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World-class women reporters

JULIA EDWARDS calls it her ``great dramatic moment'' - the day in 1952 when, as a foreign correspondent for the Overseas News Agency, she found herself in Korea, being pulled up a 7,000-foot mountain in a jerry-built basket, heading alone for the bunker closest to enemy territory. After reaching the top, Ms. Edwards slid down into the bunker. Then, thinking she was safe, she stood up, only to find that ``Pyong! the Chinese were shooting at me.''

``I sat back down on the floor,'' she recalls, ``and just to confirm my story I said, `The reason I came up here was that no newspaperman has ever gotten this far forward.' They said, `That's absolutely right. No newspaperman has. But come to think of it, [photographer] Margaret Bourke-White was up here just last week.'''

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Edwards laughs heartily at the memory, one of many she collected during her 25-year career as a foreign correspondent in more than 125 countries, and one of the exploits she recounts in ``Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents'' (Houghton Mifflin, $17.95). Her book profiles dozens of indefatigable women who defied double standards, hostile male editors, and danger to report from abroad for American newspapers.

``These women are role models,'' Edwards explains during an interview, ``but they have pretty much been written out of history by male historians. There's just a basic assumption that women could not have done anything important, so why research them. What women need is the history of their own sex.''

In the field of overseas reporting, that history begins with Margaret Fuller, whose articles from Europe in the 1840s for the New York Tribune drew a loyal readership. During World War I Peggy Hull became the first woman correspondent accredited by the United States War Department to cover a war zone. In the 1930s Dorothy Thompson broke new ground with her coverage of Nazi Germany, and in 1937 Anne O'Hare McCormick became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. Later Marguerite Higgins won national acclaim for stories from Korea.

``These women insisted on doing what they wanted,'' says Edwards, an energetic woman whose resonant voice still bears traces of her Louisville, Ky. roots. ``They were not the sacrificing type. They were out for everything in life. They wanted to live. They made their own decisions.''

Her own decision to become a foreign correspondent came after family members discouraged her from following in her father's footsteps as a criminal lawyer. ``Nobody's going to come to you, nobody's going to hire you,'' her parents warned.

After graduating from Barnard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Edwards received her first overseas assignment in 1946: covering the occupation of Germany for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The experience gave her a sobering firsthand view of the treatment women correspondents often received from male colleagues.

Male reporters, she discovered, ``gossiped outrageously'' about American women correspondents, in particular a new correspondent, Ann Stringer. Her first husband had been killed in the war, and she had recently remarried. Edwards says, ``There were other people they could have gossiped about, and I kept wondering, Why were they always gossiping about Ann Stringer? It turned out she was one of the best reporters in Berlin, and therefore she was fair game. The same was true of Marguerite Higgins.'' Gossip grew out of professional jealousy.

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Edwards describes what she sees as four stages in the evolution of attitudes toward women correspondents.

``Originally, it was simply considered morally wrong for a woman to attempt to write like a man. Then it was said, when they started doing it, that women cannot write as well as men. The third phase was, `She writes like a man. How marvelous!' The fourth phase came when Ruth Cowan was filing stories from North Africa for the Associated Press. The editor sent a cable to men on the staff saying, `Why can't you write the way she does?'''

That shift in attitude squares neatly with Edwards's own belief that skills cannot be categorized by gender. ``There are men who have compassion and women who have compassion. It's not gender-related. There are people who have compassion. Marguerite Higgins had absolutely no compassion, but she was an absolutely magnificent newswoman.''

At the same time, she concedes that women often have broader interests. ``They're more likely to have explored such things as the status of women in foreign societies, and the problems of the family. They're apt to be more interested in what Scandinavia does about abortion, or Japan does about abortion, than the men are.''

Today half of all reporters and editors on American newspapers are women. But they represent only 20 percent of foreign correspondents.

``The numbers are increasing,'' Edwards says, ``but not fast enough. There is still obviously prejudice against sending a woman overseas. So many women want to go overseas. There's a log jam. You just can't send them all. But it's improving.''

As evidence of progress, she notes with pride that this year, for the first time, the Overseas Press Club awarded its top three prizes to women. In addition, more newspapers are now willing to hire husband-and-wife foreign-correspondent teams.

Still, she cautions against complacency or a premature sense of victory. ``I do think women have to keep up the pressure as a group. They have to stand up for each other. And there must be more women doing the hiring before there'll be more women foreign correspondents.''

In 1981 Edwards completed her last overseas assignment - in Tanzania. But even the pleasures of Florida retirement cannot still the yearning to pack a suitcase, grab a passport, and head out, notebook in hand, in search of another exotic dateline.

``I'm a print journalist, and I want the world to know that I think it's going to survive,'' Edwards says.

``I'm not over yet either,'' she adds firmly. ``I was delighted to read in the morning newspaper that they're letting people back into Tibet. I want to go.''

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