Unheard Voices: Sophie Treadwell

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Sophie Treadwell is one of those writers who is well-known by few, vaguely known by some, and unheard of by most. Born in Stockton, California in 1885, the American author is credited with writing at least thirty-nine plays, most notably her 1928 Expressionist drama Machinal, based on the newspaper story of Ruth Snyder, a Long Island housewife who was executed for the murder of her husband. Treadwell herself attended the University of California at Berkeley where she began freelancing for local newspapers, joining the San Francisco Bulletin in 1908 two years after her graduation. In 1910, she married the Bulletin sports-writer, William O’McGeehan, and followed him to New York in 1914 when he joined the New York Evening Journal.

However, Treadwell was conflicted about the concept of marriage, frequently living apart from her husband and supporting herself independently. In 1915, Treadwell managed to convince Bulletin editor, Fremont Older, to send her to France to cover World War I. She became increasingly frustrated with the hypocritical journalism covering World War I, as the horrors of war were treated with morbid fascination while the horrors of everyday life were treated with apathy and detachment. She began to focus on the daily life of those living in France, displaying her observations ‘behind scenes in this big war theatre’.

She sought to write women who fought against male-dominated industries and discovered liberty through sexual independence

Treadwell made an effort to develop a female-centred journalistic voice, an impressive feat at a time when female reporters were generally barred from the front and journalism was a profession dominated by male voices reporting male-centred war narratives. Treadwell asked, ‘Are you disappointed not to have my letters from over here filled with “horror” – war horror? And when I tell you that I have not put it in because it is not what I see, what I feel, do you think that I have no eyes, no heart?’ Treadwell was interested in the most intimate details of everyday life, and so framed her war coverage as letters from a Parisian girl to a friend in California, beginning each article ‘Dear D’, but the ‘Dear D’ salutation was edited out and the headlines that accompanied Treadwell’s articles emphasised the news angle, confusing readers who had been promised the confidences of a young woman learning about the war.

She was a force in pursuit of the female voice, and so it is not surprising that has been obscured

Treadwell’s conflicting feelings about marriage and her efforts to succeed in a time when war was seen as a masculine domain become significant in her later career as a playwright. She sought to write women who fought against male-dominated industries and discovered liberty through sexual independence. An early comment of Treadwell’s during the war demonstrates her continual resistance against traditional gender paradigms; ‘I began to think the world was just a place where all women were mourning, all men maimed.’

Treadwell’s plays were rediscovered by feminists in the 1980s, and yet she remains virtually unknown amongst journalists. Her use of the epistolary form to fictionalise her own experiences so that they were accessible to readers was a clever means of enabling her portrayal of a side to World War I that brought women to the forefront. Her journalistic work received little success and so is often ignored in the context of her work, and yet she was one of the few female journalists who were allowed to be sent to the front during World War I. She was a force in pursuit of the female voice, and so it is not surprising that has been obscured.

Image: pasja100 via Pixabay

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