This post originally appeared as an episode in our GirlSpeak podcast on January 20, 2022.
This month marks 100 years since Nellie Bly – a pioneering journalist and social activist – died. Most people know Nellie for the fame she achieved as an investigative journalist – notably admitting herself to a mental institution in order to expose the violence experienced by people who had been admitted against their will. But not many people know that Nellie’s passion for journalism, and her activism, began at a young age.
Born on May 5, 1864, as Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Nellie was part of an upper class family – her father was an Irish immigrant and mill worker who eventually owned the mill and became a postmaster and merchant in Pennsylvania. A town was even named after him. Nellie was the daughter of her father’s second wife and among the youngest of fifteen children. Nellie’s father died when she was 6 years old, leaving Nellie’s mother to raise the children. Her mother remarried, but Nellie’s stepfather was abusive – leading Nellie’s mother to leave him and move to Pittsburgh. By this time, it appears the family was lower or lower-middle class. In Pittsburgh, Nellie helped her mother run a boarding house.
Then, Nellie read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that stated girls were primarily good for birthing children and keeping house. Nellie was enraged, and she wrote a response to the column under the name “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The Pittsburgh Disptach’s editor, George Madden, was impressed by the Lonely Orphan Girl. He quickly ran an advertisement asking the author to identify herself, and Nellie stepped forward. She was immediately offered the opportunity to write for the newspaper as Little Orphan Girl.
Nellie’s first article was “The Girl Puzzle,” responding to a reader’s inquiry on what to do with his daughters, how women were discriminated against in the workplace, and her suggestions for making women’s lives better. Published in January 1885, the article read, in part,
“What shall we do with our girls? […] The anxious father still wants to know what to do with his five daughters. Well indeed he may inquire and wonder. Girls, since the existence of Eve, have been a source of worriment, to themselves as well as to their parents, as to what shall be done with them. They cannot, or will not, as the case may be, all marry. Few, very few, possess the mighty pen of the late Jane Grey Swisshelm, and even writers, lecturers, doctors, preachers and editors must have money as well as ability to fit them to be such. What is to be done with the poor ones?
Give the girls a chance.
They can do the work as well, and, as a gentleman remarked, ‘It would have a purifying effect on the conservation.’ Some people claim it would not do to put woman where she will not be protected. In being a merchant traveler or filling similar positions a true woman will protect herself anywhere – as easily on the road as behind the counter, as easily as a Pullman conductor as in an office or factory. In such positions, receiving men’s wages, she would feel independent; she could support herself. No more pinching and starving, no more hard work for little pay; in short, she would be a woman and would not be half as liable to forget the duty she owed to her true womanhood as one pinched by poverty and without means of support. […] Instead of gathering up the ‘real smart young men’ gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.
However visionary this may sound, those who are interested in humankind and wonder what to do with the girls might try it. George M. Pullman has tried and succeeded in bettering this poorer class. Some of our purse-filled citizens might try it by way of variety, for, as some one says; “Variety is the spice of life.” We all like the “spice of life”: we long for it, except when it comes in the form of hash on our boarding-house table. We shall talk of amusements for our girls after we find them employment.”“The Girl Puzzle” by Nellie Bly
Again impressed, George Madden made Nellie a full-time journalist. It probably helped that Nellie had included him in the article – naming him as one example to follow in what to do with girls. This job kickstarted Nellie’s career. With very little formal schooling, and a lifetime of knowing both the best and worst of life, Nellie’s passion for telling stories and advocating for girls and women would make her famous. Just nine months after her first published article, upset that most of her assignments had focused on traditional topics about gardening and society, Nellie traveled to Mexico – and with no Spanish and no experience. She became the paper’s correspondent reporting on the lives of Mexico’s people – their work, social activities, tourism, and government censorship. Her dispatches were published in book form as Six Months in Mexico, including reports on the Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz. Learning of her reports, Mexican authorities threatened to arrest Nellie, and she fled the country back to Pittsburgh. She returned to writing a traditional women’s column.
Soon after, Nellie moved to New York City to seek better employment where she could write what she wanted to write. After four months of rejections, and bordering on destitution, Nellie walked into the office of the New York World and took an undercover assignment in feigning insanity and becoming admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. After ten days, New York World convinced the asylum to let Nellie go – but ten days was all Nellie needed. Her report, later published in book form, caused a sensation across the nation and prompted many reforms on treatment of those deemed insane – as well as sparking debates about what truly made someone insane. Nellie had begun the era of stunt girl journalism – all by the age of 23 – and used her celebrity status to continue gaining exclusive interviews and investigating the ills of late nineteenth century life. She also undertook a world tour – attempting to make the then-popular novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, a real life feat. In a single dress, with several changes of underwear and a bag of toiletries, Nellie traveled through England, France, Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Ceylon, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, sending short progress reports via telegraph to be published in the paper. The journey took her 72 days, setting a world record.
Nellie’s career continued, as she wrote eleven novels and continued to report for the New York World. She married in 1895, at the age of 31, to 73-year-old Robert Seaman, a millionaire manufacturer. Robert’s health was already declining, and Nellie quickly took over as head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, running the company as a model of social welfare for its workers. She also became an inventor – obtaining patents for a new milk can and a stacking garbage can. Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, the business failed and Nellie returned to journalism during World War I. She became the first woman and one of the first foreign visitors to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria, and went on to cover women’s suffrage movements. She died on January 27, 1922, of penumonia, at the age of 58.
What I find most remarkable about Nellie is that none of her achievements began as a woman. She was always a spirited young girl, whose circumstances of being born rich and yet falling into the working class – and then working alongside her mother – gave her unique insights into the plight of women and their marginalization in the workplace. Nellie’s activism was sparked by her own experiences, and throughout it all, Nellie’s mother is a firm figure in accompanying her on reporting. I think it shows that Nellie was very inspired as a young girl, and always remembered her roots, but ultimately did not let a lack of formal schooling or money stop her from speaking out against injustice and, ultimately, fighting for better lives for women everywhere.
This month, we honor Nellie Bly, who died 100 years ago after having led a truly remarkable life.