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‘Gal Reporters’: The French Photographer author Natasha Lester on the difficulties faced by female war correspondents

April 3, 2019

About the author:

Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts as well as her first novel, What Is Left Over, After, which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Fiction. Her second novel, If I Should Lose You, was published in 2012, followed by A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in 2016, Her Mother’s Secret in 2017 and the Top 10 Australian bestseller The Paris Seamstress in 2018. The Age described Natasha as ‘a remarkable Australian talent’ and her work has been published in numerous anthologies and journals.

In her spare time Natasha loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can often be found playing dress-ups with her three children. She lives in Perth. For all the latest news from Natasha, visit www.natashalester.com.au, follow her on Twitter @Natasha_Lester, or Instagram (natashalesterauthor), or join the readers who have become Natasha’s friend on Facebook.

Buy a copy of The French Photographer here  // Read our review of The French Photographer here

Words // Natasha Lester

If you’ve read any of my previous books, you’ll know I love to write about women tackling a particular job or career that was especially difficult for women at that time in history, simply because of their gender.

The French Photographer is no different. In fact I think that, during the research for this book, I uncovered stories of the most outrageous sexism I’ve ever had the horror of reading.

In The French Photographer, inspired by the remarkable Lee Miller – Vogue model turned war photojournalist – Jessica May, my main character, has to fight to be allowed to do her job as a photojournalist during WWII. Most of the incidents she faces in the book are based on fact, although at times that might seem hard to believe. Here’s just a taster of some of the difficulties faced by female correspondents during the war, all of which found their way into the story in The French Photographer:

– Female correspondents were not allowed to go over to Normandy with the D-Day invasion fleet to report on the invasion; the male correspondents, of course, were.

– Martha Gellhorn, one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives, but also a brilliant reporter in her own right, and who appears as a character in The French Photographer, flouted the above regulation and stowed away in the bathroom of a hospital ship to be the first woman to report from France post-invasion in June 1944. She even beat her husband to the story!

– The female correspondents tried anything and everything they could think of to be allowed to go with the invasion fleet, even requesting that they be permitted to attend parachute jump training so they could be parachuted in to Normandy. They were refused permission because of what the “sharp jolt of the exploding parachute canopy could do to the delicate female apparatus.” You can imagine how my main character, Jessica May, responded to that! (The quote is from Never a Shot in Anger by Colonel Barney Oldfield and was reported to have come from a major in the Surgeon-General’s office in 1944).

– The women were told to report on stories of “women’s interest” i.e. wartime fashion, how to make do on rations etc and were referred to as “gal reporters”.

– When the female correspondents actually did make it over to France, their stories were sent back to their editors after all the men’s stories had been filed. They had to wait at the back of the queue.

– To keep the women “safe”, they were not allowed to stay at Press Camps. Instead, they were told to stay at the hospitals with the nurses, which were far more dangerous as the hospitals were located much closer to the front. At the Press Camps, the male correspondents were given information about where the fighting front had moved to, what area would be under heavy fire that day and much more. The women were told to ask the injured men who came in to the hospital where the safe areas versus the hot spots were, or else to rely on luck. It is, of course, hard to see how that was supposed to keep them “safe”!


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