Here at 6NerdyChicks, we value and appreciate the women who came before us to help to break down gender barriers. Nerd Herstory will be a monthly segment that will honor the history and success of women in the nerd realm who have allowed us to openly embrace the true geeks we are today.
Nellie Bly is this month’s Herstory subject because she was a major pioneer in female journalism. Nellie was fearless as she took on undercover stories and thrilling adventures in a male dominated field. She ran exposés on a women’s jail system, an insane asylum, and legislation systems. She also circumnavigated the world.
Unfortunately, many female pioneers at this time weren’t even known by their real name. Nellie Bly is the pen name of Elizabeth Cochran, who first wrote for the The Pittsburgh Dispatch. At only 18 years old she was awarded the position on the newspaper in 1885 after she brazenly responded to a very sexist editorial, essentially chastising the male author. During her stay at this paper, she focused on women’s rights and the sexism she saw around her. Her first adventure in undercover journalism was for the Dispatch; she worked in a women’s sweat shop and uncovered the horrible treatment and inequality she found there.
In 1887 Nellie was hired at the New York World. This paper gave her more freedom and even encouraged her desire to do more undercover stories. This is what stemmed her infamous stay at the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. This woman was fearless. She and her editor came up with a plan to get her institutionalized in order to write the story on the treatment of Blackwell’s patients. I read her piece on this, and it was wonderful, heartbreaking, and actually very witty. Nellie thought of everything. It all started with her staying at a home for working women and acting like an insane person. She knew women would be more likely to have her arrested and out of their house, and it turned out to be true.
She acted her way through several doctors who never questioned her supposed insanity. She would ultimately stay for 10 days on the island, meeting both perfectly sane and definitely insane female patients, as well as digging into the appalling treatment (both medical and physical) of the patients. She spoke of the freezing conditions, physical and verbal cruelty of the nurses and other staff, inedible meals, and the general jail like atmosphere of the asylum. After reading her piece on her stay, the ward she lived in for those 10 days read more like a jail than a hospital for those who needed help.
After her well planned release and the 1887 publication of Ten Days in a Mad-House (first published as Inside the Madhouse), Nellie Bly was summoned in front of New York’s Grand Jury. She testified that her story was true, and nurses, doctors, and other staff of the institution were also brought in to be questioned. Nellie’s stay and her article brought great changes to Blackwell’s Island. The state was ordered to better fund the institution, and it led to many changes in the administration and follow through for patients in New York hospitals. After her success with the Blackwell’s Island story, she went on to write other exposés and bioptic articles on prominent women of her time.
In 1889 Nellie decided to continue her adventures in journalism and went on a trip around the world. Her goal was to beat the fictional record of Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s character from Around the World in Eighty Days. Nellie set out from Hoboken, New Jersey in November of 1889, and she completed the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. Nellie traveled by burro, train, ship, and air balloon just to name a few of her fabulous modes of transportation. She set the real world record of circumnavigation, as well as becoming the first woman to go around the world. She would write about her journey in her 1890 book; Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the world in Seventy-Two Days.
Nellie semi-retired from journalism when she married in 1895. She would go on to run her husband’s company after his death and would return to writing during the Women’s Suffrage movement. Throughout her career Nellie spoke for the mistreated, poor, and marginalized. She was an advocate for women’s rights and women’s suffrage. She fought for what was right within institutions that fought to stifle the voices of women. Nellie Bly brought change and reform to those in need, and she did so as a vocal and proud woman. She also inspired women into the field of journalism in her time as well as in ours. She passed away due to Pneumonia at the age of 57.
Here is a link to many of Nellie Bly’s articles