Women less interested in ‘macho competitiveness of violence’ in conflict, says author
A new book has shed light on the little-known history of nearly 200 female journalists from 29 countries who covered the Spanish civil war.
While Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Koestler were among writers who made their names reporting on the war, Bernardo Díaz Nosty’s 900-page Periodistas extranjeras en la Guerra Civil (Foreign Female Journalists in the Civil War) uncovers the story of 183 women whose writing gave a new slant on the 1936-39 conflict, distinct from the masculine and bellicose tales of life on the frontline.
The American Martha Gellhorn is one of the few female journalists whose work covering the war is widely known.
Women were less interested in “the macho competitiveness of violence”, says Nosty, a journalism professor at the University of Málaga.
The Spanish civil war was the first to witness the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians as a weapon and the impact of the war on the daily life of civilians, rather than soldiers, was what women tended to focus on.
“Death wasn’t just on the frontline,” Nosty says, “but also in the rearguard, striking the defenceless whose protection and survival depended primarily on women.
“There’s a silent heroism in the suffering of the elderly, women and children, which doesn’t appear in reporting from the front. Even when women went to the front, they reported from a more humane point of view on how the young men were suffering, rather than on the battles.”
According to Nosty, the French journalist Hélène Gosset, who wrote for L’Oeuvre, said women were pacifists by nature and that the children who were dying every day in bombardments were being “sacrificed to the madness of men”.
While the women came from all over the world, from as far afield as Canada and Peru, the most numerous were from Britain (40) and the US (35), followed by France (24) and Germany (13). There were seven each from Argentina, Austria, Italy and Russia.
“Many of the women were Jews, many were Communist party members, among them German and Italian exiles who had been living in Paris and London and who joined the war in defence of democracy and against racism,” he says.
Such was the case of Gerda Taro, a wealthy Polish Jew forced to flee Nazi Germany and who went to Spain as a photographer along with her partner, Endre Ernö Friedmann, where they published pictures under the portmanteau name Robert Capa.
Taro was killed in an accident in 1937 when she was run over by a republican tank during the Battle of Brunete.
Another was Ilse Wolff, an Austrian Jew who, after covering the war, went to London where she made anti-Nazi broadcasts for the BBC.
“A very high proportion of the women who came had a university education and came from the higher social classes, restless women who wanted to break with convention,” Nosty says.
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Among the many English reporters was Josie Shercliff, who wrote for the Daily Herald under the name of José Shercliff. She went on to be the Times’ correspondent in Lisbon, where she possibly also worked as a spy.
Kate Mangan, an artist and actor, went to join the International Brigades but ended up in the republican press office in Valencia. Never More Alive, her memoir of her time in Spain, was finally published in 2020 with a foreword by the civil war historian Paul Preston.
In the 1930s, women enjoyed a moment of greater freedom, Nosty says, and they saw clearly what they had to lose were fascism to prevail. “They were the ones who warned that if fascism wasn’t defeated in Spain, it could provoke a European war,” he says.
Not surprisingly, more than 90% of female journalists operated in republican zones, which were both more accessible to the media but also had more modern views on the role of women. Most also wrote for leftwing or centre-left publications.
However, some took the Francoist line that the war was being run from Moscow. Gertrude Gaffney, for example, who wrote for the Irish Independent, saw Franco as the antidote to communism’s godless mission.
The Reuters correspondent Dora Leonard went on to become Franco’s personal English teacher as well as broadcasting in English for Spain’s state radio until she retired.
Periodistas extranjeras en la Guerra Civil will be published in October by Renacimiento.
This article was amended on 23 August 2022. Gerda Taro was killed in 1937, not near the end of the war as an earlier version said.

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