Dr Marama Whyte reviews Elizabeth Becker’s new book about three women who reported on the Vietnam War, You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War (Carlton: Black Inc., 2021). 

 

There are countless places in Australian society where women have been told—explicitly or implicitly—that they don’t belong. The news media has long been one such space. So enshrined are these masculinist norms that much of the recent reporting on sexual abuse, assault, and harassment within Australia’s Parliament House has turned to the role of women journalists in bringing these allegations to light.[1] In the Sydney Morning Herald, journalism scholar Margaret Simons argued the coverage was ‘because for the first time in Australian history, the Canberra press gallery is dominated by talented, hard-nosed and courageous women journalists.’[2] SBS characterised the recent political ‘pressure’ as ‘largely com[ing] from female journalists, who’ve led coverage on sexual assault.’[3] In a less generous report, the Australian Financial Review described Prime Minister Scott Morrison as ‘caught in crusade of women journos.’[4]

If this new wave of women journalists is the reason for the sustained attention on misogyny and sexism in Australian politics, it invites the question: how else might the news change, if more women journalists are simply included?

In her recent book, You Don’t Belong Here, journalist Elizabeth Becker endeavours to show how three women changed war reporting and demonstrated that they did, in fact, belong, through her joint biography of Catherine Leroy, Frances ‘Frankie’ FitzGerald, and, Kate Webb, who each covered the Vietnam War.[5]

Leroy was an award-winning French freelance photographer who immortalised the war with photographs in Life, Look, and Paris Match, and later co-directed Operation Last Patrol (1972), the documentary which introduced the world to activist Ron Kovic long before Tom Cruise portrayed him in Born on the Fourth of July (1989).[6] An American journalist, FitzGerald wrote freelance for the Village Voice, Vogue, and the New York Times Magazine, and authored Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Bancroft Prize for history.[7] Webb was a New Zealand-born Australian reporter, who became United Press International (UPI) bureau chief in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, during a period when the casualty rate for journalists rose ‘astronomically’.[8]

Photographer Catherine Leroy about to jump with the 173rd Airborne during operation “Junction City”, Vietnam, 1967

Using personal and military records, extensive interviews, and the vast journalistic archives each woman generated, Becker recounts their experiences in a page-turning narrative that is well-suited to her popular history approach. If the streets of Saigon seem to jump off the page, it is because Becker also draws on her own experience covering the same war. In fact, it was Webb who welcomed Becker to Cambodia when she arrived in 1973 to begin life as a war correspondent.[9]

If news media is a male bastion, then the role of war correspondent seems like its most well-guarded fortress. But as Becker successfully demonstrates, in addition to the dirt and danger, these women also found a degree of freedom and opportunity in war-torn Vietnam, away from the oversight of editors and restrictive gendered expectations. They often circumvented sexist expectations by simply turning up and demonstrating that they could do the job, at first as hustling freelancers, and later as in-demand reporters for major media outlets. By way of comparison, at the same time that Leroy, FitzGerald, and Webb were traversing an active warzone, women journalists working in the US at the publications they were reporting for were suing in federal court for access to the same pay and opportunities as their male colleagues.[10]

But even halfway around the world, women could not fully escape gendered limitations and hostilities. Becker describes the undignified but necessary act of barricading her door at night – ‘in case a colleague decided I was lonely.’[11] After an illustrious career, Webb was pushed out of her job in 1976, when she repeatedly refused to have an affair with her new boss.[12]  Explicit discrimination, as well as harassment, was rife. At one point, the US military considered revoking accreditation from all female journalists on the basis of their sex.[13]  Leroy’s male colleagues mounted a sustained campaign which almost stripped her of her press pass, citing her lack of feminine respectability.[14] FitzGerald was once forced to wait for hours while the commander of a US battalion phoned the New York Times office on his military phone, so disbelieving was he that the paper had hired a woman as a freelancer.[15] Webb was first rejected from UPI by an editor who loudly and publicly demanded, ‘What the hell would I want a girl for?’[16]

There has unfortunately been little improvement in this area. In addition to countless stories of Me Too discrimination and harassment in the news and mass media, in 2013 the International Women’s Media Foundation reported that 64% of women journalists surveyed around the world had experienced ‘intimidation, threats, or abuse’ while at work, the majority of which came from their bosses, superiors, or co-workers.[17]

Frances Fitzgerald Credit: Pike County Courier

In wartime there was genuine risk, too, regardless of sex. FitzGerald’s body broke down from the emotional and physical stress, resulting in emergency gynaecological surgery.[18] Leroy was severely wounded when a nearby mortar explosion sent thirty-five pieces of shrapnel into her body, and later exhibited symptoms of PTSD.[19] Webb was held hostage by North Vietnamese soldiers for 23 days, and was presumed dead by the world media (the New York Times erroneously published her obituary on day 13).[20] After her ordeal, she suffered from cerebral malaria and PTSD, and became a self-described ‘paralytic drunk’.[21]

Impressive and harrowing as these stories are, there are limitations to Becker’s approach. Despite brief mentions of other female reporters, Becker’s desire to hold up these women as ‘pioneers’ can give the impression that no women came before them.[22] Important scholarly work by Jeannine Baker and Carolyn Edy, amongst others, instead demonstrates that Leroy, FitzGerald, and Webb operated in a long tradition of women war correspondents, although the definition of exactly what that entailed changed over time, in large part because of loosened military restrictions which previously prohibited women from reporting from active combat zones.[23]

The relative privilege of her historical actors is also for the most part de-emphasised. In articles promoting the book, Becker has argued that these women ‘paid their own way to war, arrived with no jobs … and no safety net.’[24] Yet FitzGerald was the high society daughter of Marietta Peabody FitzGerald Tree, who served as US Representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights under JFK, and Desmond FitzGerald, the CIA Deputy Director of Plans who oversaw the assignment of personnel to South Vietnam during the war.[25] Webb’s grandfather was the Archbishop and Primate of New Zealand, and her father was a journalist and professor of political science at Australian National University.[26] Becker recounts these biographical details, but does not dwell on how these professional networks and class privileges conferred particular benefits, to which women like Leroy had no access. The fact that all three women were white, with all the privilege that bestowed, goes similarly uninterrogated.

Kate Webb

Becker’s argument that each woman substantially changed how the war was reported is difficult to substantiate without undertaking a comprehensive analysis of all war reporting during this period. More persuasive is the argument implicit in every horror and hostility these women survived; they were as capable of doing this job as their male peers, of finding interesting and important topics to write about, and of experiencing the peril that accompanied their choices. By simply doing the job of war correspondent, they demonstrated that women were not uniquely vulnerable or ill-equipped. And because, as David T. Z. Mindich has noted, journalism’s supposed ‘objectivity’ ‘often reflects a world dominated by white men,’ the very fact of them being women (and therefore outside this norm) meant they diversified the press corps and the news it produced in important and necessary ways, regardless of any specific ‘woman’s angle’ or feminism in their reporting.[27]

Critics of this brand of liberal feminism might push back on the idea that ‘adding women and stirring’ is enough to shift patriarchal frameworks and masculinist paradigms. But when men—predominantly white, middle-class, heterosexual men—comprise the majority of the news media, it implies that these perspectives are the default. This is as true today as it was during the Vietnam War. Merely adding more women journalists will not solve society’s problems—especially when those women replicate the same race and class privileges as their male peers. But unless we achieve a complete societal overhaul, this is still a necessary and important step in tackling structural inequalities.

Following the Me Too-inspired reassessment of media cultures generally, and the experiences of women within these cultures specifically, Becker’s project is a timely one. It is also an important historical contribution. That Leroy, FitzGerald, Webb, and even Becker herself, were largely unknown outside niche historical circles was a glaring omission which is now rectified. Future scholars will grapple more comprehensively with their legacies and limitations, but when they do, they will be building on Becker’s foundational work.


Endnotes

[1] Madeline Hislop, ‘The vital role female journalists have played in shaping the public’s response to sexual harassment and assault,’ Women’s Agenda, April 6, 2021, https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/the-vital-role-female-journalists-have-played-in-shaping-the-publics-response-to-sexual-harassment-and-assault/

[2] Margaret Simons, ‘Shift in gender balance means abuse claims are being taken seriously,’ Sydney Morning Herald, March 6, 2021, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/shift-in-gender-balance-means-abuse-claims-are-being-taken-seriously-20210305-p5786r.html

[3] Eden Gillespie, ‘Female Journalists Painted As “Subjective” And “Emotional”, Experts Say,’ SBS, April 8, 2021, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-feed/female-journalists-painted-as-subjective-and-emotional-experts-say

[4] Aaron Patrick, ‘PM caught in crusade of women journos,’ Australian Financial Review, March 31, 2021, https://www.afr.com/companies/media-and-marketing/pm-caught-in-crusade-of-women-journos-20210326-p57eee

[5] Elizabeth Becker, You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War (Carlton: Black Inc., 2021), 237.

[6] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 123, 210-211.

[7] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 75, 204.

[8] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 177, 180.

[9] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, xi.

[10] Marama Whyte, ‘“The Worst Divorce Case that Ever Happened”: The New York Times Women’s Caucus and Workplace Feminism,’ Modern American History 3, no. 2-3 (2020): 153-174.

[11] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, xiv

[12] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 153.

[13] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 32-33.

[14] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 26-28.

[15] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 81.

[16] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 135.

[17] Amanda Hess, ‘Most Female Journalists Have Been Threatened, Assaulted, or Harassed at Work. Here’s Why We Don’t Talk About It,’ Slate, December 3, 2013, https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/12/sexual-harassment- in-journalism-a-new-study-shows-that-the-majority-of-female-journalists-have-been-abused-theatened- assaulted-or-harassed.html

[18] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 75-76.

[19] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 95, 129.

[20] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 194, 199.

[21] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 201, 219.

[22] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, xvi.

[23] See: Jeannine Baker, Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam (Sydney: NewSouth, 2015); Carolyn M. Edy, The Woman War Correspondent, the U.S. Military, and the Press: 1846-1947 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017).

[24] Becker, ‘I Don’t Want My Role Models Erased,’ New York Times, March 20, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/20/opinion/women-journalists-vietnam.html

[25] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 44, 47.

[26] Becker, You Don’t Belong Here, 138-139.

[27] David T. Z. Mindich, Just the Facts: How Objectivity Came to Define American Journalism (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 4.

Array
Marama Whyte
Marama Whyte

Dr. Marama Whyte is a Research Assistant on an ARC Discovery Project in the Department of History at the University of Sydney and a Research Associate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is currently teaching history and gender studies, and working on her first book, which examines grassroots feminist activism by women journalists employed in the U.S. news media during the 1970s. Find her on Twitter: @maramawhyte