On International Women’s Day, the world remembers breakers of glass ceilings throughout history. Among them: the bold journalist Nellie Bly.
Each International Women’s Day, the world celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. One woman who made great strides toward equality is known to the world as Nellie Bly.
The year is 1885, and a woman’s place is in the home, says Erasmus Wilson in his Pittsburgh Dispatch article “What Girls Are Good For.” Chastising women for seeking an education and career, he calls the working woman a “monstrosity.”
That doesn’t sit well with 21-year-old Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, a single, working woman of little means. Demonstrating her intelligence and grit, she lets the newspaper’s editor, George Madden, know in an angry letter signed Lonely Orphan Girl. He’s impressed and offers her a job. Cochrane, taking the pen name Nellie Bly, accepts, but she won’t settle for “women’s work” at the paper, writing about gardening, fashion and society. Nellie Bly has bigger plans that aren’t in line with societal norms. Her daring, groundbreaking work will cement her place in women’s history.
Nellie Bly, Immersion Journalism and Women on the Front Page
You can write a story, or you can become part of the story. That’s immersion journalism, and Bly didn’t shy away from it. When she wanted to know the working conditions for women in sweatshops, she joined them. Bly did the same when curious about the inner workings of maid-for-hire agencies in New York City. And in order to document what life was like for the poor living in tenements, she spent two days there. The plight of women, the poor and disadvantaged was always a focal point for Bly, but she never pigeonholed herself. Her work was unpredictable, provocative yet truthful, and it pushed the limits.
From her time in Mexico, Bly reported and wrote a travelogue, “Six Months In Mexico,” which detailed government corruption, lack of free press, and sexist ideologies — going so far as to call Mexican wives “captives” — and advocated for women’s rights. She included the names of corrupt presidents and stated that the notion of the country being a republic was only in name: “In reality [it is] the worst monarchy in existence.” Much of what Bly chronicled had never been revealed by the Mexican press for fear of severe punishment. “The people who are at their mercy dare not breathe one word against them,” Bly said of the government. That same government threatened to arrest and kick her out of the country.
As Nellie Bly, Cochrane had no fear, which was apparent early in her career while she worked for the New York World when she went undercover at Blackwell’s Island asylum after convincing doctors and judges she was mentally ill. It was method acting at its best. “We do not ask you to go there for the purpose of making sensational revelations. Write up things as you find them, good or bad; give praise or blame as you think best, and the truth all the time. But I am afraid of that chronic smile of yours,” Bly recalled the editor saying upon her accepting the challenging assignment. Her response: “I will smile no more.”
Bly entered the asylum knowing there was no plan in place to get her out. And once in, she didn’t act unwell: “I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.”
On day 10, Bly was released after enduring horrific conditions. Her exposé on the facility’s mismanagement and deplorable treatment of patients led to a grand jury investigation. Nellie Bly’s undercover work paid off — patient care was improved and $1,000,000 more than ever before appropriated toward it.
Bly’s unconventional work made her very popular, so much so that her name appeared in headlines. One decision, though, made her a national sensation.
Around the World in under 80 Days
Having established herself as a journalist unafraid to tackle tough subjects, Bly made a scandalous decision in 1889: to travel around the world unaccompanied by a man. And she had writer’s block and Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days to thank for this impromptu, exciting idea. The goal of the trip was to beat the record of the book’s character Phileas Fogg.
To women today, traveling solo may sound perfectly acceptable (although, sadly, many do still disagree). In Bly’s time, women traveled with escorts, a norm Bly’s editor at the New York World was well aware of. Initially he told her the trip was impossible because she would need a protector. He also mentioned she’d be unable to manage all her luggage.
Bly’s editor concluded that only a man could do such a trip, to which she replied, “Very well. Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” As you can see, Bly wasn’t going to let her plan get squashed just because she was a woman. It wasn’t until a year later that the paper backed her quest — with two days’ notice before departure. Bly had a practical dress made that could withstand months of travel and purchased another for warmer climates, plus one handbag — her only piece of luggage.
“Packing that bag was the most difficult undertaking of my life; there was so much to go into such little space,” Bly wrote in Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. The warm-weather dress didn’t make the cut, yet a jar of cold cream did.
With only the boat from New Jersey to London booked — the rest of the route would be planned as she went — Bly departed on November 14, 1889, at 9:40:30 a.m.
For 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, she journeyed around the world — beating Fogg and setting a real world record. Without judgment of other cultures but with a splendid curiosity, sharp wit, blunt honesty and transcendent detail, Bly recorded her adventure. It’s no wonder her book was a success — her stories transport you to the time and place.
Upon arriving home, Bly was met with great fanfare. The paper had been chronicling her trip and she’d become a national celebrity. The journalist was now the subject.
As hugely successful as Nellie Bly’s trip around the world was, she appears to have had one (humorous) regret: “That jar of cold cream was the bane of my existence. It seemed to take up more room than everything else in the bag and was always getting into just the place that would keep me from closing the satchel.”
Bly’s inspirational work had a familiar, storybook-like style, even when she was reporting from the front lines of World War I as America’s first female war correspondent.
Bly tackled subjects and put herself in situations no one else dared (or cared) to and gave a voice to those society quieted. Over 100 years ago Bly exposed adversity that is still a problem today. And she did it before women in the United States had the right to vote. Thankfully, she lived long enough to see that dream realized.