meant hard work and sacrifice for women in the United States — it also meant opportunity.

In the 1920s and 1930s, women journalists were frequently labeled as "sob sisters" or "newshens," and their news stories usually appeared on the women's society page, deep inside the newspaper. But when war exploded around the world, these female reporters wanted more than just front-page assignments. They wanted to be where the action was, and fought for the right to report from the front lines.

From Margaret Bourke-White, who covered the battles in Russia; to Lee Miller, who photographed the wounded in field hospitals in France; to Shelley Mydans, who was a prisoner of war in the Philippines; to Marguerite Higgins, who reported at the liberation of Dachau, Catherine Gourley tells the personal stories of some of the female legends of journalism in this important and timely book.

Filled with stirring period photographs and news clippings, War, Women, and the News explores the conflicts and challenges these women faced before, during, and after World War II. Their images and bylines would crack open a door for future generations of aspiring female journalists.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Greg M. Romaneck
For modern television viewers it may seem quite common to watch a news report featuring a female war correspondent. Yet, slightly more than a half century ago, such a happening would have been unusual indeed. It was during the Depression and World War II that female news reporters took center stage and established themselves as noteworthy journalists. Here, in Catherine Gourley's War, Women, and the News, young historians are treated to a first rate summation of the process whereby brave-hearted female reporters earned the right to cover some of the biggest stories of recent decades. In this illustrated work, Gourley starts her tale with the evolution of women reporters during the difficult Depression era. Then, with the outbreak of World War II, a handful of stalwart and determined women chose to take on the challenges, barriers, and dangers inherent in covering warfare across the globe. In this well researched and carefully written book, readers will meet some of these women reporters. Throughout the narrative, textual inserts are included that spotlight the life stories of particular reporters. In the end, War, Women, and the News is a fine source of historical information and a compelling story in and of itself.
VOYA - Rachelle Bilz
Rich in information, simply written, and easy to understand, this book offers valuable information about history and female journalists. From photographer Dorothea Lange to Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne O'Hare McCormick, Gourley delineates the challenges and triumphs of women journalists from the Great Depression through the Second World War. Set against background historical information to give readers context, the fascinating, dangerous, and often heroic lives of women involved in photographing and reporting during wartime are profiled. Black-and-white photographs richly enhance the text; sidebars explain terms such as "newshen"; historical propaganda posters are reproduced; and large, highlighted sections provide cogent biographical information about specific journalists. The anecdotes about women caught up in the calamity of war offer a "you-are-there" quality for readers. The stories about Margaret Bourke-White and Dickey Chapelle are especially riveting. In addition to supplying fascinating insight into the women highlighted here, this book is an excellent introduction to the events and major players involved in World War II and also a nice introduction to the history of women journalists. Photographs, short chapters, and an appealing arrangement make this book a valuable source of information for those in middle school as well as reluctant readers at the senior high level. An extensive bibliography and list of Web sites provide student access to further information.
School Library Journal
Gr 6�8
Gourley's passion is sharper than her focus in this introduction to more than a dozen writers and journalists who "refused to be left behind." After opening with a glimpse of photographer Dickey Chapelle, who convinced a reluctant colonel that the lack of women's "facilities" in a war zone would be a solvable issue, the author launches into a lengthy but incidental account of how the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression opened the door a crack for female field investigators and "sob sisters," some of whom, though dismissively transformed into "paper dolls" or "newshens," courageously followed the GIs overseas in pursuit of the story. Darting from Europe to the Pacific and back (with a stop to record Dorothea Lange's long-suppressed coverage of the displacement of Japanese Americans on the West Coast), Gourley provides an overview of major events, but only fragmentary looks at what her subjects actually experienced or wrote. There are also frequent disconnects between the narrative and accompanying pictures; some pictures are tantalizingly described but not reproduced, others are irrelevant or details of shots shown later in full, and a quote inset into a view of German soldiers marching through Warsaw specifically refers to other-than-Polish refugees. Capped by massive resource lists, this is a worthy work, but more loosely organized and less likely to intrigue readers than Penny Colman's Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II (Crown, 2002).
—John PetersCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The newsroom in the 1920s and '30s was a man's world. Women were seen as too fragile to cover anything but childcare, fashion, beauty and health. But with the Great Depression came a role for women field investigators such as Dorothea Lange and Martha Gellhorn. By WWII, female reporters were risking their lives to report the war. Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Kirkpatrick, Dickey Chapelle and Dorothy Thompson, among others, covered the war and became famous in their own right. Given the subject of the volume, it's a wonder that photographs are not used more often to break up the frequent double-page spreads of dense print. Also, the subtitle is misleading, since much space is devoted to the decades before and after the war, and the featured photographers sometimes seem lost in the background information. Still, this is an interesting general work that can lead readers to such recent biographies as Elizabeth Partridge's Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange (1998), Susan Goldman Rubin's Margaret Bourke-White (1999) and George Sullivan's Berenice Abbott, Photographer (2006) (websites, notes, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 10-14)

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Atheneum Books for Young Readers
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War, Women, and the News

How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover World War II
By Catherine Gourley


Copyright © 2007 Catherine Gourley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780689877520

Chapter One: Fear Itself

On a May morning in 1927, bells rang on Teletype machines in newsrooms across Europe and the United States. In just thirty-three and one half hours Charles Lindbergh had flown nonstop from New York to Paris, France. No one had ever accomplished such an amazing feat! Suddenly, the Atlantic Ocean that separated two continents seemed a little less grand. The world became a little smaller. Before his historic flight few knew who Charles Lindbergh was. But the moment the Spirit of Saint Louis bounced onto the landing field in France and the young aviator stepped from the cockpit, "Lucky Lindy" became big news. He was a hero.

Nine months earlier a nineteen-year-old woman named Gertrude Ederle had also earned the admiration of the world. She did not fly on wings across an ocean. Rather, with the power of only her strong legs and lungs, she swam across the icy English Channel. For fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes she swam. Rain fell. Strong currents sucked at her kicking legs, trying to pull her back to the coast of France. Waves rose up and slapped her face and stole her breath. At last she spied the cliffs of Dover on the English coastline. On shore a crowd of people, reporters among them, cheeredfor her. Some splashed into the surf to help her out of the water. Trudy, too, had become a hero.

In the 1920s, people wanted to believe in heroes. The world was still reeling from the wounds of a terrible world war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had died in Europe. Those who had survived returned to their homes haunted by what they had experienced on the battlefield. The Great War, as people called World War I then, had been so brutal and bloody that leaders of countries swore another world war could never happen again.

They were wrong.

The Great War changed America. Young people, in particular, were rebellious. Young women changed how they dressed. Gone were the tight-fitting corsets and long sweeping skirts their mothers had worn. They bobbed their hair shockingly short and wore thin, shapeless dresses that revealed -- for the first time ever -- their knees. Gone, too, were the old social traditions that said a woman's place was in the home taking care of her husband and children. More young women went to college than ever before. They took jobs as secretaries and typists, teachers and nurses. They joined the staffs of newspapers and magazines.

The automobile gave young people new freedoms their parents never had. Men and women drove about together, unchaperoned. Instead of waltzing to the music of an orchestra, they danced the Charleston -- wildly kicking their legs and swinging their arms. Congress had outlawed alcohol, but gangsters still made and sold "bootleg," or illegal, liquor. Men and women, both young and old, knocked on the doors of "speakeasies," private clubs where they could buy the bootleg alcohol. The decade was so rowdy that this period of American history became known as the Roaring Twenties. It was as if America wanted to forget the old ways that had brought so much death and destruction to the world.

In the 1920s, the country was "in a mood for magic," wrote journalist Anne O'Hare McCormick. Magic was the belief that anyone could accomplish their dreams, as Lucky Lindy and Trudy Ederle had. Magic was also the belief that anyone in America could one day become rich or famous. Andrew Carnegie had done it. As a boy, he had worked in a cotton factory in Pittsburgh. By the time of his death he had become one of the wealthiest men in the world. Henry Ford had tinkered with clocks and watches in the farmhouse where he was born. By the 1920s, hundreds of Ford's Model T automobiles were rolling off the assembly line every day. America was surely a land of opportunity and progress. Cities were growing. Factories were producing more goods than ever before. Herbert Hoover, who would become the thirty-first president of the United States, said in 1928 that Americans were on the verge of "banishing poverty from the nation."

He was wrong.

America was home to thousands of wealthy families in the 1920s. However, many more American families -- millions, not thousands -- were poor. Newspapers and movie newsreels rarely told their stories or printed their photographs. They were the farmers who borrowed money from banks. They were the workers in the factories and the mills. Some were immigrants who had just arrived in this country. Others were the sons and daughters of immigrants who had come to America years earlier. Life was hard. Still, most people dreamed of better times to come.

Advertisements in newspapers and magazines and on billboards persuaded people to buy whatever they wanted -- cars, clothing, radios, even a house. If the people did not have the money now, they could pay later. And so families bought on credit and installment payments. The profits from all these purchases went into the pockets of the wealthy, while wages for the workers remained low. A gap had always existed between the wealthy and the poor. But in the 1920s, the gap was growing wider. The magic was about to end.

"Did the thought ever enter our bone head that the time might come when nobody would want all these things?" Will Rogers wrote in one of his newspaper columns. People still wanted all the wonderful products America's factories produced. They simply couldn't buy or borrow anything more. Warehouses began to fill up with unpurchased goods. The number of Model Ts rolling off the assembly lines slowed.

Trouble doesn't happen overnight. It swells, like a balloon, one breath at a time. People don't always notice the balloon growing larger and larger. Then one day the balloon bursts. That is what happened in America on October 29, 1929.

On that Tuesday morning in New York City, a crowd had gathered in front of the New York Stock Exchange building. The building was like a palace with six towering pillars. Inside, the walls were marble. On the ceiling were thin layers of gold paint. Here was where Americans -- both the rich and those who dreamed of getting rich quick -- spent money. They bought stocks, or pieces of paper that gave them a small piece of ownership in a business. Some people bought stock in coal companies. Others bought stock in the cotton and steel industries. Some people had no money to purchase the stocks. And so they borrowed the money just as they had when buying their automobiles and homes. Borrowing money to make money is called "speculation." If someone purchases $500 of stock in an electrical company, that value might increase to $600 or $700 in a few weeks. Then the person makes a profit. But values of stock do not always go up. They also go down. When that happens, the investors lose money. Many such investors in 1929 had no way of paying off their loans.

On that overcast autumn morning in New York City, rumors swirled through the narrow streets like wind. Something had gone terribly wrong. The stock values weren't just dropping. They were crashing. America's banks and businesses were losing money. By afternoon ten thousand people had jammed the streets and sidewalks. Some had climbed onto the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the stock exchange building because it was the only space left to stand and wait. A reporter for the New York Times described the crowd as "wild-eyed" with fear. Men wept. A few days ago they had been wealthy. Now they were penniless.

America's financial balloon had burst. The day would become known as "Black Tuesday." The effects of the stock market crash rippled across all of America. Even those families who had no investments in the stock market suffered. Factories laid off workers or shut down completely. Without a job, families who had bought cars and radios and houses on installment plans could not make their payments. They lost their homes. Even those people who had managed to save a little money in their local banks lost it when the banks themselves closed. Some families fell apart. Thousands of adolescents became vagrants, roaming the countryside. In New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco, breadlines stretched for blocks as the homeless and hungry waited their turn for a free bowl of soup and a heel of bread.

The magic was gone. The Great Depression had begun.

In 1928, President Hoover had predicted that poverty would vanish from the nation. Four years later another president took the oath of office. In his speech to the American people that day, the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said, "This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.... The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror...." Then President Roosevelt made a promise: He would free the American people from their fears.

The Field Investigator

Franklin Roosevelt declared a sort of war on the Great Depression. He had a plan of attack, called the New Deal, to end the depression. The New Deal created a number of government-run programs to provide relief to the hungry and homeless and to create jobs that would put Americans back to work.

The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA, was one of the president's new programs. The director was Harry Hopkins. He hired and trained a team of field investigators. The investigator's job was to travel to small towns across America and document the difficulties of ordinary people. In this way, the government could better understand the problems the people faced and how best to solve them.

Martha Gellhorn was twenty-six years old when a friend of her family introduced her to Harry Hopkins. Hopkins had already hired fifteen field investigators for FERA. Most of those men and women were experienced writers. Martha Gellhorn was not experienced. Perhaps Harry Hopkins saw something in her that convinced him she had the ability to get close to people where they lived and to communicate their stories. Perhaps the friend who introduced Martha to him had pressed Hopkins to offer her a job. Whatever the reason, Martha Gellhorn became Harry Hopkins's sixteenth field investigator.

One of her first assignments was visiting the small town of Gastonia, North Carolina. What Martha saw there she would not soon forget.

In Gastonia, as in other regions of the country, the economic depression had set in motion a vicious cycle: Less demand for products meant less profits. To increase profits, the mill owners reduced wages and increased hours. If the workers protested, they lost their jobs. Most did not protest simply because there was no other work to be had. And so the workers accepted the lower wages, even though this meant they might not have enough food to feed their families.

Day after day, Gellhorn visited the homes of the mill workers. She interviewed them as well as the mill bosses. She learned from the workers that two or three women fainted each day in the mill. The mill bosses denied it, but Gellhorn herself had seen young girls who should have been in school working at the cotton looms without rest for eight hours. They ate their lunches of brown bread while standing in front of the spinning spools. They ate, Martha observed, without taking their eyes off the machines. In a mill bathroom Martha discovered three women lying on the concrete floor. They told her it was the only place they could rest for a few minutes without the mill boss shouting at them.

Because Martha worked for the government, the mill owners opened their accounting books so she could see that the mill was losing money. The numbers in red ink did not convince Martha. More upsetting to her were the red sores she saw on the children's legs as she watched them come and go from the factories. The town had no buried sewer pipes. Instead, the runoff from outhouses puddled downhill toward the mill workers' only source of drinking water.

Martha returned to Washington feeling "flat and grim." Her job was not yet done. She had to write a report for Harry Hopkins on what she had seen.

To write about Gastonia was difficult, but not because the place was hard and mean. Martha was simply overwhelmed by the pages of notes in her book and even more so by the images inside her head. She was also angry. The mill owners, in her opinion, were "a bunch of loathsome ignoramuses."

In the homes of each mill worker she visited, she noticed a photograph of President Roosevelt hanging on the wall. In some homes the image was just a newspaper clipping. "The President won't let these awful conditions go on," said one woman. "He's got such good eyes," said another, "he must be a kind man."

At this moment, writing her report, Gellhorn was the president's eyes. How could she make Harry Hopkins -- and the president -- see what she had seen? Harry Hopkins sent his investigators into the field with this piece of advice: "I don't want statistics from you. I just want your own reactions, as an ordinary citizen."

And so Gellhorn began to write, dating the report November 11, 1934:

I came in today from Gastonia.... The price of food has risen (especially the kind of food they eat: fat-back bacon, flour, meal, sorghum) as high as 100%. It is getting cold; and they have no clothes.... These men are in a terrible fix...faced by hunger and cold, by the prospect of becoming dependent beggars -- in their own eyes: by the threat of homelessness, and their families dispersed. What more can a man face, I don't know. You would expect to find them maddened with fear; with hostility. I expected and waited for "lawless" talk; threats; or at least blank despair. And I didn't find it. I found a kind of contained and quiet misery; fear for their families and fear that their children wouldn't be able to go to school. ("All we want is work and the chance to care for our families like a man should.") But what is keeping them sane, keeping them going on...is their belief in the President....

These people will be slow to give up hope; terribly slow to doubt the President. But if they don't get their jobs; then what? If the winter comes on and they find themselves on our below-subsistence relief; then what?

She ended her report emphasizing again the trust Americans had placed in their president: "Between them and fear, stands the President. But only the President."

Martha was idealistic and strongly opinionated. In November 1934, she wrote to Harry Hopkins, "It would make me happy to send in a report, just once, something rosy to say." But she found nothing cheerful to write about. The job was wretched, she admitted, and eventually she quit.

The stories Martha had written for Harry Hopkins were factual, but they were not news articles. Martha Gellhorn was not yet a journalist. Still, her work as a field investigator had taught her skills that every good journalist must have: keen observation, good listening skills, and patience. Perhaps the most important lesson she learned was to trust her own eyes and voice and to write honestly about what she had seen.

The Photographer

In San Francisco photographer Dorothea Lange was luckier than most. Well-to-do families still came to her studio. They sat while Dorothea took their portraits. She positioned their heads and hands.

She adjusted the lamp to light their faces. Then she snapped their photographs. Later, in the darkroom of her studio, she developed the film.

The customers returned for their framed portraits, which they hung on the walls of their homes. Now that bad times had gotten worse, however, fewer people were knocking on Dorothea's studio door. Even so, she had a comfortable home, and her children had plenty to eat.

One morning as Dorothea stood at her studio window, she saw a man on the corner below. He appeared down-and-out and uncertain of where he was. He looked left. Along that street was the business district. Then he looked right. In that direction was skid row, the poor section of town. There, homeless people slept on thin mattresses on the floors of empty buildings called "flophouses." Again the man turned, this time looking behind him toward the warehouses along the waterfront. Dorothea wondered: What will he do? Which way will he go?

As Dorothea watched from her window, a realization came to her. She was not hungry or homeless. And yet she felt as if she, too, was standing on a corner in her life. For a long time she had been unhappy. Inside her studio, each day was the same as it had always been. Outside, however, lives had begun "to crumble at the edges." Not far from where she lived was the White Angel breadline, named after a wealthy woman who provided the daily handouts. Dorothea's customers warned her, "Don't go there!" Those people were beggars, the riffraff of society, they said. To walk among them was dangerous. That morning, however, Dorothea could no longer ignore the sorry condition of those people wandering the streets. She had to do something. She took her camera and for the first time went into the street among the hungry and homeless people.

She took many photographs that day. One showed an old man with a dented tin cup waiting his turn in the breadline. His back was to the others. His crumpled hat shadowed his eyes. His face was unshaved. Hands clasped, he leaned upon a fence rail, staring at nothing. After developing the photograph, Dorothea tacked it to her studio wall. Her wealthy customers asked, "What are you going to do with that thing?"

In the studio Dorothea controlled everything -- the light and the poses of the people. The portraits were staged; the background, artificial. In the street she controlled nothing -- not the light or the way the people stood and stared. The outside world was real. She knew the photograph of the old man had been "worth doing." She thought it might even be important. As for what was she going to do with it, she told her clients, "I don't know."

One day a friend visited Dorothea in her studio. He saw the photograph of the old man on the breadline and other photographs she had taken of the "riffraff" in the streets. The photographs were "valuable," her friend said. He knew a magazine that might be interested in publishing them. It was not a popular or pretty magazine with stories about heroes, criminals, or society families. Instead, Survey Graphic published articles about social welfare problems. The magazine purchased one of Dorothea's photographs. It showed a man at a microphone speaking to a crowd in the streets. He was not a Vanderbilt or a Ford. He was just an ordinary man doing something he believed was important: helping people in need. The magazine enlarged the photograph so that it took up the entire page.

That photograph caught the eye of a government worker named Paul Taylor. He called Dorothea and offered her a job with a relief agency based in California. Like Martha Gellhorn, Dorothea Lange would be a field investigator. She would travel through rural areas and report on what she found. Instead of using words, however, she would use her camera to capture the experiences of America's homeless and hungry.

Dorothea was a city girl. "I didn't know a mule from a tractor when I started," Dorothea said. On the road she saw the effects of poverty and drought. Abandoned cabins leaned sideways as if blown by the wind. The roofs had caved in. The wooden siding had curled away from the frames. She saw farmers working with wooden hoes. Their clothes were frayed and patched. She saw men sitting on the porch steps of a country store in the middle of the afternoon. They had no jobs, no land to farm.

After months in the field Dorothea had learned more than just how to tell the difference between a farm animal and a piece of machinery. She learned about courage. "Real courage," she said. "Undeniable courage."

The Pea-Pickers' Camp

In March 1936, Dorothea was going home. She had spent the past month photographing farm laborers in California. Those weeks had been cold and rainy. On the car seat beside her was a box containing rolls of exposed film. Once back in San Francisco, she and Paul Taylor would develop the photographs and send the prints to Washington. She thought not of her work now but of her children. If she drove for seven hours without stopping, she would be home with her family by nightfall.

Rain fell steadily. Dorothea focused on the road ahead. She had said once that her power of observation was quite good. Her training as a photographer enabled her to see, or at least sense, what was to the right or to the left or sometimes even behind her. It happened again that day. She saw a "crude sign with a pointing arrow." As her car sped by, she had only a moment to read what it said: Pea-Pickers' Camp. Dorothea drove on, but her thoughts began to beat back and forth in rhythm with the windshield wipers.

Dorothea, how about that camp back there? What is the situation there? Are you going back?

Still she drove on in the rain.

Whoever was living in the pea-pickers' camp was likely no different from the people she had already photographed. During her weeks on the road, she had shot rolls of film. She did not need any more photographs. It was raining. Her equipment was packed away. She was tired and wanted to go home.

Twenty miles later, however, she turned the car wheel and bounced off the road, making a U-turn. She later stated that she was "following instinct, not reason." Something, she knew not what, was drawing her back to the pea-pickers' camp.

At the sign she pulled off the highway in the direction the arrow indicated. "I was following instinct," she said, and her car was a "homing pigeon."

There were many people in the camp, but Dorothea approached only one -- a mother. She was sitting just inside a tattered lean-to tent. She held an infant. Her other children, including a teenager, were around her as well. Dorothea saw desperation in the woman's face. She also saw something more: strength.

Dorothea took her time, as she always did in the field. Sometimes she simply sat on the ground and let the children come to her, let them touch her camera. She never slapped their hands away, not even when they were dirty; and they were always dirty. Sometimes she asked for a drink of water and then purposely sipped it slowly. In the field she had learned how to "slide in on the edges," she said, how not to call attention to herself. If the people asked who she was or why she was there with a camera, she told them the truth. She worked for the government, and the government was interested in their troubles.

This day at the pea-pickers' camp the mother did not ask who Dorothea was or why she had a camera. Nor did Dorothea ask the woman her name. They were strangers to each other. And yet the woman told Dorothea some things about herself. She was thirty-two years old. Her seven children ate what they could find -- frozen peas in the field and birds the children could catch. Her car had no wheels. Sold 'em, the woman explained, for food.

Dorothea snapped her first photograph from a distance. Then she stepped closer. She took a second, then a third shot. In one image only the mother and her infant are in the frame. The mother holds the child to her breast.

Years later, looking back on this day, Dorothea said she felt as if the work she was doing was important. Her photographs really could help these people in some way.

Perhaps the migrant mother in the pea-pickers' camp understood this as well. Dorothea believed that she did. "She seemed to know that my pictures might help her and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it." The mother did not turn Dorothea away. She allowed her to come even closer.

The final shot, the one Dorothea would later caption simply "Migrant Mother," showed the woman sitting with the infant in her arms. Two other children lean upon her shoulders, their backs to the camera. The woman's expression and her fingertips lightly against her cheek express what Dorothea herself had begun to understand: Poverty is tragic but not shameful. The woman was desperate but not defeated.

Dorothea packed her Graflex camera away and got back into her car. The entire session had taken only ten minutes. She shifted into gear and steered through the soggy field for the highway and home.

Dorothea Lange's photographs during the Great Depression helped to create a new type of communication called "photojournalism." These were not portraits of families. Nor were they advertisements. They were social and political images, a new way of seeing America and Americans. The photographs did not illustrate a news story. Rather, they were the story. This type of photojournalism would become an important means of communication during the Second World War.

The Sob Sister And The Serious Newswriter

Martha Gellhorn and Dorothea Lange did not know each other in the years they worked as field investigators, one on the East Coast and the other on the West. Their work did not appear in newspapers or magazines. It wasn't news. Instead, it was a record of everyday life for the homeless and the hungry. Martha's reports and Dorothea's photographs were research that became part of the government files on the Great Depression. And yet the field investigator's work was a turning point for women like Martha Gellhorn and Dorothea Lange. It allowed them to investigate topics ordinarily not open to women writers and photographers in the 1930s. Social and political problems were the business of men, or so society believed. Women's topics usually focused on caring for children and the home, on fashion and beauty and health.

The Great Depression gave women journalists, too, the opportunity to cover social and political topics. Adela Rogers St. John worked for the Los Angeles Examiner. She wrote quite a different story about the people affected by the Great Depression. The newspaper's publisher was William Randolph Hearst. He encouraged his newswriters, most often his female writers, to "go and find out" what was shocking or sensational, then write about it in a way that might bring tears to the eyes of his readers. Fancy writing was the stuff of novels. He wanted none of that. Rather, his news stories were simply told and full of emotion. This type of writing was called "sob stories," and the women who wrote the stories were called "sob sisters."

Adela's assignment differed from Martha Gellhorn's and Dorothea Lange's. Instead of investigating what life was like for the country poor, she intended to investigate the charities that were supposed to be helping the poor. Her approach differed as well. Many sob sisters went "undercover," pretending to be someone else in order to get a story. Adela's disguise was a thin cotton dress and a frayed coat. No doubt, her shoes were scuffed and run down at the heels. Her own shoes would surely have given her away. These clothes were a costume, borrowed from a movie studio. On a December morning she left home with only a dime in her pocket.

Sob stories often involved a sensational situation. Thirty years earlier, for example, reporter Nellie Bly had pretended to be insane so as to be admitted to the women's asylum on Blackwell's Island in the East River and later reported the shocking conditions in the New York World newspaper. Adela hoped to uncover some shocking details for her newspaper readers as well.

For two weeks Adela wandered the streets of Los Angeles. If anyone asked her name, she replied, "May Harrison." The dime lasted one day. She had spent a nickel on coffee and a roll and the rest on a meager supper. She had no place to sleep. The only mission she knew that took women was completely full. And so she walked. She walked long after store lights went out and the streets were empty. She tugged on car doors parked along the streets and at last found one that was unlocked. She curled up on the backseat and slept.

She went to employment agencies in the city -- always walking because she had no money for the trolley. The agencies turned her away. They had no work. Exhausted, her feet throbbing, she sat at a lunch counter and ordered something to eat. When she admitted she had no money, the restaurant owner served her anyway. It was her first experience with kindness from a stranger.

After two weeks she returned home and wrote her story in the "sob sister" style, full of emotion and melodrama: "Oh Lord help me to walk with bleeding feet," she wrote. "Listen to the cling-clang-clang of the trolleys, 'I'll be all right if my feet hold out.'"

Editors expected their sob sisters to write with feeling and at times to even slant the facts a little. Even so, these types of assignments gave women the opportunity to cover important events.

Not all newspapers published such sensational stories, and not all women reporters were sob sisters. Emily Hahn wrote a story for the New Republic that also investigated the plight of women during the Depression. She did not hide her identity as a reporter. She did not dress in costume. Instead, she interviewed welfare workers and volunteers at the YWCA. She approached women in the streets and in the missions -- when she could find them. She asked them questions. Afterward she wrote her story with objectivity, not sentimentality:

There are many women, no doubt, who struggle along until the last possible moment.... She tries everything else first, for...to admit failure is still the greatest shame of all. She lives as long as possible on her savings.... It is not until she is reduced to actual hunger that the white-collar girl at last presents herself at the door of the relief bureaus and charity committees.

Although Emily Hahn was a serious newswriter and not a sob sister, her story was still told from the woman's angle. The woman's angle focused on the human interest element in a hard news story. It was that slice of the story that editors believed women were interested in reading. For example, if the news event was a kidnapping, the woman's angle might be on the mother's anguish over her lost child. Emily Hahn took an otherwise hard news event and reported it from a woman's angle.

The field investigator, the photographer, the sob sister, and the serious newswriter -- these were the roles women writers played during the Great Depression. Each woman documented the crisis in her own way. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt believed in the power of women to make change happen for the better. "We are going through a great crisis in this country," she wrote. "The women have a big part to play if we are to come through successfully."

During the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt herself would play a key role in changing the lives of women journalists. She did something that few First Ladies had ever done. She opened the doors of the White House and invited the ladies of the press inside.

Text copyright © 2007 by Catherine Gourley


Excerpted from War, Women, and the News by Catherine Gourley Copyright © 2007 by Catherine Gourley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Catherine Gourley is an award-winning author and editor of numerous books for children and young adults, including Society's Sisters: Stories of Women Who Fought for Social Justice in America; Good Girl Work: Factories, Sweatshops, and How Women Changed Their Role in the American Workforce; and Wheels of Time: A Biography of Henry Ford. At present, Gourley is the director of Letters About Literature, a national reading-writing promotion program at the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. She is also the curriculum writer for the Story of Movies, an educational outreach program on film study and visual literacy in the middle school developed by the Film Foundation in Los Angeles. She lives with her husband, Dennis, in Dallas, Pennsylvania.

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