Nellie Bly: Stunt Journalist & Undercover Activist

Identifying as both a journalist and a feminist, one of my ideals has been Nellie Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran. Ever since I learned about her in my high school journalism class, I knew that was the type of journalist I wanted to be. She was a rebel as both a woman in the 1860s and as a journalist. You see, Nellie Bly was a stunt journalist, who went undercover to bring to light horrible crimes by writing firsthand accounts of her experience.

Unlike the somewhat news shows like To Catch a Predator or old school Sixty Minutes, she didn’t just go undercover because it would create publicity or spark controversy. She went undercover to make sure things would get changes, and that wrongs would be righted.

Her career started when she wrote a letter to the editor criticizing a Pittsburg Dispatch sexist editorial saying that a woman’s place was in the home. Rather than publish the letter, Bly was given a job at the paper because the editor was impressed by her spirit and fieriness. At the Dispatch, she worked on an investigative series on the plight of women in factory jobs, but members of the editorial staff pushed her to write articles on fashion and gardening.

Bored out of her mind writing these articles, she decided to become a foreign press correspondent, at the age of 21. She spent nearly half a year reporting the lives and customs of the Mexican people.  In one report, she criticized the Mexican government, then a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz when Mexican authorities learned of Bly’s report, they threatened her with arrest, prompting her to leave the country.

But her most famous piece of journalism was getting herself committed to the women’s insane asylum at Bellevue and writing an expose for the New York World.

To get herself admitted she spent a night of practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror before she checked into a working-class boardinghouse. She refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that she was afraid of them and that they looked crazy. She must have been a good actress as well as a good journalist because the next morning the borders summoned the police. After being taken to a courtroom, she pretended to have amnesia.

Sentenced to the asylum, she felt the first hand horrors of the institution. The food consisted of gruel broth, spoiled beef, bread that was little more than dried dough, and dirty undrinkable water. The dangerous patients were tied together with ropes. The patients were made to sit for much of each day on hard benches with scant protection from the cold. What Bly found most interesting, was the fact that many of women she encountered at the Asylum seemed as sane as she was.

“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck,” Nellie wrote.

After ten days, she was released from the asylum after her coworkers bailed her out. After her report, which was later turned into a book, was published, it caused a sensation as physicians tried to poorly explain themselves. A grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting Bly to assist. The jury’s report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.

Bly was not just a journalist, but an activist of change. She pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable behavior for women; she made sure that voices suppressed were heard. Her writings led to social change.
Nowadays, Bly’s stunts would be under scrutiny, or considered “poor ethics” by some journalist and it would be hard to do the same type of stunt without a backlash To me, I think she did what need to be done to make sure that the story got out and that change was made.

I wanted to go undercover like Bly, and to see if what people said matched what they actually practiced. I want to expose corruption and change society one story at a time. I wanted to the Bly of the 21 century.

That was three years ago, now I am moving to earning a degree for public relations in the non-profit sector, where I think I can do just as much good. Journalism just wasn’t my calling, but I still work at a paper as a feminist opinion columnist. While my goals in life have changed since when I first heard of Nellie Bly, I still hope to have her passion to creating change and by helping those whose stories have never been told fairly.

By Abby Barefoot: Vagina Warrior and volunteer-extraordinaire at the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center.

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About Margaret Sloss Women's Center - ISU

The Margaret Sloss Women's Center promotes equity on the Iowa State University campus. Through a feminist lens, the center advocates for individuals and groups; provides support, referrals, community and programming; and maintains a safe space in the Sloss House.

Posted on March 9, 2011, in Activism, Herstory and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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