Unsung Heroes: Nellie Bly

Throughout March, in honor of Women’s History Month, we will be featuring unsung heroes and stories of the women’s suffrage movement. You can find more of those well-known and not-so-well-known stories in our Digital Classroom “Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less ” module, endorsed by NCSS. To access these resources, you must be signed into the Digital Classroom; registration is free.

Nellie Bly

New York World reporter Nellie Bly. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane in 1864, was a pioneer for women in journalism and an influential investigative journalist. She grew up in a large family in Cochran, Pennsylvania. After her father’s death when she was only six years old, Bly’s mother remarried and entered into an abusive relationship. The marriage ended in divorce and soon after, Bly looked for independence and a way to support her family.

She attended Indiana Normal School and began training as a teacher, one of the few careers available to women at that time, but had to return home after money ran out after one semester. In Pittsburgh, with her mother, Bly struggled to find full-time work and dreamed of becoming a writer. Her big break came after she responded to an article written by Erasmus Wilson in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Wilson wrote that women belonged in the home, not in the workforce. Bly, like many other women in Pittsburgh, were in the workforce trying to survive in the city. The letter she wrote against Wilson’s editorial impressed those working at the Dispatch; she was given a job and the pen name “Nellie Bly.”

Bly’s first article highlighted the struggles of young women in Pittsburgh; her second was on the state’s divorce laws. Even with the success of her previous stories, she was moved to women’s issues, like fashion. Unfulfilled by these assignments, Bly convinced her editors to send her to Mexico as a foreign correspondent. After returning from Mexico, she was assigned more topics that would appeal to women. In response, she gave her notice and moved to New York City.

In 1887, after searching for journalist positions for almost six months, Bly finally landed one at the New York World. Her first assignment was a piece on the mentally ill. To write the story, Bly impersonated a mentally-ill woman and entered the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island for 10 days. She reported on the harsh conditions on the island. At just 23 years old, her article, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” which included illustrations, stirred politicians and public opinion, which led to reforms and ushered in the age of investigative journalism.

After her groundbreaking article, Bly continued to report on social reform issues including poverty and medical care of the poor. She went on to interview many notable Americans including suffragist Susan B. Anthony. In 1889, Bly attempted to travel “Around the World in 80 Days,” based on the adventures in the famous Jules Verne novel. By taking various forms of transportation, she returned home in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes to a large crowd of people cheering her on.

Nellie Bly died at the age of 57 in New York City, still employed as a reporter for the New York World.

For more on Nellie Bly, visit the Newseum’s Women’s History Trail, now through the end of March.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. In order to get her story, Nellie Bly misrepresented herself as a mentally-ill woman. Is this ethical journalism? Why or why not?
  2. While Nellie Bly wasn’t actively involved in the suffrage fight, how was she part of the bigger women’s rights movement?

Do you have an “Unsung Hero” that you would like included in the Digital Classroom? Visit our blog for more details on the Unsung Heroes Writing Contest.

The Newseum Digital Classroom is a free resource featuring primary sources, interactives, historic newsreels, videos and lesson plans that bring history, journalism and the First Amendment to life for students.

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