THE WOMEN WHO WROTE THE WAR

By Nancy Caldwell Sorel

Arcade. 458 pp. $27.95

Four days after the Allied landing in Normandy, World War II correspondents Iris Carpenter and Cornelius Ryan flew across the English Channel in the same plane. Because of her sex, Carpenter, of the Boston Globe, was restricted by military authorities to a beachhead airstrip. Ryan went on into Normandy, where he gathered impressions that would form the core of "The Longest Day," his best-selling recounting of the events of June 6, 1944.

Denial of access to combat zones was only one of the obstacles confronting the small band of women--fewer than 100--who defied social, military and journalistic conventions to cover the biggest story of their generation. In "The Women Who Wrote the War," Nancy Caldwell Sorel vividly restores a missing chapter not only in the history of American journalism but in the larger, uneven struggle for women's rights in the 20th century.

Of the diverse cast of characters, only a few names are likely to be recognized today--the celebrated Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White; the New York Herald Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent Marguerite Higgins; and Martha Gellhorn, whom I recalled (to my shame) only as one of Ernest Hemingway's wives rather than as a brilliant reporter and essayist.

For men like Edward R. Murrow, the war was the making of their careers. For women like Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News, the war was the apex. Murrow esteemed Kirkpatrick so highly that he tried to hire her for his CBS bureau in London, but his New York bosses vetoed her because of her sex.

As Sorel makes clear, all of the women--even celebrities like Bourke-White--were subject to restrictions that did not apply to men. Many were hired as "stringers" rather than as full-fledged staff correspondents, with the understanding that they would cover only the "women's side" of the war--meaning nurses and the wounded. Women were not even allowed to attend military press briefings in most areas until the last months of the war. Male reporters were eventually allowed to go along on B-17 bombing raids, but Bourke-White--who had photographed the new bomber for Life--was never granted permission to fly along.

Near the end of the war, military strictures against female correspondents loosened. Moreover, the "women's side" was as compelling (sometimes more so) to readers at home as tales of battle. By the time the 7th Army was moving toward the Elbe--and the concentration camps on German soil--female correspondents had achieved near-parity with men.

Sorel quotes generously from the women's dispatches, which demonstrate how well most of them did their jobs in spite of discrimination. In a small journalistic masterpiece that appeared in Collier's magazine, Gellhorn interviewed the only survivor among hundreds of Dachau prisoners who had been locked in boxcars by fleeing Nazi guards and left to die of starvation and suffocation. "Now he stood on the bones that were his legs and talked," Gellhorn reported, "and then suddenly he wept. 'Everyone is dead,' he said."

It is to Sorel's credit that she did not succumb to hagiographical temptation. Higgins, who at 24 was one of the youngest correspondents, comes across as a hustler as concerned with her place in the story as with the story itself. The fact that she was "first through the gate" upon the liberation of Dachau was a prominent feature of her front-page account in the Herald Tribune. That aptitude for self-promotion (in addition to her inarguable reportorial talent) may explain why Higgins was the only one of the women who went on to a major postwar career.

Appointed Berlin bureau chief (the Herald Tribune was far ahead of every other newspaper in opening opportunities to women), she later won her Pulitzer for coverage of the Korean War. Interestingly, she became an early opponent of U.S. policy in Vietnam, resigned from the Tribune in a dispute over the issue and became a columnist for Newsday. In 1965 Higgins contracted a rare tropical disease on a reporting trip to Vietnam and died at 45.

Sorel's brief epilogue on the postwar fate of "the women who wrote the war" is a depressing microcosm of what awaited most ambitious women in that era. Despite having already proved themselves, they were generally relegated to third-rank assignments (or part-time stringer work). Some gave up journalism altogether.

At 91, Marjorie Avery, who covered the war for the Detroit Free Press, ordered her housekeeper to burn her scrapbooks of clippings and notes. No one, she told her companion, would care about that anymore. In this enterprising, meticulously researched work of historical reconstruction, Sorel proves that the aging war correspondent was wrong.

Susan Jacoby, whose four-generation history of her Jewish-Catholic family will be published next year.