Nellie Bly Celebrates 150 Years of Risk Taking

As Nellie Bly reaches a milestone 150 today, she proved that the newsroom needed a woman's perspective. Read about her and other powerful women in journalism who were movers and shakers.
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As Nellie Bly reaches a milestone 150 today, she proved that the newsroom needed a woman's perspective. Read about her and other powerful women in journalism who were movers and shakers.

May 5th of this year marks the 150th birthday of Nellie Bly, the celebrated investigative reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York newspaper The World. In an age when the vast majority of female journalists were relegated to the “women’s pages” of newspapers, writing about fashion and child-rearing and high-society gossip, Bly went undercover to expose corrupt politicians and exploitative factory owners and quack medical practitioners; when most male editors refused to send an unchaperoned female reporter even across the city – such a thing was considered decidedly improper – Bly raced alone around the world, trying to best the mark of 80 days set by the fictional Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s popular novel.

Today, of course, female reporters serve in all capacities, everywhere around the world – the recent tragic killing of the Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who worked alongside reporter Kathy Gannon in Afghanistan, provides a stark reminder of that fact – but as Bly’s 150th anniversary approaches, it’s well for us to remember her and some of her notable female colleagues of the nineteenth century, who proved that the newsroom, like the voting booth, does not belong only to men.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly Photo

(Photo: Apic/Getty Images)

No female reporter before Nellie Bly had ever seemed quite so audacious, so willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of a story. In 1887, in her very first assignment for The World, Bly feigned insanity, getting herself committed to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum so that she might report first-hand on the mistreatment of the female patients there; for ten days Bly endured rancid food, ice-cold baths, and enforced silence, and upon her release (her editors had given her no guarantees that she would ever get out) she wrote a series of articles that led to a reform of conditions inside the asylum.

Later Bly posed as the wife of a pharmaceuticals maker to reveal how a powerful lobbyist bribed politicians in the New York assembly; another time she sought treatment in a medical dispensary for the poor, where she narrowly escaped having her (perfectly healthy) tonsils removed.

In 1889 she undertook her most celebrated adventure, attempting to circumnavigate the globe faster than anyone had before her. She traveled alone, and carried all of her possessions in a single handbag. The trip caused a national sensation; by the time she had returned home she was the most famous woman in America. After marrying a Brooklyn barrel manufacturer, Bly left journalism and took over the company on his death; having suffered financial and legal reversals, she fled the country for Austria, where she served as a correspondent during World War I.

Upon her return to New York she worked as a columnist for the New York Evening Journal until she died of pneumonia in 1922 at the age of fifty-seven. Nearly penniless at the time of her death, Bly was buried in an unmarked grave in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery; it would remain so until 1978, when the New York Press Club provided funds to pay for a headstone.

Anne Royall

Anne Royall Photo

(Photo: Wikimedia)

Anne Royall escaped a life of poverty in 1797, when she married the owner of the Virginia plantation on which her family worked. But when her husband died and his entire estate went to his relatives rather than to her – leaving her impoverished once again – she left Virginia and began ten years of travel throughout the South. Now well into her fifties, she supported herself as a writer, producing travel essays and political commentary in which she vigorously championed the causes of Native Americans, immigrants, and the poor, and argued for free scientific inquiry and the separation of church and state.

She was, in the words of one newspaper editor, “a literary wild-cat from the backwoods”; according to another, she was “the widow with the serpent’s tongue.” Eventually Royall settled in Washington, D.C., where in 1829 a missionary – intent on converting her to his cause – began conducting religious services beneath her window; taking umbrage, Royall shouted down at him, lacing her objections with several choice obscenities. The missionary brought suit against her, and Royall was found guilty of being a “public nuisance, common brawler and common scold” and ordered to pay a fine. In 1831 she founded her own political newspaper called Paul Pry (later renamed The Huntress), which she published for more than thirty years, until her death in 1854 at the age of 85.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells Photo

(Photo: Wikimedia)

Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862, Ida B. Wells (after 1895 she used the married name Ida B. Wells-Barnett) rose to national prominence as a newspaper columnist, editor, and anti-lynching activist. In 1884 she was working as an elementary school teacher in Memphis, Tennessee; one evening, as she was riding aboard a railroad train, the conductor ordered her to give up her seat and travel instead in the smoking car. Wells refused to do so – it was a kind of precursor of Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus, seven decades hence – and she was pulled off the train.

Enraged by her treatment, Wells sued the railroad company for its segregationist policies and won the case, though the decision was later overturned on appeal. Wells began to write about the court case for local newspapers, and five years later she became the editor of an anti-segregationist paper in Memphis called The Free Speech and Headlight.

In 1892, when three black prisoners were lynched by a white mob, Wells wrote a series of editorials urging blacks to leave Memphis and to boycott the white-owned businesses there. It was the beginning of a lifelong campaign against lynching. While on a speaking tour in Great Britain, Wells was hired to write columns for the Chicago newspaper the Daily Inter-Ocean; she was the first African-American woman ever to write a column for a white newspaper. She was pathbreaking, courageous, eloquent, and admirably unquiet in the struggle for social justice; she spent the whole of her life being, in her words, “the disturbing element which kept the waters troubled.”

Jane Grey Swisshelm

Jane Swisshelm Photo

(Photo: Wikimedia)

A child prodigy (she was said to have been able to quote from the New Testament at the age of three), Jane Grey Swisshelm was a feminist, a crusader against political corruption, and the founder of the Pittsburgh abolitionist newspaper the Saturday Visiter. In 1850, while working as the Washington columnist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Swisshelm decided that she wanted to gain entrance to the reporters’ gallery of the U.S. Senate, a site barred to women. She appealed to Vice-President Millard Fillmore, who did everything he could to dissuade her – it would be, he insisted, a place very unpleasant for a lady – but he finally relented and Swisshelm took a seat in the Senate gallery, the first female reporter ever to do so.

In one of her newspaper columns, Swisshelm memorably ridiculed the scorn and consternation directed at women who wanted to go into journalism, or indeed into any intellectual profession: “They plough, harrow, reap, dig, make hay, rake, bind grain, thrash, chop wood, milk, churn, do anything that is hard work, physical labor, and who says anything against it? But let one presume to use her mental powers – let her aspire to turn editor, public speaker, doctor, lawyer – take up any profession or avocation which is deemed honorable and requires talent, and O! bring cologne, get a cambric kerchief and feather fan, unloose his corsets and take off his cravat! What a fainting fit Mr. Propriety has taken! Just to think that ‘one of the dear creatures’ – the heavenly angels, should forsake the sphere – women’s sphere – to mix with the wicked strife of this wicked world!”