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.
Welcome to March: Women’s History Month. I was trying to find some profound youtube video about the impact women have made in history, but youtube left me wanting. So I started looking around for videos that inspired me as a woman. And because of the political climate’s hostility toward women, I wanted something to bridge the gap.
What I found was a wonderful interview with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. She’s witty and brilliant (and sassy, which immediately charmed me to her). She has an amazing outlook on being a woman in the United States. Take a look at what she has to say about her experience as Secretary of State as well as her outlook on the importance of women globally.
We often think of women’s history in the past-tense (as history is often found in the past…), but I challenge you to find a woman this week who is making history today. Maybe you’ll find her in the mirror. ~Liz (email@example.com)
If you haven’t visited http://www.ted.com, you are missing out. TED, as their website states:
a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design.
They videotape their conference presenters and share it in videos on their site. The idea of sharing knowledge in this way is powerful, and I highly recommend spending some time getting to know their website.
Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech160 years ago. She was on fire! Sadly, many of the words she speaks so long ago still ring true today. But feel empowered and challenged to be so bold to speak out!
I was perusing cnn.com to find a topic to get fired up about – CNN usually provides me with many opportunities to get fired up and today was no exception. On the left-hand column of their website, an Opinion article was listed: “Women need to man up”. Well of course I had to click on it furiously and see how CNN was proposing we women do this because, being America’s most trusted news source, I couldn’t wait to learn (please insert heavy sarcasm here).
What I found was not an article that made me rage and tremble like the title did. What I found was wisdom: Nancy Pelosi shared at a TED conference for women, that “women need to be leaders in their own way, not necessarily following in men’s footsteps”.
I encourage you to read the article and formulate your own opinions on some of the materials covered (because I know I have formed mine!). But overall, I am surprised to see that CNN needed to tease people with the title they chose…it isn’t the title of the opinion that the author himself gave it. And it actually isn’t what the article was saying at all.
Women don’t need to “man up” (whatever the frank that means). Women need to recognize their capabilities, their skills, their talents. Women, like Pelosi said, need to find their own ways of doing things, their own ways to succeed. Success is measured by checking accounts, houses, cars, material wealth… until we redefine success.
One other piece I found interesting and need to quote here fully is some thoughts from Hanna Rosin, author of the controversial (in my opinion) article in an issue of The Atlantic called “The End of Men”. This is Richard Gallant’s take on Rosin’s thoughts:
Rather than the concept of a glass ceiling that women could shatter on the way to advancement, she preferred the image of a high bridge, a place where women could show their confidence and courage — but also move forward with their male and female friends, families and co-workers.
I would like to challenge women, including Rosin, to expand this idea of a bridge. Instead of bringing friends, family, and colleagues to the top with you, consider widening the bridge for people you don’t know. Advancement should not be selfish: only a way to gain more, and expand a resume. If we do not see those around us as important enough to bring along on the bridge, we are not working for advancement – we are working for ourselves.
Woman up. 🙂
Liz Steinborn firstname.lastname@example.org
Be a part of something amazing! Join the Vagina Warriors and audition for “The Vagina Monologues”!
The Vagina Monologues were created by Eve Ensler to end violence against women and children. V-Day is a global activist movement to stop violence against women and girls. V-Day is a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations.
All funds raised by the Vagina Warriors through The Vagina Monologues will go to benefit ACCESS.
V-Day generates broader attention for the fight to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM) and sex slavery.
Join the fight and audition! Don’t want to get on stage? No problem! We are looking for people to get involved with fundraising and advertising.
Auditions at the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center:
Monday, November 15 from 6-8pm
Tuesday, November 16 from 8-10pm
Wednesday, November 17 from 11am-1pm
Contact Christine Peterson. Liz Steinborn, or any of the Vagina Warriors to find out more information about Iowa State’s participation in the V-Day Campaign.
And who doesn’t want to sit around and talk about vaginas all day?!