Woman Making History #10: Nellie Bly


Nellie BlyGiven my general disgust with our present-day media, particularly this close to election time, I'm happy to say that today's history making woman is Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane in 1864 in Pennsylvania. As a teenager and young woman, she worked in a boarding house, though she dreamed of being a writer. She was hired to write for the Pittsburgh Dispatch after writing an angry editorial letter denouncing a popular columnist for insisting that women belong only in the home. When she started writing for the Dispatch, she took the pen name Nellie Bly, inspired by a Stephen Foster song.

Bly left the Dispatch after a short tenure, as a result of being relegated to women's and society pages, rather than being allowed to do the investigative journalism she craved. When she was 23, she moved to New York and convinced New York World's managing editor to give her a shot as an investigative reporter by pitching an idea for a story in which she would investigate conditions in mental hospitals by having herself committed. Bly then did have herself committed, spending 10 days on at the mental institution on Blackwell Island. After her return, she wrote a shocking piece chronicling the experience, including beatings, ice baths, and force-fed meals. The shocking piece received a lot of attention, and inspired some reforms of New York's mental institutions.

For the next several years, Bly continued to work as an investigative reporter for The World, and she always sided with the poor and disenfranchised in her pieces. Most notably, when covering the Chicago Pullman Railroad strike of 1894, she was the only reporter to write from the perspective of the striking workers.

In 1889, Bly made her famous trip around the world in 72 days, having challenged the fictional hero of Jules Vernes' "Around the World in 80 Days."

In her 30s, Bly briefly retired, after marrying a man several decades her senior. When he died, however, she picked her career back up, taking over her husband's businesses and moving them to the forefront of industrial and workers' reforms, but eventually going bankrupt. She then worked as a journalist for the New York Evening Journal, and covered World War I from the eastern front in Europe.

Bly died from pneumonia in 1922, at the age of 57.

National Women's Hall of Fame
New York Times

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