In 1921, Anne O’Hare McCormick had little journalism experience when she wrote to Carr V. Van Anda, the managing editor at The New York Times. It might have been a long shot, but she asked if she could submit articles to the newspaper when she went to Europe with her husband.
At the time, there were few women working as reporters, even fewer working as international correspondents. Most women wrote for the society pages. But the editor would be under no obligation to print her articles, and would have to pay her only if they were accepted.
“Try it,” he responded.
She would go on to overcome a mountain of obstacles for female reporters, earning worldwide respect and becoming the first woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize in one of its major journalism categories in 1937. It would be 14 years until the next woman would win.
That is a striking contrast to the annual awards handed down this week, which included recognition of The Times’s coverage of sexual harassment in Hollywood, media and other fields, an effort reported and edited mostly by women. (Women now have 39 percent of the bylines in The Times, just above the industry average of 38.1 percent, according to the Women’s Media Center.)
Ms. McCormick won her Pulitzer one year after becoming the first woman on the editorial board of The Times, writing three columns a week on world affairs. She had insisted that would not be improperly pigeonholed. In her 1936 job acceptance letter to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, she made clear she wouldn’t “revert to ‘woman’s-point-of-view’ stuff.”
“It gives me immense satisfaction to break a precedent, and even more to know that The Times at last wants me where I have long felt I belong,” she wrote to Mr. Sulzberger.
Her earliest work indicated she had superlative news judgment. In one of her first Times articles, dated June 24, 1921, she attended an address by Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy. But a different politician who had attracted little notice from other journalists caught her observant eye.
She would go on to have several interviews with the dictator. Adolf Hitler agreed to meet with her, and she sat with Joseph Stalin for an unprecedented six hours. She interviewed Franklin Delano Roosevelt weeks before his death in 1945.
At first, she traveled along with her husband, who had an import/export business. But as her stature skyrocketed, he quit his job to travel with her, according to “Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents,” a 1988 book by Julia Edwards.
While Ms. McCormick was the first woman to win a Pulitzer for journalism in a major category, a student at Columbia, Minna Lewinson, won the Newspaper History Award for a research paper in 1918, the second year of the Pulitzers. It was the only time the award was given in the category and was shared with a fellow student, Henry Beetle Hough.
The next female winner wouldn’t come until 1951, when Marguerite Higgins was part of a team that reported on the Korean War.
Women were rarely hired in Ms. McCormick’s era, and those who were typically covered weddings and social events, said Maurine Beasley, a professor at the University of Maryland. It wasn’t until the 1960s, after the Civil Rights Act, that more women had a chance at so-called “hard news” jobs.
Ms. McCormick “considered herself apart from other women journalists of the day,” declining invitations to women-only press events by Eleanor Roosevelt, Ms. Beasley said.
“What Anne O’Hare McCormick did was so unusual,” she said. “Women just didn’t have that opportunity, and she didn’t want to associate herself with those who were more limited and were dealing only with women’s news.”
World War II presented more opportunities for women as men went away to fight, said Carolyn Edy, a professor at Appalachian State University who wrote a book about female war correspondents. The United States began accrediting more women as a propaganda effort to “show the friendlier sides of war,” but few had the high-profile assignments Ms. McCormick did.
Ms. McCormick overcame the additional challenges one might expect of a woman working in newsrooms in the 1920s and 1930s. Editors were especially hard on her and nicknamed her “Verbose Annie,” according to Ms. Edwards’ book.
She died at 72 in 1954. She continued working until soon before her death. At 67 she was “covering the guerrilla war in Greece, scrambling up and down mountains with soldiers less than half her age,” Ms. Edwards wrote.
Her Times obituary said she “became the expert the experts looked up to.”
“In whatever part of the shrinking world her dateline put her, the sound, pungent reports of her conversations and observations won universal praise,” the obituary said.