From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, it is easy to imagine going back to 1913 to alter the course of some of the most dramatic events—women’s suffrage, the struggle for Home Rule in Ireland, Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful civil disobedience in India, Europe teetering on the edge of the worst war the world had ever seen—in modern history. Obvious answers might include promoting women’s suffrage, stopping the young Adolf Hitler in his tracks, or doing something to prevent the First World War. But I do not think that I would try to do any of those things if I were to wake up in 1913; I do not think that I could. Those huge, world-altering events were not the result of one person’s action or reaction, but of countless overlapping tensions, events, and politics. Instead of trying to alter those moments, I would work to ensure that we have a better record of them. There is one group in particular who did amazing and courageous work in the years following 1913, but whose contributions have been lost: the women war correspondents who reported the First World War.
The First World War was a formative moment for American identity and American journalism. It marked the first time that Americans were going to Europe in large numbers and acting on the world stage, and the infant foreign press played a pivotal role in keeping Americans informed. As Europe moved toward war, many large metropolitan newspapers and journals developed foreign offices for the first time, or at least employed foreign correspondents. The demand for news from abroad was insatiable, and many women stepped up to meet that demand.
I first encountered these women as an undergraduate research assistant. I was helping my professor research a book chapter on Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, a reporter for The New Republic who was wounded on a 1918 press trip to the front in France. My job was to investigate the other journalists—all women—on that trip to see if they had written about the incident. What I discovered about those women—three war correspondents and a possible Allied spy—led me into what ultimately became an inquiry into the gendered nature of our historical record of journalism during the First World War: whose contributions are remembered and whose have been lost.
I approached this project with the expectation that it would be fairly straightforward research. These were journalists, after all, so surely they left a decent written record. That thought proved to be completely wrong. There is no real written record of the women who saw and reported events on the front. A few memoirs, written after the war, survive, and some women are remembered for the careers that they had after the war—Sergeant as a literary critic and biographer, for instance, and Eunice Tietjens as a poet and editor of Poetry. But the work that these women did has been completely forgotten. Clippings lie collecting dust in archives, but there has been no major scholastic inquiry into the contributions that women like Sergeant and Tietjens made to American journalism or, more importantly, to women’s right to write about major world events. Their work in the Great War has been marginalized, and consequently their stories have been lost.
No one illustrates this descent into marginalization better than Cecil Dorrian. I came across Dorrian while researching the 1918 press incident; she was one of the journalists on the trip. As I uncovered more about her, however, I realized that she could tell me far, far more than what had happened to Sergeant that day. Dorrian was working as a theatre agent in London when the fighting broke out in 1914. She began to send sketches of wartime London to the Newark Evening News, then the largest newspaper in New Jersey, eventually landing a staff position as their European correspondent. In that role she defined the image of the intrepid woman reporter: In 1916 she was in Rome writing from the Italian front, but she rushed to Paris as soon as America officially entered the war. She was the first accredited female reporter on hand to watch the American Expeditionary Force grow from a disordered mass of men in 1917 into a fine fighting force under General Pershing’s command by July 1918, when the Allies were preparing for what would ultimately be their final assault against the Germans.
But why is it important to pay attention to Dorrian? As I flipped through reels of microfilm reading her wartime articles, I began to see that what she was really doing was establishing a voice for herself. Dorrian, and other reporters like her, played the crucial role of connecting people thousands of miles away with the events happening in France. The distance was essential to these reporters; their eye-witness perspective gave them the authority to tell Americans what was happening. For women, this was a marked change from the personal memoirs and sob stories that had defined acceptable female writing before the war. Now they had the opportunity to establish themselves as legitimate reporters whose news-hungry audiences hung on their every word. When Dorrian wrote from the war-torn fortress of Verdun, she was acting as a guide for readers who wanted to know what the fresh battlefield looked like. They relied on her to bring them there; she was their eyes and ears, their sole authority.
Dorrian further established her authority by being at the scene of all the action and finding the “scoops” that other reporters missed. She somehow convinced the French government to grant her exclusive access to a French naval base and to a major munitions factory, where she was the first correspondent to ever be allowed inside. In her article about her visit to the munitions factory, Dorrian wrote, “No one has seen the whole of France’s war who has not seen this place.”[i] This single sentence becomes a powerful, if understated, declaration of her own authority to write about the war. As the only reporter who saw this place, she was the only reporter who saw the “whole of France’s war,” and therefore, the only reporter with the authority to write about it.
Dorrian’s articles, filled with the excitement and information that American audiences craved, made her something of a celebrity. The Newark Evening News promoted the fact that she was a woman, heralding all of her achievements and lauding her as “the first real woman correspondent”[ii] on the American front. She was the only writer to have a byline in the paper in 1918, and her articles were almost always featured on the front page. Dorrian’s goal was not recognition, however. She used her celebrity in service of what she viewed as the very serious responsibility of bringing readers important information about the war. She worked tirelessly to find the stories that no one else was telling because she truly believed that people needed to hear them. Her insistence that Americans, who were so far from the war geographically and mentally, needed to understand what was happening pervades her writing. In December 1917 she published an interview with Rhode Island Governor Robert Beckman, whom she met at Verdun. In the interview Beckman claimed that he had no idea about the reality of war before his tour of the front and talked extensively about the need to report the war as it was so that everyone in America could know what their men were doing.[iii] In a subsequent article on her own trip to Verdun, Dorrian responded to Beckman’s comments with frustration at the apparent failure of accurate reporting:
The writing man may lose his morale for a while at this situation, but in the end he only shuts his teeth tighter and sits down at the keys of his faithful machine, at the end of a hard day in the field, with more relentless purpose than ever. They must know what it is like. It is their war. They’re giving everything they’ve got, and they’ve a right to know.[iv]
The only way for Americans to have any accurate concept of the war was through the work of Dorrian and her fellow reporters. This is why she was so dedicated to seeking out the unrepresented places and voices. This is why she took readers to war-torn Verdun with her. Yes, she got exclusive stories that way, but she also sent as full a picture of the war as possible to Americans 3,000 miles away. Dorrian took it upon herself to represent the unheard voices in the war because no one else was paying attention to them. In doing so, she and other women like her established their own authority as writers and serious journalists.
Ironically for someone who worked so hard to bring light to the untold stories of the war, Dorrian herself has been completely lost in the historical record. She never had time to turn her wartime experiences into a memoir; as soon as the Treaty of Paris was signed she went to Russia to cover the Bolshevik Revolution, and never stopped working until her death from pneumonia in 1926. With her died any record of her achievements as a reporter. Even the Newark Evening News, now defunct, has no mention of Dorrian in its records. The only way that she is remembered is through her articles, which only exist in clippings in the Hoover Institute, on dusty rolls of microfilm in the Newark Public Library, and, in part, on my hard drive. Like so many of her fellow women war correspondents, her work has simply been forgotten.
Cecil Dorrian did not see herself as a “female reporter.” She was a war correspondent, and she had a job to do. She dedicated her life to sharing the untold stories because she thought they were important. I believe that the stories of Dorrian and her fellow women war correspondents are equally important, and need to be told. If we ignore these women, we lose their contributions to journalism and the fight to make women’s voices heard. We miss this amazing moment in time when women reporters stood up in the middle of an incredibly volatile time to say, “Listen to me, I have a voice.” If we allow them to be marginalized in history, we are essentially condemning them as insignificant characters in the story of journalism and the evolution of American identity. With a better record of their achievements, our understanding of journalism as a male-dominated field might be different today. Women writers might have earlier and better opportunities for exposure and publication. So if I were to go back in time to 1913, I would establish a way to collect every article, every story, every interview that I could with these incredible women so that their fearless contributions to the war would be remembered and felt today.
[i] Dorrian, Cecil. “France’s Army of Munitions Makers Seen in their Actual Handling of Deadly Melinite in City of Shells.” Newark Evening News 22 December 1917: 1, 3. Microfilm.
[ii] “Miss Cecil I. Dorrian, staff correspondent of the Evening News in France.” Newark Evening News 12 June 1918: 1. Microfilm.
[iii] Dorrian, Cecil. “Inspired by Sight of War.” Newark Evening News 27 December 1917: 1. Microfilm.
[iv] ___________. “Verdun Firing Line’s Grim Panorama Pictures as Lit by Glow of Courage.” Newark Evening News 3 January 1918: 1, 11. Microfilm.