We wouldn’t have Joy Reid, Christiane Amanpour, or Mika Brzeninski without the pioneering women journalists who came before them.
Today, June 15 – on what would have been her 116th birthday – we honor Ruth Baldwin Cowan, the first woman accredited to work as a war correspondent for the United States Army during WWII.
Long before Cowan went to cover WWII, she fought for her right to be more than someone’s wife and mother.
She arranged to go to public school at the age of 16 while also working at a department store and attending a Catholic all-girls boarding school. Cowan was eventually was accepted to the University of Texas in Austin. She taught for a few years after college and also ghost-wrote movie reviews for the San Antonio Evening News in 1923, which was her introduction to journalism.
During her first years as a reporter, Cowan submitted her stories by telegraph and used her middle name, Baldwin, or R. Baldwin, to hide the fact that she was female from editors and publishers. Cowan decided to cover anything she found interesting that wasn’t being reported upon, and wrote freelance articles for a few different Texas papers. When one her editors discovered Cowan’s identity at the 1928 Houston Democratic Convention, he immediately fired her simply for being a woman.
Editors and publishers who knew her identity wanted to relegate Cowan to the Women’s Pages. She dove into her assignments, but never gave up trying to work on bigger stories. Cowan worked as a reporter in Austin, Chicago, and then Washington, D.C. using the bylines Baldwin, R. Baldwin Cowan, or Ruth Cowan, depending on the type of story it was.
When American declared war on Japan, Cowan asked to be assigned as a war reporter. She was ignored until the founding of the Women’s Army Corps, the women’s branch of the U.S. Army, after which she was sent overseas to provide direct support for troops.
Her work reporting on nurses, the Women’s Army Corps, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve helped put a human face on the nature of WWII. But while Cowan was an officially recognized Associated Press war correspondent, she was not given the same level of consideration and support as her male colleagues. She had to learn to telegraph her own stories back home. Formal complaints got her nowhere, but she persisted.
Later, Cowan was able to interview military and political figures and expand her stories beyond the Women’s Pages. The AP’s Washington Bureau hired when she returned to the U.S. in 1945. She covered political matters and joined with other female reporters in the Women’s National Press Club, of which she had been a member before she left to cover WWII.
Cowan became president of the Women’s National Press Club from 1947-1948. Even though she was forced to retire from the AP in 1956 at the age of 55 (men could continue working for the AP until age 65), she did not merely relax with her new husband, Bradley Nash. Soon Cowan was consulting for the Republican National Committee, then working for Bertha Adkins in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare until 1961.
Ruth Cowan passed away in 1993, but her determination to rise above sexism lives on in the floods of new female journalists emerging every day. As Cowan once explained: “You push them back and go do your job, and you'll get on the front page.”