The women who fought to report WWII

Ruth Cowan was the first accredited female war reporter for the United States Army,

the logical next step of her successful nearly 19 year reporting career. But when she landed in North Africa in 1943, her new boss’ first words were, “Get that woman out of here!” Wes Gallagher, the North African bureau chief for The Associated Press, did not want female reporters under his authority no matter their experience. He wanted her, instead, on the first ship back to the United States.

From the outset of her reporting career in the 1920’s, Ruth Cowan had all the characteristics of a good reporter: instinct for a story, determination, and tenacity. She was also wily. Using her middle name Baldwin as a shield in the all-male reporting world, she became Baldwin Cowan the hot young reporter who was getting the goods for United Press (UP). In the days when reporters could telegraph their stories, no one suspected that Baldwin Cowan wasn’t a man. Based in San Antonio, she had a dynamic career telegraphing stories to UP editors across Texas until one editor showed up in Houston where she was covering the Democratic Convention. He fired her on the spot because she was a woman.

Cowan response was to write Kent Cooper of The Associated Press. She told him “I’m a girl” and available to report anything that he wanted to assign her. He liked her initiative and directness and sent her to Chicago. But, instead of covering hard news stories as she had hoped, she was relegated to the “Women’s Pages” to cover the “woman’s angle” of the news.

The “Women’s Pages” was its own section of the newspaper and home to stories assigned to female reporters by male editors about subjects they believed appealed to female readers: Society news and the “Four F’s” – food, fashion, furniture, and family.

Ever resourceful and a team player, Cowan dutifully reported these “women’s angle” stories and kept her eye on the Washington bureau where she believed, being closer to the center of power, she would have access to more serious stories. In 1940, her determination paid off: Washington became her new reporting home.

Continuing in Washington an endeavor she started in Chicago, Cowan kept a clipping file of stories about women from the international and national press. Women, she foresaw and argued, were the “story of the century”, that as women’s roles changed during the course of the century, these changes would inevitably create greater changes in society at large. Her editors were unpersuaded.

One story especially intrigued her: the debate in Congress to create the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which became the Women’s Army Corps or WACs. She covered it from the outset and was an immediate champion of the WACs. She believed that women should be permitted to participate in every facet of society.

With the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ declaration of war, Cowan requested an assignment overseas as a war reporter. Instead, she was assigned to write about the changing roles for American women during wartime: women going into factories, women wearing pants in their new roles outside the home, women retaining their femininity despite their new roles.

For Cowan and other female reporters, the tide turned with the U.S. government decision to fight the “Total War” into which WWII evolved. Women, the government decided, were needed to take over duties in the army that freed men to go to the front. WACs would assume low-level administrative functions such as secretaries and telephone or cable operators, or work as code breakers, army corps operatives, etc. Nurses would also be a needed in vast numbers. Female reporters would also be needed to tell his story and public ease concerns about women being shipped into war zones.

In January 1943, Cowan finally had her chance to become a “war reporter” when the WACs and nurses were sent overeseas, but this coveted position had restraints. Instead of reporting the “so-called” first draft of history, her assignment was confined to reporting on the activities of the WACs and nurses.

Likewise, the journalism establishment was run by hard nose male chauvinists like Gallagher and if he couldn’t send Cowan back to the US, he would make it impossible for her to do her job. He started by prohibiting teletype operators from wiring her stories back to the United States.

Buy or Rent the Film

Women reporters during WWII were told war reporting was No Job For a Woman. Buy the DVD, available for purchase from Women Make Movies, to find out how these women over came the restrictions and created a new way of telling the story of war.

2011, 61 minutes, Color, DVD, English