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Women’s History Month: Nellie Bly, A Journalism Hero

I didn’t always want to be a journalist. I wasn’t one of those kids who came out of the womb knowing exactly what they wanted to be. I flip-flopped as a kid, saying I wanted to be an actress, a marine biologist, a pop star. And then, miraculously, I did a book report on Nellie Bly in fifth grade. I didn’t have an epiphany right then—that came later, in eighth grade—but I was exposed to the world of journalism. Ever since that book report, ever since Nellie Bly, I haven’t been able to leave that world: Nellie Bly is my journalism hero.

Who is Nellie Bly?

via Library of Congress

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (later changed to “Cochrane”), Bly’s transition to the fiery, iconic journalist she’s known as today wasn’t intentional. She grew up on a Pennsylvania mill, to a wealthy father who died when Bly was six years old. Her family moved following her father’s death, and Bly was left to pursue a career in teaching, attempting to make money for her family. However, Bly left secondary education due to the cost and stumbled onto the journalistic stage by penning a rebuttal to a piece published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She was 18, no less, and not only did her rebuttal find a home in the Dispatch, but so did she. Bly was offered a job as a journalist covering women’s rights issues. Bly adopted her iconic pen name working for the Dispatch, borrowed from a popular Stephen Foster song at the time. Her work in journalism took off, and the Pittsburgh Dispatch was her platform.

Her Contribution to Journalism

Nellie Bly was a legendary journalist during the Progressive Era. After getting her footing at the Dispatch, Bly began to write prolifically. Originally, she was confined to writing about women’s issues only, reporting on working conditions and women’s life in Pittsburgh. Wanting greater breadth in her career, she quit her job at the Dispatch and traveled to Mexico, penning the first of her notable exposé pieces. Six Months in Mexico (published in 1888) detailed Bly’s experience as a foreign correspondent in Mexico, at the age of 21, beginning in 1885. She reported on the corruption of the Mexican government and the conditions of Mexican people, compiling her reports into a book of essays. This exposé was the momentum she required to burst onto the national stage.

After returning from Mexico, Bly found work at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.  The World fueled her claim to fame, as one of her first assignments became one of her most famous. Bly’s most iconic gambit, getting admitted to Blackwell Island’s insane asylum, resulted in her famed Ten Days in a Mad-House. There, Bly wrote about and exposed the abuses faced by patients of the asylum, drawing national attention both to herself and Blackwell Island. Her exposé triggered investigations and eventual reform, marking her 10-day stay at the asylum a roaring success.

Exposés and investigative journalism became Bly’s hallmarks—she explored everything she could in New York City, including sweatshops, jails, and legislature. She became the trailblazer of up close, investigative journalism, the first of many “stunt girl” journalists across the nation. Bly’s magnum opus, however, came at the height of her career.

Nellie Bly, urged by the World and her previous success with her asylum exposé, embarked on a journey around the world. Her stunt was a response to the fictional journey of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. She utilized an eclectic array of transportation, including horses, rickshaws, and burros, to travel around the globe in only 72 days, beating the fictional Fogg and setting a world record.

Her daring stunt solidified her fame and acclaim nationally: Nellie Bly became the most famous female journalist of her day.

Why She Still Matters

Photo: PBS

Women in journalism are, to this day, important to recognize. Bly was a trailblazer, a passionate and fearless journalist. She’s a model to women and men across the field, exhibiting inventive and firsthand reporting. Bly’s adventurous stories marked her as a visionary and one of the best women reporters of her time. She helped to refresh and innovate a field that has become vitally important to American media and global news. Bly is an example of an outstanding journalist, and she’s criminally underrepresented for the work she contributed to the field.

She instilled reform, she challenged gender norms, and she made a name for women reporters in a time of bustling journalism. Her methods of tactful reporting on issues that others were blind to have shaped modern journalism. She was a vocal feminist, activist, and daredevil. Her courage and honesty in reporting are to be admired over a century later. Without her voice contributing to the world of journalism, it is unlikely modern investigative journalism would be as established or important. Simply put: Bly is an icon. Bly is my hero.

Photo: Corbis-Bettmann

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