The whole picture

Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs: 100 years of the best journalism by women

Edited by Eleanor Mills and K

''It's another first for the girlies." In the early 1970s, the news editor at the local radio station where I worked as a producer could frequently be heard trumpeting this phrase as he leafed through copy announcing the fall of another male bastion. News of the appointment of the first lady chief superintendent or the first female town clerk would be met with a withering blast of scorn intended to provoke a volley of burned bras into his all-male newsroom. He had to send a reporter to interview these odd creatures, but drew the line at employing a woman to do so. For several months, he shuffled all the "femi- nist story stuff" in my direction - until it was pointed out that, in a fit of progressiveness, I had abolished the station's Woman's Programme.

Growing up, it had never crossed my mind that women had much to do with journalism, though as a teenager I had read the name Anne Scott-James in my parents' newspaper. Scott-James seemed to have exchanged the knitting and cooking and childcare ghetto for the front pages and a lot of excitement in Cyprus. The long and illustrious tradition of female newspaper and magazine writers tackling major issues continued to elude me even after I started working in radio. Some years later, when I finally backed into another newsroom somewhat surprised to find myself a TV reporter, there was still no mention of distinguished role models.

Journalism is rather indifferent to the history of its own women's success. There is still confusion over whether to celebrate material which is preoccupied with the perennial - and still hot - themes of career-juggling and the female image, or to treat general news stories as "different" because they have been written by a woman. Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs (whoever cooked up the title needs to have five minutes on the receiving end of both) continues this confusion, though in an admirably confident manner, trawling a century of writing and unearthing some polished diamonds of good journalism. At either end of the spectrum, Martha Gellhorn in Dachau in 1945 and Katharine Whitehorn on being a domestic slut in 1963 both brought an assured style and an experienced eye to bear on different worlds.

Perhaps it's sexist to claim that women have a particular ability to see the small details in the grand scenario, but it comes through time and again in this collec- tion: notably in Rebecca West's arresting descriptions of the Nazi hierarchy on trial at Nuremberg. Goering, she writes, "looked as one who would never lift a hand against a woman save in something much more peculiar than kindness . . . Sometimes even now his wide lips smacked together as if he were a well-fed man who had heard no news as yet that his meals were to stop."

Any anthology has to be read in bite-sized chunks, and there's no doubt that a steady diet of articles on being fat, discriminated against, or generally put-upon could induce serious gender indigestion. But what lifts this collection is the realisation that wise and observant lady press owls have chronicled the human condition with expertise ever since Victorian editors eventually allowed them to get into print without wittering about them having fits of the vapours. Several of these doughty birds made little fuss even about heading for front lines and reporting on war and conflict - behaviour that still attracts murmurs of curiosity.

And therein lies the double challenge to women's journalism. The immense changes to women's lives in the past century have to be expressed and analysed by women themselves. Female journalists must also participate in the wide world beyond the home and family, however: no war, for example, is a men-only event. The picture is incomplete unless the whole picture is presented. And women - as this anthology shows - know that.

Katie Adie's latest book, Nobody's Child, is published by Hodder & Stoughton