The weight of the words of a woman
How Martha Gellhorn challenged society's ideas of femininity and became the first recognized female war correspondent
By: Sophia Ingram
Brave. Passionate. Ambitious. These are the words that come to mind when I think about the kind of life I want to lead. Though I change my mind from time to time about what that looks like in action, the theme is constant. One of my inspirations, a woman who lived out these qualities perfectly, is Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was a novelist, journalist and one of the most prolific war correspondents in the 20th century, covering the following wars:
● Spanish Civil War
● World War II
● Vietnam War
● Six Day War
● Nicaraguan Revolution
● Salvadoran Civil War
In the 1930s, she traveled across the United States and reported on the Great Depression for the Roosevelt Administration. Her dispatches were insightful and historical regardless of where she was reporting. Gellhorn did not always write from her point of view, but from those she was writing about, bringing humanity to people who would otherwise be data points to the Western nations.
Answering the call
Gellhorn was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a doctor and suffragette. Though enrolled in Bryn Mawr, she dropped out after a year with the logic that she would despise any job a college education brought her. She knew from a young age that she needed to be a foreign correspondent, a career unheard of for a woman at the time. Her passion wasn’t just writing, but it was for people. Caroline Moorehead noted in her biography, “Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life” that Gellhorn despised “all that objectivity shit,” resulting in the fiery accounts she became known for. It bears noting that she often ignored the damage done by the Western armies in the name of republicanism.
A doer, not a dreamer
Martha Gellhorn was not a passive observer but an active participant in the stories that she told. In an interview with John Pilger, she recalls how she was fired from Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration for encouraging workers afflicted by the Great Depression to break the windows of government buildings. Gellhorn is perhaps most well known for her stunt on D-Day when she was writing for Collier’s during World War II. The United States military would not allow female journalists to travel with them, so she snuck aboard a hospital ship to get a first-hand account of the Normandy invasion. While collecting information for her reports, she helped the nurses gather wounded soldiers and bring them to the ship. This involvement would be frowned upon in modern-day journalism, but it demonstrates Gellhorn’s real reason for writing: her heart for people.
Gellhorn and Politics
“I think stupidity is the original sin,” Gellhorn said. “We’ve all got it. I’m beginning to think that those who’ve got it worse are those who lead us.” Martha Gellhorn was unapologetically critical of world leaders and systems of government. That said, she viewed interest in politics as synonymous with interest in standard of living, freedom, health, the future, and every other facet of life. She believed that each country was to care for the other. Gellhorn was on the ground during the Invasion of Panama, when she asked, “why have the leaders, the media, the citizens of the Great Western Democracies cared long and ardently for the people of Central Europe, but cared nothing for the people of Central America?” In her eyes, fighting injustices was not a soldier's job, but everyone's job. Martha Gellhorn speaks with soldiers of the British Army in Italy in 1944. Photograph from Keystone / Getty Images
Martha Gellhorn said that journalism is “simply the act of keeping the record straight.” Despite being surrounded by danger in what was a male-dominated field, Gellhorn continued to set the record straight for 60 years. She saw people hurting and knew there was a story needed to be told. She was brave. She was passionate. She was ambitious.
About the author: Sophia Ingram is an emerging public relations professional in Dallas, Texas. She is graduating from the University of North Texas with a B.A. in Journalism in December 2021.
This material was written for and provided by AGENZ PR, a student-led PR firm specializing in matters of diversity, inclusion, and the Gen Z perspective. AGENZ teams are comprised of PR students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism, all of whom are dedicated to providing clients with insightful and digitally innovative work products to enhance business practices. Students learn and excel by getting hands-on, professional experience in the public relations industry.