Even in today’s relatively progressive world, female journalists often face discrimination or are corralled into writing or producing material that is meant to appeal to the so-called feminine point-of-view. As we recently highlighted, there are those like Christiane Amanpour who have worked hard to challenge the status quo. But for every Amanpour, there is another young woman likely being pushed toward producing pieces about beauty, the home, or entertainment news—subjects supposedly geared toward a feminine audience. Amid persistent sexism in media, we can look to nineteenth-century journalist Nellie Bly, who became both a popular and respected voice of her time and a strong role model in investigative news.
Nellie was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1864. She got her unofficial start as a writer by responding to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch column titled, “What Girls Are Good For,” which suggested that women were suited only for housekeeping and having children. She answered the article under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl”, openly challenging its misogynistic message. Cochran eventually revealed her identity to the newspaper’s editor, who offered “Lonely Orphan Girl” the chance to write more about female-centric issues like divorce and working women. She was eventually offered a permanent position and, as was the custom at the time, she was assigned a pen name: Nellie Bly.
Like most women writers of the time, she was primarily assigned columns focusing on the home, children, fashion, and society—but she quickly became restless in this role. Nellie pushed her editor for freedom and began writing on more pressing societal issues like challenges facing the poor, women’s status in society, conditions in local factories, and other similar topics. Though Bly’s articles were popular, the newspaper began to receive pushback from local businesses who threatened to pull advertisements from the paper unless the stories stopped. Discouraged, Nellie traveled to Mexico as a foreign news correspondent for the paper, reporting on the lives of everyday Mexicans and the Mexican government. She once again found herself mired in controversy, this time over her criticism of the government. Bly had to flee the country, but her writings on the subject were published as a book called Six Months in Mexico.
Once back in the states, Nellie moved to New York City and struggled to make her way as a professional journalist. Nearly destitute after four months, she talked her way into a column at Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, The New York World. The paper’s editor was intrigued by her proposed story—an undercover exposé on the poor living conditions at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Bly managed to get herself committed to the asylum and was immediately subject to the horrific conditions therein. Bly apparently was so convincing in her feigned insanity that other patients refused to room with her. The facility held a staggering 1,600 patients, most of whom were subjected to “treatments” like ice baths, wore threadbare garments, lived in vermin-infested quarters, and ate rancid food. She wrote, “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”
Bly’s writings centered not only on the cruelty of the facility and its doctors but also on the humanity of its patients. She witnessed that a number of them were not mentally ill at all; they just lacked the ability to speak for themselves in court or spoke little to no English. After a few days, Nellie revealed that her “crazy” persona was a ruse, but The New York World ultimately had to send an attorney to have her released from the facility. Days later, the newspaper began running Nellie’s writings on the asylum in installments called “Behind Asylum Bars” and they became a sensation. Her stories were syndicated in newspapers across the country. Her investigative journalism spurred examinations into the treatment (and mistreatment) of the mentally ill and prompted a grand jury investigation that resulted in overhauls to the asylum’s practices. Bly’s installments were compiled into a book, titled Ten Days in a Mad-House.
Nellie Bly continued to go undercover, writing about unwanted babies by pretending to be an unwed mother trying to sell her child, exposing corrupt government officials by attempting to bribe a crooked lobbyist, and secretly posing as a poverty-stricken factory worker to uncover poor working conditions.
In 1889, she began a more lighthearted assignment, attempting to make a trip around the world, inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. At the time, women were considered too much trouble to take on long journeys, as it was assumed they would require constant chaperoning and lots of luggage. To combat this stereotype, Nellie set off on her journey with no escort and only the most essential items. Heading east from New York, she journeyed to England, Egypt, Ceylon, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The New York World held a popular contest, challenging readers to guess her arrival date. Early telegraph cables allowed Bly to send short travel updates to her editors. Nellie traveled by steamship and rail and faced setbacks, like rough ocean weather, that delayed her travel time. After landing in San Francisco, she boarded a train that brought her home to New York. Seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes after her departure, Bly arrived at her original starting point—handily beating Verne’s fictional eighty days. After her journey, Nellie toured the world giving lectures and wrote Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. Not long after, she was back on the beat writing articles about police corruption, labor strikes, and women’s suffrage.
At age 31, Bly retired from journalism when she married 73-year-old millionaire Robert Seaman. She helped manage his company, Iron Clad Manufacturing, which made milk cans, barrels, and garbage cans. Nellie even patented a milk can and stacking garbage can during her time there. When Robert died in 1904 and the company eventually went bankrupt, Nellie returned to journalism. She traveled to Austria during World War I and acted as a war correspondent for five years. Eventually returning to New York, she wrote an advice column, worked for women’s suffrage, and aided widows and poor families. She wrote until her death in 1922 at age 57, from pneumonia.
Nellie Bly did not let her gender define the course of her career. Through her actions, she proved that women were capable of great and captivating journalism. She broke barriers by showing that women should not be relegated to lifestyle and society columns and put her life on the line for a good story. Though women still fight not to be pigeonholed in the media and in all professions, Nellie Bly stands as a model of someone who challenged gender roles and succeeded. This is why she is one of our #womenwhoinspire.