The pioneering women who took on Hitler … and Fleet Street

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An inky night in civil war Málaga, 19 February 1937. General Franco’s nationalist troops had taken the town days earlier. Political prisoners filled the jails; posters of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler, the “strong men” of fascist Europe, plastered the walls, and hit squads were executing republican sympathisers.

Into this maelstrom tripped a 23-year-old Englishwoman wearing a floral print dress. Her mission: to connect with the American consul and find the famous writer Arthur Koestler, who had been taken by Franco’s men. She was also secretly recording Italian troop movements to show how Italy had breached international neutrality agreements.

Discovery would mean certain imprisonment or worse.

What prompted this young woman to face dangers in the dark streets of Málaga? And why, finding the imposing entrance of the American consulate locked for the night, did she climb over the garden wall and present herself to the surprised consul who, remembering his manners, invited her to dinner?

Shiela Grant Duff’s father had been killed in the first world war, and she was convinced that as a foreign correspondent reporting the rise of fascism across Europe, she could persuade the world that Hitler must be stopped. But she was denied the newspaper support structures afforded men. When she approached the Times for a job, the editor Geoffrey Dawson told her foreign correspondence was no job for a woman. Spurned and freelance, Grant Duff took off alone. Her journey into Spain, via north Africa and across the Mediterranean into Gibraltar, was inspired by her desire to prove she was every bit as brave and capable as a man.

She had already seen at first-hand how untrammelled nationalism could turn ordinary, God-fearing people into supporters of brutality. In January 1935, on a freelance commission for the Observer, she had travelled to Saarbrucken, then a League of Nations protectorate, to cover the Saar plebiscite. The Saar region, 730 square miles of coal-rich hills abutting Luxembourg, had been confiscated from Germany at the Versailles peace negotiations. The plebiscite over the Saar’s return to German control in January 1935 was marked by extreme German brutality, forcing Jews, communists and anti-fascists to flee to France.

Nazi flags Saarbrucken 1935

Shiela Grant Duff covered the Saar plebiscite for the Observer in Saarbrucken, 1935. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

The coverage in the British press was characterised by relief that the whole thing was over, that Hitler, having got back the Saar, would pipe down. Grant Duff, independent of the diplomatic press corps, stayed on in Saarbrucken and watched. She wrote in the Observer: “The million swastikas which hang on the walls in the Saar give the impression that a plague of spiders has descended …The Nazis can tell their enemies by their eyes. Panic can be seen in all the gestures and bearing of working class women who tell how they have been threatened, how they have been mocked and spat upon … Others … tell how their doors have been broken open in the middle of the night.”

Grant Duff used her press credentials to help ssmuggle typewriters, activist literature and arms across the border into France.

She paid heavily for her engagement in a world that excluded most women, suffering from sickness and anxiety, rejected by the diplomatic press corps and the subject of vile rumours that she slept with Nazis for stories. Grant Duff was an outsider, but she was not alone: many pioneer women were striving to get a toehold in the masculine world of journalism during the 1920s and 30s, often using ingenious, dangerous or devious methods to participate. In my book, published this week, I uncover the hitherto overlooked work of many interwar women journalists asserting their voices in a world narrated by men.

The Jamaican poet Una Marson, facing the twin obstacles of sexism and racism, became editor of The Keys, a newspaper promoting understanding between people of all colours. She campaigned against the “colour bar” that had prevented her from finding work when she arrived in England in 1932, and for women’s groups to recognise that the struggle against patriarchy must include the struggle against colonialism.

Alison Settle, on assignment for the Observer, France 1944.

Alison Settle, on assignment for the Observer, France 1944. Photograph: University of Brighton Design Archives/Tricolor

Marson paid heavily for transgressing into a world that resisted her when she was forced out of her producer job at the BBC by powerful white men. Similarly, Margaret Lane, the Daily Mail’s “star” reporter, had to deny scandalous rumours about her sex life – from atop a desk in the paper’s newsroom – and Stella Martin was demoted to becoming her paper’s “zoo correspondent” after criticising the women’s page as a vehicle for consumerism and advertising.

The humanitarian Francesca Wilson, who travelled interwar Europe helping victims of war and famine from Russia to Spain wrote of their plight in the Quaker publication The Friend, and the Manchester Guardian. Revolutionising the way humanitarian agencies viewed recipients of aid, she refused to see them as passive victims but as humans full of latent potential that only needed enabling. In the hills above Málaga, at about the same time as Grant Duff was climbing into the American consul’s garden, Wilson was creating a farm for 50 Spanish boys, refugees from Franco. There they grew tomatoes, corn and peppers and showed how having ownership of the land turned them from helpless victims to healthy farmers.

Then there are the lifelong friends Edith Shackleton and Alison Settle who, as women’s page editors on two rival tabloids, wrote each other’s fashion and celebrity copy, swapping articles and bylines so that both might survive in that cutthroat world. Settle became editor of Vogue and then the celebrated Observer women’s editor. Having “made it”, she still faced prejudice. In 1944, sent to Holland to cover the German retreat, she arrived at a Brussels aerodrome to find that the army escort, supplied to all accredited correspondents, had been refused to her by General Montgomery, who hated women journalists. Undeterred, she hitchhiked to the frontline from where she wrote stirring stories of the Dutch fleeing the advancing armies, their goats, cows and brooms tied together with sheets. Unable to reach the men in charge, she wrote instead of the “odds and ends” of war, the civilians whose lives had been destroyed.

Her story, and others, show how equality must be fought for, and how even small gains must be fiercely guarded to be maintained.

Rebel Women Between the Wars by Sarah Lonsdale is published by Manchester University Press

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