Entering the Fray
The Women Journalists Who Fought to Cover Vietnam| From Books | By Natalie Jacobson McCracken
Joyce Hoffman (COM'73). Photo by Anna Murphey/New Jersey Herald
Back in the 1960s, when fortunate women reporters covered local cultural events and the rest wrote about cooking, child rearing, and fashion for what were called women’s sections, the first of some seventy American women journalists were officially sanctioned to cover the war in Vietnam. That in itself was an achievement.
Most newspapers and wire services were, at best, reluctant to send women to the front. Freelancers, required to prove that two news organizations would buy their work, presented documentation from such outlets as Iron Age and Goddard College News. Permission from the military was even harder to come by; a not-untypical officer refused to allow one young woman access to battle because she reminded him of his daughter. Still, inspired by the words of grandmothers, mothers, or teachers, the changing role of women, political interests, or simply their independent spirit, women reporters went to war.
Until now, published accounts of that war, almost entirely by men, have largely ignored these women or spoken briefly of, for instance, “girl reporters” observing battle from a downtown Saigon rooftop bar. “I wanted to give these women their rightful place,” says Joyce Hoffman (COM’73), author of On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam (Da Capo Press, 2008).
Writing the book, in effect a collection of vivid biographies, took eleven years and more than 100 interviews. Hoffman traveled twice to Vietnam and conducted interviews in Japan, Paris, Prague, and Munich. When one reporter would neither talk to her nor allow her family to, Hoffman “spent a whole week in the wasteland of Nebraska,” to get a sense of growing up on a Nebraska farm in the forties and fifties.
The fifteen women she focuses on ranged from ardent “anti-Communist, bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age” hawks to traditional midcentury reporters who accepted official U.S. pronouncements and revealed nothing of their own opinions to ardent doves, increasingly distraught over American policy. Some became tough-minded, foul-mouthed, and battle-soiled; some wore short skirts and plenty of makeup. None, in that consciousness-raising age, called herself a feminist. “They were too busy doing other things,” says Hoffman.
One was killed on Marine maneuvers; the others came back and continued at least for a while as reporters or photojournalists. All were affected by their Vietnam experiences, Hoffman says. “Like the men, some of them never got over it. Gloria Emerson is probably the best example of that; life was never the same for her after her tour as a New York Times correspondent.”
Now a member of the Old Dominion University faculty and public editor of the Virginian-Pilot, Hoffman hopes to interest a documentary filmmaker in a project about Emerson, who won a National Book Award for her 1977 book about the Vietnam War, Winners and Losers.
Times change, nudged by such women as these Vietnam correspondents. Many female reporters are now in Iraq, Hoffman says. “I’m going to send them each a book. I want them to know they’re standing on the shoulders of these women.”