Nellie Bly, a female journalist who fought to alter societal norms for women, demonstrates to all young girls that anyone with grit and determination can inspire change across the world.
Born in 1864 under the name Elizabeth Cochran, Bly was forced to drop out of university due to a lack of money, but refused to let her limited access to education interfere with her passion for journalism. One day, Bly came across a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls are Good For,” which stated that the purpose of women is to marry, raise children, and care for their homes. However, Nellie held different beliefs and sent a critical response to the Dispatch. The editor of the newspaper, George Madden, found the response to be well written and offered her a job on his staff. Using her position in the newspaper to encourage a need for change, Bly spoke on the effects of divorce on women and advocated for reform in America’s divorce laws.
During her early years at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she investigated and wrote articles on the conditions in women’s factories, but was soon reassigned to women’s pages on fashion, gardening, and society due to complaints from factory owners. However, Bly was not passionate about the new direction of her career, leading her to then go to Mexico for a year and a half to report on the political climate, poverty, and culture. In one of her articles, Bly criticized the jailing of a local reporter who had criticized the Mexican dictatorship, leading authorities to threaten to imprison her. She was forced to leave the country and spoke against the Mexican government when she had safely returned to the United States.
After being moved to the women’s pages for a second time, Bly acknowledged that she desired a creative opportunity far greater than the Pittsburgh Dispatch could offer, and instead embarked on a journey to New York City to find work. Her passion for investigative journalism would not be deterred by the previous disappointments she had encountered. In New York, Bly was rejected from a multitude of positions due to her gender, suffering from extreme poverty for months. However, she soon developed a plan with Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, in which she would investigate the inner workings of the Women’s Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island by feigning her own insanity.
The first step of Bly’s plan was to check herself into a boarding house known as Temporary Homes for Women. At the residence, Bly kept herself awake overnight to maintain a disturbed appearance and accused the other women of insanity. After being examined by a police officer, judge, and doctor, Bly was sent to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
During her ten days at the Women’s Insane Asylum, Bly experienced firsthand the abuses of the workers on the women at the asylum, reporting on the terrible conditions in a series of articles which were later compiled into her book, “10 Days in a Madhouse.”
Bly was able to shed light on the abuses of the mentally ill and her writing inspired a grand jury investigation of the asylum. Bly and other women were told to remain silent and were beaten for refusing to obey, fed spoiled and disgusting food, given dirty drinking water, tied together with ropes, and surrounded by filth. From six in the morning to eight at night, the women were forced to sit on uncomfortable benches, doing nothing. They bathed the women in the same frigid and disgusting bathwater in a stained and dirty tub, forcing all of them to use the same towels as women with skin conditions such as boils and sores. By enduring these conditions, Bly was able to make a huge difference in the treatment of the mentally ill, garnering an $860,000 increase in the budget for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.
Bly is regarded as a pioneer of “immersion journalism”, also known as stunt journalism, in which journalists assimilate with a group of people to report on the experiences of those around them. Biographer Brooke Kroeger wrote that the genre of stunt journalism “also provided women with their first collective opportunity to demonstrate that, as a class, they had the skills necessary for the highest level of general reporting. The stunt girls, with Bly as their prototype, were the first women to enter the journalistic mainstream in the twentieth century.” Not only was Bly a catalyst for change inside the asylum, but also for women throughout the United States, as she ran headfirst into the sexist barriers that limited women from the same career opportunities in journalism as men. Before her, women were confined to the women’s pages of newspapers, but Bly allowed them to break free from their societal limitations and enter new fields of journalism.
After her rise to fame through the asylum investigation, Bly also broke the world record for the number of days taken to travel around the globe, marking it at seventy-two days. Not only was this an incredible feat, but she demonstrated to the world that women were capable of anything they put their minds to.
Nellie Bly exemplifies the power of an individual to change society. Without a college degree, money, or others to rely on, Bly carved a life for herself with pure passion and determination, using her writing skills to make the United States a better place for all women.
“Nellie Bly.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nellie-Bly.
About the Author:
Nidhi Rao is a high school sophomore and the current secretary of her class. Since childhood, Nidhi has been passionate about gaining new perspectives on political issues and hopes to inform and inspire others by writing in The Alcott Youth Magazine. Additionally, she is interested in painting, hiking, kayaking, reading, and listening to music.