Femmes Omitted: Nellie Bly: The Girl Puzzle

As women, we know the feeling of outrage when our entire existence is reduced to archetypal gender norms: a man telling you to get back to the kitchen, to smile as if you exist for his gratification only, what you can and can’t do with your own body. That outrage, and that fire, is the catalyst for Nellie Bly’s story. Eventually she would be known for her pioneering investigative journalism and for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, but at the beginning she was a 21-year-old girl, unwilling to be silenced. Bly was so horrified with what she read in ‘What Girls Are Good For’ – a column in her local newspaper responding to an “Anxious Father” who sought advice for his five unmarried daughters – that she penned a response to the editor. In the column, the writer Erasmus Wilson stated that homemaking was the only proper occupation for women and that birthing and raising children was their purpose, he even “joked” that the US should evoke the one child policy of China at the time. Under the pseudonym ‘Lonely Orphan Girl’ her rebuttal was so compelling that the editor of the newspaper enacted a city-wide search for the author.

When she finally revealed herself, the editor, George Madden, offered her the opportunity to write for the newspaper. Her first piece, entitled “The Girl Puzzle” was about how divorce affected women, and even argued for divorce reforms. Impressed, Madden offered her a job, and so began the career of Nellie Bly. To challenge the patriarchal order of the world and get a win is an achievement even now, but this was 1885. It was still the Victorian age, yet she had the courage and intelligence to present journalism that tackled issues of gender inequality. In the span of her career she would go on to discuss the gender pay gap and social pressures that women faced, and even present class-based material analysis of intersectional feminism.

Bly was born Elisabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Pennsylvania, USA. Her father was an Irish immigrant who gained money and success, but he died when she was six years old, plunging her into poverty. Her mother would go on to re-marry a few years later, but her new husband’s abusive behaviour forced Bly’s mother to go through the (difficult at the time) process of divorce. Despite hopes of becoming a teacher, Bly was forced to leave school after only one semester due to lack of funds. In 1880, her mother would move the family to Pittsburgh where Bly would read the editorial that sparked her infamous rebuttal.  

As a writer for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Bly took her pseudonym from a Stephen Foster song, and would dip her toes into what would eventually make her career: investigative journalism. She went undercover, penning a series of investigative articles on the plight of the working women in factories, exposing poor working conditions and mistreatment in the workplace. She aimed to highlight sexist ideologies of the time and re-contextualise a women’s “purpose” in the world. Her early work at the Dispatch was actually a little too successful, quickly attracting complaints from factory owners who threatened to pull advertisements. Those with the biggest wallets tend to win and Bly was relegated to writing about more “appropriate” subjects. She was assigned a gardening story, and so, along with this puff piece, she also submitted her resignation. Worried about losing his new reporter, a compromise was reached: Bly would travel to Mexico as a foreign correspondent for the Dispatch. These articles would make up Bly’s first book Six Months in Mexico, in which she presented the lives, culture and customs of the Mexican people. Bly flourished in Mexico until she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the dictatorship of the time. Threatened with imprisonment and fearing for her life, she fled Mexico, calling the dictator Porfirio Diaz a ‘tyrannical czar’ in a parting shot.

On her controversial return from Mexico she was assigned more “appropriate” work. This was the final straw. She left the Pittsburgh Dispatch – and Pittsburgh itself – but she struggled to enter the almost entirely male dominated workforce of New York. Penniless after four months, she managed to talk her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s paper the New York World, where she met managing editor John Cockerill. Unwilling to leave without work, Bly’s persistence forced Cockerill to submit, and he assigned her a task that would not only change her, life but journalism in general.

The outcome of this assignment would be a series of articles and later a book, titled ‘Ten Days in a Mad-House’. What was so revolutionary was the length Bly would be willing to go to get her story. Determined to get an accurate account of the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and either expose or debunk claims of abuse and neglect, she feigned insanity to get herself committed; which, as it turns out for a woman in 1887, wasn’t that difficult. After some impressive “crazy” acting at a boarding house, several doctors declared her completely insane. Admission reasons varied from actual mental health issues to physical ailments too costly for families to pay for, but also merely behaviour seen to be abnormal or “difficult” for women of the time – a time when institutionalisation for “hysteria” was a convenient method for handling women who questioned the gendered power balance. Experiencing the shocking conditions first hand, Bly witnessed rats and faeces everywhere, violence from the staff members to the patients, inedible food, contaminated water, and dangerous patients tied together with ropes. Bly very soon realised she wouldn’t have to maintain any “act” once inside, and the more “normal” she behaved, the crazier they thought she was. More shocking than the conditions were the patients themselves, many of whom were not mentally ill, but in fact impoverished immigrants. What Bly endured on Blackwell Island informed her writing on marginalised people throughout her career, but her boldness and courage never wavered even after gaining first hand experience of how women could be violently suppressed.

Even when at the helm of the Iron Clad company following her husband’s death, Bly was conscious of the struggles of the working class and set in motion amenities for the employees unheard of then – a gym, healthcare, and even a library. When the company was the victim of embezzlement and went bankrupt, she went back to writing, notably covering the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 under the iconic headline “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors”. She then travelled to Europe, coincidentally at the break out of the First World War. Spotting an opportunity, Bly became America’s first female war correspondent. Presenting her experiences from the trenches, Bly added another first to her already impressive resume.

Although Bly is more famous for her trip around the world in 72 days (proving it could be done and beating Jules Verne’s fictional protagonist Phileas Fogg by 8 days thank you very much) her crowning glory is her Asylum expose, and her story is one that still resonates so much for women today. She campaigned for a woman’s right to self determination, pre-suffrage, and her fight to be seen and heard, to leave her mark upon the world, is her legacy: one of pioneering investigative journalism, war correspondence, social parity, anti-authoritarianism and worker’s rights, making her a hugely important figure not just in early feminism but to all women. Within scholarly discussion of journalism, her contributions, and the contributions of the many women she inspired have been largely omitted. The great lengths she had to take to be seen on a level playing field with her male counterparts were ridiculous; I mean, she got herself committed! Towards the end of her life, she used her work and influence back in America to help those in need, from widows to children and people facing difficult circumstances. Nellie Bly died in New York City in 1922 at the age of 57 from pneumonia, but her fight not just to be heard, but to enact social justice and free herself and others from the muzzle of hegemonic patriarchy, lives on in every female writer today.

Words: Mona Lisa Maclean, Illustrations: Savi Ross