Marguerite Higgins and “no place for a woman”

May 26, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When Communist forces crossed the border into South Korea in 1950, Marguerite Higgins got on a plane in Tokyo, where she was head of the New York Herald Tribune bureau, along with three other reporters, all of them male. One of them told her not to go.

At the last moment, G– tried to dissuade me from going along, insisting that Korea was no place for a woman. But, for me, getting to Korea was more than just a story. It was a personal crusade. I felt that my position as a correspondent was at stake. Here I represented one of the world’s most noted newspapers as its correspondent in that area. I could not let the fact that I was a woman jeopardize my newspaper’s coverage of the war. Failure to get to the front would undermine all my arguments that I was entitled to the same assignment breaks as any man. It would provide that a woman as a correspondent was a handicap to the New York Herald Tribune. (Marguerite Higgins, War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent)

Higgins got on the plane and survived a series of adventures that netted eventually a Pulitzer Prize for her team of Herald Tribune reporters and a best-selling book, War in Korea.

Higgins was no ingenue reporter when she boarded the plane in Tokyo. Born in Hong Kong in 1920, she grew up in California and graduated from Berkeley in 1941 where she had been on the staff of the Daily Californian. She then moved to New York to attend Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She landed a spot in the newsroom of the New York Herald Tribune, and after working there for two years, she persuaded the editors to send her to Europe to cover the war.

There she witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and the surrender of Germany. Afterward, she remained in Europe to cover the Nuremberg war trials and the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948.

In 1950 she was sent to Tokyo by the Herald Tribune, just in time to cover the increasing tensions between East and West that finally exploded in the Korean War. Time and again, she had been told that a war zone was “no place for a woman,” and Korea was no different. General Walton Walker ordered her to leave the country, but she appealed to General Douglas MacArthur, whom she had known in Tokyo. MacArthur rescinded Walker’s order, and she was allowed to stay. 

After Korea, Higgins continued to cover foreign affairs and in 1955 established the Herald Tribune’s bureau in Moscow. In 1963 she joined the staff of Newsday and was sent to Vietnam. She went out into the villages and talked with hundreds of people, eventually producing a book titled Our Vietnam Nightmare.

Sadly, Higgins did not survive Vietnam. While there, she contracted leishmaniasis, a disease that led to her death in January 1965. She was 45 years old.

Higgins’ book on Korea is available online at the Internet Archive. It is a well-written, easily readable account of Higgins many experiences during that difficult and frustrating war.

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