The Women Who Changed the Way We Look at War

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Elizabeth Becker, author of You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War. Her work profiles the impact of three women journalists and their work during the Vietnam War.

Elizabeth Becker was in Vietnam as a reporter during the war. She remembers a moment at a press conference for the new ambassador in Phnom Penh: “The ambassador asked that one of the reporters repeat his question because he was too busy looking at my legs,” she recalls. “I was the only woman, of course. And this was normal, that you had to just be very quiet.”

In her new book, You Don’t Belong Here, Becker revisited her experiences in Vietnam as well as those of three women war journalists: French photographer Catherine Leroy, Australian reporter Kate Webb, and American writer Frances FitzGerald. The book itself is titled after what the women were told when they asked to cover the Vietnam War. “The Americans had a ban on women covering battle that held over from before World War Two,” Becker explains. “But the Americans had refused to declare war, so there was a little leeway. And these women managed to take advantage of it.”

Buying one-way tickets to Vietnam, the women began a years-long journey to document the tragic realities of war; they showed that war was more than just the battlefield. “If you go back and you read World War Two, the Korea War, and then you get to Vietnam,” says Becker, “they brought the humanity to [war], the Vietnamese civilians, the people, the voice. As outsiders, they saw bigger and they went deeper.”

At the time, however, the women were belittled for their work. Becker discovered via Freedom of Information Act request that Leroy had once had her press credentials taken away because of reports from her male colleagues, complaining about her behavior. “They told the American military in Saigon that she was not behaving well, that she swore too much. That she was making other reporters and photographers look bad,” Becker explains. “She received a letter saying, ‘Your press credentials are being taken away from you because of your action.’ I’ve never heard of that before.” Eventually, Leroy was able to get her credentials reinstated. “It was really important, Catherine and Kate felt this particularly, to be one of the guys,” says Becker. “If you brought up the fact that you were a woman and that you were doing something differently, trouble followed. So you just kept it away. It was necessary, but it was very lonely.”

Becker hopes readers will come away knowing the contributions of these women in the war. “Nobody knew that we were there. No one knew that women covered Vietnam.”

“You know, we’re old. Frances is 80, and I’m 73. And when you were a witness as I was, I didn’t want this story to go unknown.”

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